He was a courageous individual who used the law to change the course of American history in the midst of racial hatred and intolerance. Charles Hamilton Houston is remembered for his excellence in the courtrooms as he contributed to developing policies and laws that have been beneficial to citizens to date. Specifically, Houston is behind the civil rights strategy that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which stated that schools had to be desegregated.
Even though he did not actively argue the Brown decision, it was Houston who laid the groundwork that resulted in the strategy. For these reasons and more, he became known as “The Man who Killed Jim Crow”. This is his story.
Born on September 3, 1895, in Washington, DC to William Houston, who was an attorney, and Mary Houston, a hairdresser and seamstress, Houston attended M Street High School in Washington, DC before enrolling at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he was the only Black student in his class. After graduating in 1915, he joined the U.S. Army two years later and trained at the all-black officers’ training camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa before being deployed to France.
After his moment in the U.S. Army, he studied at Harvard Law School and became the first African American to serve as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated with high honors in 1922 and went on to study law at the University of Madrid. When he returned to the U.S. in 1924, he practiced law with his father after he was admitted to the District of Columbia bar.
At the same time, he was teaching in Howard University Law’s evening program, and by and by, he became dean of the Howard University Law School, where he trained so many civil rights attorneys, including Oliver Hill and Thurgood Marshall. The latter successfully litigated the instrumental Brown case and became a United States Supreme Court justice.
Indeed, when Houston was hired as a Special Counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1935, he brought along his Howard University law student Marshall and the two began working together to help end segregation. They traveled through the South in the 1930s highlighting the unfair conditions or inequalities of Black school facilities. The two came up with a legal strategy that challenged school segregation by first demanding the equalization of facilities for Black students and ultimately asking for full integration, according to BlackPast.
The NAACP writes: “Houston worked tirelessly to fight against Jim Crow laws that prevented Blacks from serving on juries and accessing housing. However, it was in the fight against school segregation that Houston came up with the clever argument that would make him famous. His ingenious legal strategy was to end school segregation by unmasking the belief that facilities for Blacks were ‘separate but equal’ for the lie it was.”
In a 1938 Supreme Court case about the admission of a Black man to the University of Missouri, Houston argued that it was unconstitutional for the state to bar Blacks from admission since there was no “separate but equal” facility. Per the NAACP, Southern states during that period collectively spent less than half of what was set aside for white students on education for Blacks. The aim of Houston was to make it too costly for facilities to continue being separate. At the end of the day, his strategy worked. The Supreme Court ruled that Black students could be admitted to a white school if there was only one school and this paved the way for desegregation.
Unfortunately, he passed away four years before segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown v. Board of Education case was taken to the Supreme Court on behalf of some 13 Black families whose children were denied access to schools based on their skin color. The NAACP asked the families to attempt the school admissions in 1950 knowing they would be denied and used that as the catalyst to file the iconic lawsuit.
The end result was that in 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled “in favor of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, disavowing the notion of ‘separate but equal’ and concluding that segregated facilities deprived African-American children of a richer, fairer educational experience,” according to Biography.
Houston died in 1950 of a heart attack and so did not live to see the ruling he had fought for while alive. But his determination to make a difference in a world of racial discrimination was greatly admired. Essentially, he became known as the Man who killed Jim Crow due to his fight for civil rights, being involved in nearly all the cases between 1930 and 1950. Besides arguing that it was unconstitutional for Missouri to exclude Blacks from the state’s university law school since no other comparable institution existed in the state, Houston also became famous for challenging the Supreme Court in the 1944 case of Steele v. Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company (1944) 323 U.S. 192 [65 S.Ct. 226] when African Americans were excluded from labor unions. Houston persuaded the court to adopt the rule that unions had a “duty of fair representation” to all workers even if they excluded those workers from membership.
Actually, being in the racially segregated U.S. Army was what inspired Houston to study law and use his time “fighting for men who could not strike back.”
“The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them,” he said. “I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”