William Henry Hastie: the first black Governor of the United States Virgin Islands

Theodora Aidoo May 07, 2020
Judge William H. Hastie, dean of the Howard University Law School, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, ca. 1941 - Pic Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

William Henry Hastie, a lawyer, judge, educator, public official, and civil rights advocate was the first African American to serve as Governor of the United States Virgin Islands, as a federal judge and also as a federal appellate judge.

He also served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit from 1949 to 1971. Described as a great judge, for 26 years Hastie was one of the most distinguished appellate judges in the nation.

He successfully argued major civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and was a leader in the effort to desegregate the U.S. military during World War II.

He was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on November 17, 1904. He spent his early boyhood in Knoxville. When he was about 10 years, his family moved to Washington, D.C. He graduated from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. in 1921 and received his A.B. Degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts four years later.

After graduation, instead of accepting fellowship offers for graduate work at Oxford University and the University of Paris, Hastie took a job at New Jersey’s Bordentown Manual School where he was on the faculty until 1927 when he entered Harvard University Law School.

He received his LL.B. degree from Harvard University in 1930. He then became a member of the Howard University School of Law faculty. He was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1931 and practised law with his cousin Charles Hamilton Houston, who later became Dean of the Howard University Law School.  Hastie returned to Harvard to receive his J.D. degree.

In 1933 Hastie became one of the first African American members of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. He was appointed the President’s race relations advisor.  He would later become assistant solicitor for the Department of Interior.

Hastie was then appointed judge of the Federal District Court in the Virgin Islands by President Roosevelt in March 1937, becoming the nation’s first African American Federal judge. Hastie served for two years, and then he resigned to become Dean and Professor of Law at Howard University School of Law.

Governor William Hastie of the US Virgin Islands.
Pic Credit: Pinterest/Vintage Virgin Islands

He also served as Civilian Aid to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson from 1940 to 1942.  He encouraged racial integration of troops, but when the Army Air Force decided to create a separate training facility for African Americans in 1942, Hastie resigned in protest.

His friends said: “One of the earliest and most celebrated evidence of Hastie’s stubborn integrity was his resignation, in the middle of the war, from the highest civilian post to which a black had been appointed-Special Adviser to Secretary Stimson. Hastie’s quarrel was with the Air Force, which resolutely continued to follow the flight patterns of Jim Crow. And the best way Hastie knew to call attention to this festering wrong was to remove himself from collaboration with those who had the authority to take corrective action”.

He returned to his duties at Howard University School of Law. However, his protest prompted the Army and Navy to begin limited experimentation with integrated units. In 1946 President Harry Truman appointed Hastie Governor of the Virgin Islands, becoming the first African American to hold the post of governor of a U.S. territory, a post he held until 1949. 

That same year, President Truman nominated William Henry Hastie for Judge of the Third United States Circuit Court of Appeals, which was confirmed by the Senate on July 19, 1950.  That was the highest judicial position held by an African American at the time. He retired from the judgeship in 1971.

According to the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, “Hastie had the strength to censure the President when the President deserved censure because Hastie had serene faith in the soundness of our tripartite republican structure. And that faith was in turn anchored in an unwavering commitment to a democratic social order”.

On April 5, 1976, Hastie stood in Independence Hall, the room in which the Constitution was written and addressed the opening session of the Bicentennial Conference on the Constitution. Nine days after his address, Hastie died on April 14, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania leaving behind his wife, and his children, William H., Jr. and daughter Karen H. Williams.

William Henry Hastie was awarded over 20 honorary degrees, including ones from Amherst and Harvard. He received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1943 and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1952.

Last Edited by:Theodora Aidoo Updated: May 8, 2020


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