Fulfilling the Promise

Howard University

School of Law

Charles Hamilton Houston


Biographical Sketches

Robert L. Carter
Julian R. Dugas
Jack Greenberg
William H. Hastie
George E. C. Hayes
A. Leon Higginbotham
Oliver W. Hill
Charles Hamilton Houston
Thurgood Marshall
William Robert Ming, Jr.
Constance Baker Motley
James M. Nabrit, Jr.
Spottswood W. Robinson, III



by Steven D. Jamar

Charles Hamilton Houston conceived of and led the legal strategy leading to the end of legalized racial segregation in the United States. He and those he taught and mentored laid the legal groundwork through thought and action that ultimately led to 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that made racial segregation in public primary and secondary schools unconstitutional. He died four years before full fruition of his work to end "separate but equal" as a valid constitutional principle. Houston not only participated in effecting the change, but was the inspiration and mentor to Thurgood Marshall, James Nabrit, Spottswood Robinson, A. Leon Higginbotham, Robert Carter, William Hastie and many others who carried on the battle and remains an inspiration to those working for social justice today.

Houston completed high school at the age of 15 and graduated from as one of six valedictorians from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1915. He then taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for two years until the onset of World War I. Houston enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Europe in World War I as a second lieutenant in field artillery.

As a result of some of his experiences in the segregated and racist army, Houston decided that he needed to become an advocate to enforce the legal rights of the oppressed. In pursuit of this, following his honorable discharge from the army in 1919, Houston enrolled at Harvard Law School from which he earned his Bachelor of Laws in 1922 and a doctorate in 1923. Houston was a stellar student and became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He studied law at the University of Madrid until 1924 when he returned to Washington, DC, and joined his father's law practice.

In 1924 he also began to teach part time at Howard University School of Law, then a part-time night school. Through that time HUSL had trained approximately three fourths of the approximately 950 African American lawyers practicing in the United States. Genna Rae McNeil, Groundwork at 64 (1983). In the next five years, in part at the urging of Houston, the Howard University Trustees recreated HUSL as a full-time day school and in 1929 put Houston in charge (with a title of Resident Vice-Dean, but he had the responsibilities of a dean--Houston was HUSL's dean in all but title).

During Houston's six year tenure as vice-dean (1929-35), Howard University Law School was training almost a quarter of the nation's black law students. Houston also oversaw the dramatic change which led to HUSL being accredited by the American Bar Association and meeting the standards for being admitted to the the Association of American Law Schools. McNeil, Groundwork at 70-71 (1983). It was during this period that Houston set the course for the law school when he wrote:

[The] Negro lawyer must be trained as a social engineer and group interpreter. Due to the Negro's social and political condition . . . the Negro lawyer must be prepared to anticipate, guide and interpret his group advancement. . . . [Moreover, he must act as] business advisor . . . for the protection of the scattered resources possessed or controlled by the group. . . . He must provide more ways and means for holding within the group the income now flowing through it.

McNeil, Groundwork at 71 (1983), quoting Charles Hamilton Houston, "Personal Observations on the Summary of Studies in Legal Education as Applied to the Howard University School of Law," (May 28, 1929).

Houston is recognized as the architect behind the ultimate success of the long struggle to end legalized discrimination and, in particular, the "separate but equal" doctrine accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. Houston, together with a select group of mostly Howard lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, and working through the NAACP and later the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, created a number of precedents that ultimately led to the dismantling of de jure discrimination after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, four years after his death. Among the major steps were Pearson v. Murray (1936) and State ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1939). In Pearson Houston and Thurgood Marshall established in the Maryland highest court that the University of Maryland could not exclude African Americans as it had excluded Marshall just a few years earlier. In Gaines this principle was extended to the entire country when the U.S. Supreme Court held that Missouri could not exclude blacks from the state law school since there was no comparable, and could be no comparable school for African Americans because of the unique intangibles of a legal education, in Missouri. Ultimately this precedent was extended to other schools and ultimately down to public primary and secondary education.

Houston's importance was recognized by his colleagues, students, and intellectual heirs. He was posthumously awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1950 and in 1958 the main building of the Howard University School of Law was dedicated as Charles Hamilton Houston Hall. His importance became more broadly known through the success of Thurgood Marshall and after the 1983 publication of Genna Rae McNeil's Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights (U. of Pa. Press 1983).

Charles Hamilton Houston's credo guides the Howard University School of Law's mission to this day:

"A lawyer's either a social engineer or he's a parasite on society." ... A social engineer was a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who understood the Constitution of the United States and knew how to explore its uses in the solving of "problems of . . . local communities" and in "bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens."

McNeil, Groundwork at 84 (1983), quoting Charles Hamilton Houston (McNeil cites Thurgood Marshall as quoted in Geraldine Segal, In Any Fight Some Fall at 34 (Mercury Press 1975))


Select Bibliography

The library of the Indiana University School of Law has compiled a more complete bibliography from which this bibliography is in substantial part derived.


Genna Rae McNeil, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights (U. of Pa. Press 1983)

Jack Greenberg, Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution (Basic Books 1994) 

J. Clay Smith, Jr.,  Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944 (U. of Pa. Press 1993)

Mark V. Tushnet, The NAACP's Legal Strategy Against Segregated Education, 1925-1950 (UNC Press 1987)

Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (Vintage Books, 1977)


Charles Hamilton Houston Commemorative Issue, 32 How. L. J. (1989)

Leland Ware, A Difference in Emphasis: Charles Houston's Transformation of Legal Education, 32 How. L. J. 479 (1989)

J. Clay Smith, Jr., Principles Supplementing the Houstonian School of Jurisprudence: Occasional Paper No. 1, 32 How. L. J. 493 (1989)

Steven H. Hobbs, From the Shoulders of Houston: a Vision for Social and Economic Justice, 32 How. L. J. 505 (1989)

Herbert O. Reid, Introduction, 32 How. L. J. x (1989)

Genna Rae McNeil, Charles Hamilton Houston: 1895-1950, 32 How. L. J. 469 (1989)

Charles Hamilton Houston Symposium, 27 New England L. Rev. (1993)

John C. Brittain, The Culture of Civil Rights Lawyers: A Tribute to Justice Thurgood Marshall, 61 Conn. L. Rev. 1 (1992) (including copious discussion of Charles Hamilton Houston)

A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., Reflections on the Impact of Charles Hamilton Houston - from a Unique Perspective 27 New England L. Rev. 605(1993)(from 1980 Amherst College symposium "Men of Amherst: Charles Hamilton Houston Forum")

Nathaniel R. Jones, The Sisyphean Impact on Houstonian Jurisprudence (attorney Charles Hamilton Houston), 69 U. Cincinnati L. Rev. 435 (2001)

Richard, Kluger, The Legal Scholar Who Plotted the Road to Integrated Education, J. Blacks in Higher Ed., 66 (Sum. 1994)

Walter J. Leonard, Charles Hamilton Houston and the Search for a Just Society, 22 N. Carolina Central L. J. 1 (1996)

Jennifer L. Levi, Paving the Road: A Charles Hamilton Houston Approach to Securing Trans Rights, 7 Wm & Mary J. Women & the Law 5 (2000)

Genna Rae McNeil,  To Meet the Group Needs: The Transformation of Howard University School of Law, 1920-1935, in New Perspectives on Black Educational History. (Vincent P. Franklin and James D. Anderson, eds., G. K. Hall, 1978)

Michael Wilson Reed, The Contribution of Charles Hamilton Houston to American Jurisprudence, 30 How. L. J. 1095 (1987)

Mark Tushnet, The Politics of Equality in Constitutional Law:  The Equal Protection Clause, Dr. Du Bois, and Charles Hamilton Houston, 74 J. Am. History 884 (1987)


Robert L. Carter, William T. Coleman Jr., Jack Greenberg, Genna Rae McNeil, J. Clay Smith Jr, In Tribute: Charles Hamilton Houston, 111 Harv. L. Rev. 2148 (1998) (5 testimonials)

Roger A. Fairfax, Jr., Wielding the Double-edged Sword: Charles Hamilton Houston and Judicial Activism in the Age of Legal Realism, 14 Harv. Blackletter L.J. 17 (1998) (A Tribute to Charles Hamilton Houston)

J. Clay Smith Jr., E. Desmond Hogan, Remembered Hero, Forgotten Contribution: Charles Hamilton Houston, Legal Realism, and Labor Law, 14 Harv. Blackletter L.J. 1 (1998) (A Tribute to Charles Hamilton Houston)

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