We continue our profiles of incredible black leaders in education with Charles Houston.
Charles Houston was born in 1895 in Washington, D.C. Having a lawyer for a father certainly set Houston on an early path to become “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.” But many of Houston’s experiences as a young adult contributed to his eventual success as a civil rights lawyer.
After graduating Amherst College as valedictorian, Houston began teaching English at Howard University, until he entered the racially-segregated U.S. Military during World War I. During his time in the military, Houston observed the intensely unfair and unequal treatment of black men in the service, including being convicted of crimes with little to no evidence against them. His experiences helped shape his decision to return from the war and enter Harvard Law School.
At Harvard Law, Houston became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and the first black man to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science from Harvard. Houston then returned to D.C., where he became Dean of the Howard University School of Law, where he ended up teaching law to Thurgood Marshall, future Supreme Court Justice (and the first African-American Justice). At Howard, Houston taught his students to interpret and use the law in ways that would improve the rights of black citizens.
In 1935, Houston left Howard University to work as counsel for the NAACP. During his time with the organization, Houston played some sort of role in almost every civil rights case to come before the Supreme Court. His primary plan of attack against Jim Crow laws was to prove the inequality in the prevailing “separate but equal” legal theory of the time. Joined at the NAACP eventually by Thurgood Marshall, it was Marshall who continued Houston’s legacy after his death in 1950 and ended up winning the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Marshall gave Houston credit for “laying the groundwork” for the historic case.
Before his death, Charles Houston fought and won a number of cases where African Americans were being treated discriminatorily, which led to him posthumously receiving the NAACP’s Springarn Medal.
Charles Houston was a leader for many young black students who would eventually become lawyers, and it was his own fervor for righting the wrongs he observed in his life that led to the eventual integration of public schools in America.