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The Man Who Killed Jim Crow - September 2012


Dr. Pilgrim, have you heard of the man who killed Jim Crow?

--Samuel Peeples - Hartford, Connecticut


Charles H. Houston

Charles Hamilton Houston and the cadre of young lawyers he mentored at Howard Law School constructed the legal strategies that ended legalized segregation in the United States. His legacy lives on today in the hearts and minds of civil rights lawyers, activists and scholars striving for social justice.

Charles Hamilton Houston was born to Mary Ethel Hamilton Houston, a hairdresser, and William LePre Houston, a lawyer, on September 3, 1895, in Washington D.C. He attended the prestigious M Street High School and graduated first in his class. Houston was just nineteen when he graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College as one of six valedictorians in 1915.

Houston taught English for two years at the historically black Howard University. Then, in 1917, he enlisted in a segregated officers training program and served in World War I as a second lieutenant in a segregated U.S. Army field artillery unit. After the war, Houston started at Harvard Law School where he became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, then a member of the law school faculty, said Houston was one of the most brilliant students he ever taught.

After Harvard, Houston went on to practice law with his father until 1950, during which time he taught at Howard. He also was vice-dean of Howard Law School from 1929 until 1935. Houston led the effort to gain Howard Law School's accreditation by the Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Association. Under Houston's leadership, Howard Law School trained nearly a quarter of the nation's black law students. Many of the most important and influential civil rights lawyers in the nation studied at Howard during Houston's tenure. This includes Brown v. Board of Education lawyer Thurgood Marshall who later became a Supreme Court Justice. James Nabrit, William Hastie, Spottswood Robinson, A. Leon Higginbotham and Robert Carter also studied at Howard under Houston's mentorship during this vital period when civil rights law was more or less invented.

Houston died on April 22, 1950, in Washington D.C, four years before his life's work culminated with his mentee Marshall winning Brown at the Supreme Court. He is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery; five U.S. Supreme Court justices attended his funeral. Houston's invaluable contributions to ending legalized segregation went largely unrecognized until after his death. The NAACP posthumously awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1950. Howard Law School's main hall was also dedicated posthumously to Houston. At Harvard Law School, Dean Elena Kagan holds the Charles Hamilton Houston Professorship of Law.

September 2012 response courtesy of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School: