Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights by Genna Rae McNeil
“The coalescence of speaker, sentiment, and site summarizes the story that is lovingly detailed in the pages of this jewel of American legal history.”–St. Louis Globe-Democrat “A classic. . . . [It] will make an extraordinary contribution to the improvement of race relations and the understanding of race and the American legal process.”–Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., from the foreword.
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
Documentary detailing the Jim Crow era when state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and ending 1965 with the Civil Rights Act. They mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy, with a “separate but equal” status for African Americans.
Charles Hamilton Houston (September 3, 1895 – April 22, 1950) was a prominent African-American lawyer, Dean of Howard University Law School, and NAACP Litigation Director who played a significant role in dismantling theJim Crow laws, which earned him the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.” He is also well known for having trained future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Biography – Early Years
Houston was born in Washington, D.C. His father worked as a lawyer. Houston started at Amherst College in 1911, was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, and graduated as valedictorian in 1915. He returned to D.C. to teach atHoward University. As the U.S. entered World War I, Houston joined the then racially segregated U. S. Army as an officer and was sent to France. He returned to the U.S. in 1919, and began attending Harvard Law School. He was a member of the Harvard Law Review and graduated cum laude. Houston was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Through his work at the NAACP, Houston played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Houston’s plan to attack and defeat Jim Crow segregation by demonstrating the inequality in the “separate but equal” doctrine from the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision as it pertained to public education in the United States was the masterstroke that brought about the landmark Brown decision. In the documentary “The Road to Brown,” Hon. Juanita Kidd Stout described Houston’s strategy, “When he attacked the “separate but equal” theory his real thought behind it was that “All right, if you want it separate but equal, I will make it so expensive for it to be separate that you will have to abandon your separateness.” And so that was the reason he started demanding equalization of salaries for teachers, equal facilities in the schools and all of that.” Houston took a movie camera across South Carolina to document the inequalities between African-American and white education. Then, as Special Counsel to the NAACP Houston dispatched Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill and other young attorneys to work to equalize teachers’ salaries.
From 1935 to 1940, he served as special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), arguing several important civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1939), Houston argued that it was unconstitutional for Missouri to exclude blacks from the state’s university law school when, under the “separate but equal” provision, no comparable facility for blacks existed within the state. Houston’s efforts to dismantle the legal theory of “separate but equal” came to fruition after his death in 1950 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which prohibited segregation in public schools.
Death and Legacy
Houston died from a heart attack on April 22, 1950 at the age of 54. 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 significance 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.
Houston is the person for whom the Charles Houston Bar Association and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School—which opened in the fall of 2005—are named. In addition, there is a professorship at Harvard Law named after him; Elena Kagan, formerly the Dean of Harvard Law School and now an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law.
The Washington Bar Association annually awards the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit to an individual who has advanced the cause of Houstonian jurisprudence.
- Jump up^ NAACP History: Charles Hamilton Houston NAACP.org. Retrieved 06 March, 2014
- Jump up^ The Man Who Killed Jim Crow America.gov. Retrieved 14 Oct 2009.
- Jump up^ “Charles Houston Bar Association Awards” Price and Associates. Retrieved 23 Feb 2011.
- Jump up^ NAACP History: Charles Hamilton Houston NAACP.org. Retrieved 23 Feb 2012
- Jump up^ Jessie Carney Smith – Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture
- Jump up^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.