On this day in history, Charles Hamilton History was born in Washington, D.C., where his father was an attorney. An outstanding student, Houston graduated as one of six valedictorians from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1915.
Houston developed into a brilliant lawyer who helped play a role in dismantling the Jim Crow. Known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”, as the chief attorney for the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) he played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
During World War I, Houston enlisted in the U.S. Army and was commissioned first lieutenant in a segregated training unit of the infantry. He was later commissioned as a second lieutenant in field artillery, serving in France and Germany. He was outraged at the treatment of black soldiers, and became determined to change things. He later wrote:
“The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”
In the fall of 1919, he entered Harvard Law School, earning his Bachelor of Laws degree 1922 and his Doctor of Laws degree in 1923. In 1922, he became the first African-American to serve as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. He then joined the faculty of Howard Law School, eventually becoming its Dean. Students he mentored included Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill, and Spottiswood Robinson, all of whom would play major roles in overturning segregation in the courts.
Houston himself argued a number of cases before the Supreme Court, but he died from a heart attack on April 22, 1950 at the age of 54.
Houston 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. He is the namesake of 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. In addition, there is a professorship at Harvard Law named after him.