He broke the backbone of Jim Crow, but very few of us know his name. Charles Hamilton Houston changed American society forever by waging war on the one front where it counts: The Courtroom. Born at the turn of the century into an affluent community, Houston entered a world that placed a low premium on black life. During World War I, he served in a segregated army where blacks were either in the labor battalions or placed on the front line with very little training in suicide campaigns that ensured a low attrition rate.
During his stint in segregated military units, Houston saw Black military men convicted of crimes without any substantial evidence against them. It was these injustices that gave young Charles his life’s purpose. Graduating from Amherst College, he was one of six valedictorians before moving on to teach English at Howard University.
Houston attended Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated in 1922; the next year,  where he was the first Black Man to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.) degree from Harvard. He later joined the faculty of Howard University’s law school.  As a law professor, Houston was a notorious taskmaster. He taught his students to look at the law as not just a static set of rules and regulations, but as a force that could be used to promote the rights of African Americans. Houston became vice dean of the law school in 1929.

In 1935, Houston went to work full-time as an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Houston instinctively understood that if he was to defeat Jim Crow, he had to do it in the Courts.  And to do so meant that he had to establish legal precedent. His first case was a smashing success. In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to give an African-American student funds to attend an out-of-state law school instead of granting him admittance to the only law school in the state.


In the 1944 cases of Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, the Supreme Court ruled that railway unions needed to fairly represent African-American employees. In Hurd v. Hodge (1948), Houston won the court’s agreement that race could not be a discriminatory factor in the use and sale of property. These cases set the precedents Houston needed to shatter the frame of Jim Crow. However, as the 1950’s approached, Houston began to slow down as his health began to decline.

Houston’s top student, Thurgood Marshall, eventually took over the campaign after Houston’s health prevented him from continuing to practice law. Marshall would later take the case of a young Irene Morgan before the U.S. Supreme Court for discrimination on public transportation 1 year before the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  In Morgan v. State of Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public transit systems was unconstitutional. Marshall stated that both the Morgan case and its later progeny Brown v. Board of Education, could not be have been possible without the precedent set by Houston over a decade ago.


Charles Hamilton Houston saw a world where Black Americans existed in a state only a few shades light of the bondage from which they emerged. With the calculations of a chess master, he employed a guerrilla strategy of using seemingly unrelated cases in the Supreme Court to dismantle an institution that was over 100 years old in the span of just 10 yrs. His brilliance was evident even as his genius went largely unrecognized and forgotten. He gives us a glimpse of what is possible even in the darkest nights of human suffering. He was an epic chapter in an otherwise forgettable book of white repression and black struggle. He was a social engineer of the highest order; A Portrait of Strategy.


TONY MACEO is a senior blogger at the Negromanosphere and the Chief Blogger at Like, Share and subscribe the articles and videos. Or become a Patron @ Powerofstrategies on Patreon. Till NEXT TIME, I’ll HOLLA!

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