Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Genna Rae McNeil
Foreword by A. Leon Higginbotham
Copyright Date: 1983
Pages: 344
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    "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 Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) left an indelible mark on American law and society. A brilliant lawyer and educator, he laid much of the legal foundation for the landmark civil rights decisions of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the lawyers who won the greatest advances for civil rights in the courts, Justice Thurgood Marshall among them, were trained by Houston in his capacity as dean of the Howard University Law School. Politically Houston realized that blacks needed to develop their racial identity and also to recognize the class dimension inherent in their struggle for full civil rights as Americans. Genna Rae McNeil is thorough and passionate in her treatment of Houston, evoking a rich family tradition as well as the courage, genius, and tenacity of a man largely responsible for the acts of "simple justice" that changed the course of American life.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0083-6
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Genna Rae McNeil
    (pp. xv-xxii)
    A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.

    There has always been, and probably always will be, an “explicit ... conflict between the obligations of law and of conscience—between the commands of law and the claims of justice.”¹ I am grateful for Dr. Genna Rae McNeil’s superb book, which traces the journey of a heroic lawyer who tried so valiantly to make the American legal process a system that synthesized concepts of moral conscience and justice for blacks within the commands and obligations of law.

    Fifteen years after Charles Houston’s lamentable and premature death, Martin Luther King, when speaking to the Bar Association of the city of...

    (pp. xxiii-2)
    (pp. 3-12)

    “We wouldn’t have been any place if Charlie hadn’t laid the groundwork for it,” Thurgood Marshall, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, told an audience of blacks and whites assembled to pay tribute to his former teacher and friend, Charles Hamilton Houston.¹ Encountering some puzzled faces following such a sweeping testimonial, Marshall, with his inimitable directness, added:

    You have a large number of people who never heard of Charlie Houston. But you’re going to hear about him, because he left us such important items. . . . When Brown against the Board of Education was being...

  7. PART ONE Prologue to Struggle:: The Formative Years, 1829–1924

    • CHAPTER I The Inheritance
      (pp. 15-23)

      The story of Charles Hamilton Houston—“Charlie” to those who knew him well—begins long before his birth. Who he was and how he met life and handled its changing fortunes were, in part, givens. Charles Houston was more than the sum of his experiences. No one could know him without being struck by the Houston tradition he proudly carried on and the Hamilton legacy announced and celebrated by his presence. These were deeply rooted and basic.

      The Houstons emerge from anonymity when Thomas Jefferson Hunn, born on 10 August 1829 to slave parents in Kentucky, resolved to run away...

    • CHAPTER II Charles Hamilton Houston
      (pp. 24-34)

      Charles Hamilton Houston was born on 3 September 1895 in the intimacy of the Houston home at 1444 Pierce Place, Northwest (later renamed Swann Street) in Washington, D.C. His name, the result of careful pondering, paid tribute to Charles I. Wedding, the attorney who had inspired William, and the long line of free Hamiltons, Mary’s side of the family. Mary, William, Katherine, Thomas, and Clotill, William’s younger sister, greeted the first male of this Houston generation joyfully and prayerfully. All knew that, because of the times and his race, much would be required of Charles.¹

      In 1895—as in other...

    • CHAPTER III “Army Justice”
      (pp. 35-45)

      Having a father with influence could at times make the path to success a bit easier, and Charles benefited from having such a father. Ambitious for his son, William Houston never considered leaving to chance or to Charles the matter of a good job after graduation. Having heard about the prospective leave of a Howard University English professor, G. David Houston (no relation), William Houston met with G. David, several other professors, an influential trustee, and the university’s president, Stephen Newman, during Charles’s last semester at Amherst. By 1 June the board of trustees had confirmed the appointment of Charles...

    • CHAPTER IV Studying Law at Home and Abroad
      (pp. 46-56)

      The tension between Charles Houston and the white American in the dining car was unfortunately not unusual for postwar America in 1919. A general fear of foreigners, Catholics, Jews, poor or striking workers, radicals, and blacks led to intolerance and government repression. Dissenting radicals and alleged radicals, in particular, were being hunted down by the government, creating a nationwide “Red scare.” Blacks, regardless of their politics, were being lynched, burned, and variously abused. Black soldiers were returning to secure democracy for themselves and other black Americans. In stark contrast, most whites maintained prewar racial attitudes and wished not only to...

  8. PART TWO Developing Cadres:: The Howard Years, 1924–1935

    • CHAPTER V Houston & Houston
      (pp. 59-62)

      Five minutes from the District of Columbia Municipal Court House, on F Street, Northwest, number 615, at the top of a long flight of stairs in the Helpers Building, William L. and Charles H. Houston shared law offices. William believed that blacks ought to invest their money wisely, and as far as he was concerned, owning downtown property was the better part of wisdom. For some time he had had his eye on a building down the street from his first downtown 639 F Street office. By 1921, William persuaded the Supreme Order of the Helpers, a black “fraternal beneficial...

    • CHAPTER VI The Transformation of Howard University Law School
      (pp. 63-75)

      When Charles Houston was still young enough to think himself wise beyond his years, he confidently told Sterling Brown, a Dunbar High School student (who would later become one of the nation’s foremost poets), “He who can does and he who can not teaches.”¹ That was long before Houston came to know and esteem such professors of law as Joseph H. Beale, Roscoe Pound, and Felix Frankfurter. While attending Harvard Law School, Charles Hamilton Houston was challenged to a new appreciation of teaching, particularly, law teaching. For some reason (perhaps because of William’s emphasis on practice) it just had not...

    • CHAPTER VII “Dean” Houston’s School for Social Engineers
      (pp. 76-85)

      Howard’s accreditation was a genuine triumph for Charles Houston and all who shared his vision for Howard Law School. But there was still much to be done if the Law School, as Houston envisioned, were to offer “superior professional training and extraordinary motivation . . . to prepare the professional cadres needed to lead successful litigation against racism as practiced by government and sanctioned by law.” Making this vision a reality was “Dean” Houston’s great challenge. He sincerely believed, as his cousin recalled some years later, “first rate people with first rate training” would actually accomplish “such a transformation in...

    • CHAPTER VIII The Limitations of American Law
      (pp. 86-105)

      What was happening was worse than a nightmare because it was unadulterated reality: William actually knew he was lucky to have money to do anything. As Franklin D. Roosevelt reported in his inaugural address of March 1933, “Values ha[d] shrunken to fantastic levels; . . . the means of exchange [were] frozen; . . . farmers [found] no market for their produce: the savings of many years in thousands of families [were] gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face[d] the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil[ed] with little return.”¹ All but a few black...

    • CHAPTER IX Matters of Conscience
      (pp. 106-128)

      Charles Houston’s experience with the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and the International Labor Defense was not altogether unique. Neither were the League and ILD responses to Houston’s handling of the Ades and Crawford cases singular. The League of Struggle for Negro Rights had been formed in 1930 to develop a broad-based radical race movement in the United States. Among other things, its goals were to eliminate “white supremacy ideology ‘with its attendant instruments of terror against Negroes,’ . . . [demand] ‘complete economic, political and social equality,’ . . . [and insist on] ‘equal protection of Negroes in...

  9. PART THREE Struggling on Diverse Fronts:: The National Years, 1935–1950

    • CHAPTER X “This Fight...Is Not an Isolated Struggle”
      (pp. 131-155)

      As he stood by an open window watching a shrieking fire engine speed through the city, Charles Houston could hardly contain his excitement. It was skillfully but not entirely masked from his secretary, Lucille Black, who waited for him to continue his dictation. To her, Charles Houston was “a very genteel person” but she also recognized “he had no special airs.”¹ Charles Houston felt not only excited but also exhilarated, stimulated, and eager about being in New York City at this time in his life. He was in New York because the NAACP national office was located at 69 Fifth...

    • CHAPTER XI Protecting the Right to Work
      (pp. 156-175)

      When Charles Houston changed his base of operations to Washington, D.C., his father, William, wanted to hope that this meant the winding down of his son’s nonprofit activities. After all, the New Deal had affected the expectations more than the lives of most black Americans, and as a result there was still the need to work for a modicum of economic security. Yet Charles’s prestige as the NAACP’s chief civil rights lawyer made him a prime candidate for the leadership of innumerable causes. His return to the F Street offices did not deter individuals or groups from seeking to retain...

    • CHAPTER XII “Racism Must Go”
      (pp. 176-193)

      Houston’s impressive record of victories in courts of the nation and his dramatic resignation from the FEPC because of the “failure of the federal government to enforce democratic practices . . . in its own capital” thrust him into a role of greater leadership and accountability.¹ People both inside and outside the District of Columbia approached Houston with almost every conceivable civil rights cause. The problem was time. By 1945, blacks had observed Houston’s consistent advocacy for his people, and many were of the opinion that his competence was matched by his utter seriousness and zeal. Regardless of class or...

    • CHAPTER XIII “In Any Fight, Some Fall”
      (pp. 194-212)

      Although Charles Houston’s activities between 1945 and 1949 on behalf of black Americans in the District of Columbia were many and demanding, the grueling pace that led to his heart attack and hospitalization was not the result of these activities alone. As a lawyer-publicist, Houston concerned himself with and addressed himself to the major civil rights issues throughout the nation. Affiliating himself with professional, race betterment, and race relations organizations, ad hoc committees, and the black press, Charles Houston fought against racial discrimination.

      As early as 1934 he had assailed forces responsible for segregation in the armed services, and as...

    (pp. 213-226)

    Charles Hamilton Houston’s commitment to the struggle of African Americans for freedom, justice, and equality presupposed the validity of moral values as determinants in matters of social enterprise both for individuals and for groups. He believed that moral values could overlap with but were distinguishable from legal imperatives. In his sharp rebuke to a staff assistant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt regarding an ill-fated attempt to arrange a meeting on lynching, Houston disclosed a moral posture that informed his civil rights activity and set the tone for his advocacy on behalf of his people.

    We protest that the lives and...

    (pp. 227-236)
    (pp. 237-248)
    (pp. 249-250)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 251-298)
  15. Index of Names, Places, and Subjects
    (pp. 299-306)
  16. Index of Principal Cases Cited
    (pp. 307-308)