Charles Hamilton Houston was born in 1895 to a hairdresser mother, and a father who was a general practice lawyer. They loved Houston very much, and guided him towards intellectual activity—eventually making sure that he was able to attend the first black high school in the United States: M Street High School.
He continued his education and became a teacher of English and “Negro Literature” at Howard University. When World War I began, Houston wished to avoid the draft to the front lines—where African Americans were typically sent. So he enlisted as an officer. Once there, Houston found no end of racism. Everything was segregated from meals to restrooms. Higher ranking officers continuously degraded him; especially to female officers who were warned that he (and other black men like him) was dangerous.
Houston wrote: “I made up my mind that I would never get caught again without knowing my rights; that if luck was with me, and I got through this war, I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”
When he returned from war, he applied and attended Harvard Law School. He then served as the first African American on the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review. Houston soon became the dean of Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. From this vantage point, he was able to oversee approximately a quarter of African-American lawyers. Houston believed that:
Education is preparation for the competition of life.
He began fighting to end segregation at its root.
Targeting the graduate level of education, Houston launched a systematic attack on the doctrine of “separate but equal.” As many states did not offer graduate education for blacks, the inequality of opportunity was dramatic. Also, the number of people affected by integration at this level was small, and therefore represented less of a threat to the status quo.
Methodically, Houston chipped away at the system. His victories laid the groundwork for subsequent victories by the NAACP. Together with Thurgood Marshall, Houston’s protégé and former student at Howard, the NAACP legal team attacked inequalities in housing, transportation, and education. Via.
Sadly, Houston became ill; suffering multiple heart attacks. He soon died of heart failure. But his legacy did not end there. Houston went on to be known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.” More information on Houston’s posthumous honors may be found here.