|I see a hero boarding a train
late on a rainy July night in 1935. He is embarking for New York
City, where he will begin a new phase of his life, as special counsel for
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The
hero is an African American lawyer named Charles Hamilton Houston.
Twenty years earlier, Houston graduated near the top his class at Amherst—the only black in the class. He served as one of the few black officers in WWI. In April 1919, Houston declared, “My battleground is in America, not France.” His war would be on Jim Crow—the laws that divided America into two societies, one white and one black.
To prepare for the coming fight, Houston entered Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review.
After graduation from law school, Houston took a job as a professor and later the dean of the Howard Law School. Professor Houston demanded hard work and excellence. “No tea for the feeble, no crepe for the dead,” he told his students and fellow faculty members. Houston turned Howard into a training ground for lawyers who would be soldiers in his battle against segregation. One of his promising recruits was a gangling young man from Baltimore named Thurgood Marshall.
Arriving now at his new post in the NAACP headquarters in New York, Houston declares that the battle to end segregation in America must be fought first and foremost in the schools. He explains, “Education is preparation for the competition of life…Discrimination in education is symbolic of all the more drastic discrimination which Negroes suffer in American life.”
Houston begins his attack on Jim Crow in law schools. He wins a significant victory in Maryland state courts allowing a black Amherst graduate to attend the University of Maryland law school. Then he takes up the case of Lloyd Gaines, a high school valedictorian denied admission to the University of Missouri Law School after school officials learned from his transcript that he was black. There is no public law school in the state that will admit blacks, but Missouri offers to pay Gaines’s tuition at an out-of-state law school. It would be wasteful to build a law school for one or two black students, Missouri says. Houston contends that is not the constitutionally required “equal” treatment.
On July 10, 1936, Houston presents his evidence in the Boone County courthouse in Columbia. He examines the Missouri’s Dean, William Masterson. Masterson “wiggles like an earthworm” as he disingenuously tries to claim that Gaines was deprived of nothing—that he could learn Missouri law just as well in the law schools of Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, or Illinois. Houston asks his next witness, Silas Canada, the school registrar, questions designed to show that discrimination at the University was exclusively racial: “Did you admit Chinese students?”—Yes, sir. “Japanese students?”—Yes, sir. “Hindu students?”—Yes, sir. “The only students you bar would be students of African descent, is that right?” “Other things being equal, I think so, yes, sir.”
The trial judge, as Houston knew he would, rules that Gaines has not been denied his right under the Constitution to equal protection of the laws because the state will provide him with a legal education---somewhere. The Missouri Supreme Court adds its agreement, citing Plessy v Ferguson. The Gaines case heads to the United States Supreme Court. It is the most important segregation case to reach the Court since Plessy itself, over four decades earlier.
Houston prepares to argue the Gaines case. On November 8, 1938, he rereads the record, makes notes on issues to stress, and hones his arguments. At the Howard Law School, he rehearses his oral argument before students and professors. The next day, before the justices of the Supreme Court, Charles Houston argues the case on which the hopes of so many black lawyers are fastened.
||Barely a month later, Chief Justice
Charles Evans Hughes announces the Court’s decision. “The equal protection
of the laws is a pledge of the protection of equal laws,” Hughes declares
in a magnificent opinion that will lay the groundwork for cases to come.
“The essence of the constitutional right is that it is a personal one.”
Gaines is entitled to have Missouri “furnish within its borders facilities
for legal education substantially equal to those which the State afforded
for persons of the white race.”
Charles Houston tells the press that the Gaines decision will open up new opportunities for blacks in the sixteen states that barred them from professional schools. One black commentator calls the decision “the greatest victory Negroes had won since freedom.” More than being a decision just about Missouri’s unique approach to race and higher education, Gaines establishes the principle of equality of educational opportunities.
No tea for the feeble, no crepe for the dead. After Gaines, Charles Houston continues to work tirelessly to make America a better place for black Americans. By mid-1947, Houston decides the time is right for “a direct, open, all-out fight against segregation.” There is, Houston declares, “no such thing as ‘separate but equal.’ Segregation itself imports inequality.” Houston develops other education cases, building on the foundation of the Gaines. In 1948, the NAACP wins a Supreme Court victory in Sipuel v Oklahoma State Board of Regeants. The Court relies on Gaines in its per curium decision. Working through the lower federal courts are two other NAACP cases, Sweatt v. Painter, a challenge the to the refusal of the Texas to admit a Negro to the all-white University of Texas Law School and to instead insist that he study at the new—and clearly inferior—Texas State Law School, and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, a challenge to the University of Oklahoma School of Education’s policy of isolating a Negro graduate student: requiring McLaurin to sit at a designated desk in an anteroom adjoining the classroom and to eat in the cafeteria at a time when no white students were present.
Houston’s health declines. His relentless fourteen-hour days are taking their toll. Houston knows he is weakening. In a letter to his wife Henrietta, he writes: “Rest is what I need, but there is so much to do in such a short time.” In the fall of 1949, Houston suffers his first heart attack. Two months later, he suffers a second one. He seems to be regaining strength when, on April 22, 1950, Houston raises his hand to greet a friend, then slumps, and dies in his hospital bed.
After Houston’s death, a book is found lying by his hospital bedside. On page 148 of the book are written a few final words for his young son: “Tell Bo I did not run out on him but went down fighting that he might have better and broader opportunities than I had without prejudice or bias operating against him, and that in any fight some fall.”
Houston fell with the finish line in sight. Just weeks after Houston’s death, the NAACP wins big Supreme Court victories in the Texas and Oklahoma cases. Neither state, Chief Justice Vinson declares, met the condition of “substantial equality” established in Gaines.
Two years later, the NAACP argues four more challenges to segregated education before the Supreme Court. The best known of the four is a suit brought on behalf of Linda Brown and several other black grade-school students from Topeka, Kansas. In May, 1954, Chief Justice Warren, writing for a unanimous Court in Brown v Board of Education, declares: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown for the NAACP, credits his old mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, with the victory: “We were just carrying [his] bags, that’s all,” Marshall says.
Charles Houston marked the path down which Marshall and others walked. He was the Moses of the journey.