On day 21 of black history month, I want to thank a man who has been invisible to me until now. He shouldn’t have been; the fact that he wasn’t in my high school US history textbook is alarming. His name was Charles Hamilton Houston, and he did as much to shape America as Henry Ford or any of the vice presidents.
He has been called the man who killed Jim Crow. As Thurgood Marshall said, “We owe it all to Charlie.”
Marshall, who successfully argued in front of the US Supreme Court in Brown v. The Board of Education that “separate cannot be equal,” was Houston’s protege and star pupil, working with a legal team and strategy Houston masterminded, although it didn’t come to full fruition until after Houston’s death (of a heart attack, age 54).
Houston was a graduate of Amherst and Harvard (where he was on the staff of the Harvard Law Review) and a veteran of WWI (he served in France). He built Howard University’s law school into a full-time, accredited instituion; during his time there, he was directly responsible for the training of a quarter of the black lawyers in the US. In 1934, he left Howard to form the fighting force that was the NAACP’s Legal Defense Team, who he assigned to a series of cases which set up the trail of legal dominoes that ended in the supreme court.
He made a huge difference to my life, particularly my decade in public education. I’m not black, and I’m not one of the people who most needed his help. But I live in the world he fought for. I can’t imagine the alternative as anything but horrible and sad and frightening.
Thank you, Mr. Houston. Thank you for making it possible for me to know so many of the people I love. Thank you for saving me.