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Shaping freedom's course: Charles Hamilton Houston, Howard University, and legal instruction on U.S. Civil Rights.

Charles Hamilton Houston led the legal campaign that resulted, ultimately, in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The unanimous Brown decision overturned "separate but equal" policy in American public education and proved lethal to other Jim Crow policies in the United States (Kluger 1975; Tushnet 1994; Williams 1998). Houston constructed important parts of the strategic foundation to dismantle Jim Crow while at the Howard University School of Law where he served as the Vice Dean from 1929-35. Later, as NAACP legal counsel and as a private attorney, Houston, and those he taught and mentored, further utilized Howard University to teach civil rights law and to convene meetings and oral argument practice sessions focused on overturning the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Howard University's School of Law became a laboratory for developing, teaching, testing, and strengthening the legal arguments and skills necessary to defeat legalized segregation (James 2010; Kluger 1975; McNeil 1983).

While the Plessy decision enabled legalized segregation and inequality to exist throughout the United States, Houston implemented a strategy that held the United States to its promise--separateness must be met with equality regardless of the expense to parties sued successfully. Ridding the United States of Jim Crow entailed educating and training highly skilled black lawyers who, in sufficient numbers, could strategically litigate cases and build legal precedent leading to the overturn of Plessy. Under Houston's leadership, Howard University's School of Law--and the courses within it--became the center of this effort. Of the seven primary attorneys who successfully argued the Brown case before the U.S. Supreme Court, four were Howard Law graduates and another was Howard Law professor James M. Nabrit, Jr. (Friedman 2004). The lead attorney, Thurgood Marshall, was taught and closely mentored by Houston at Howard University (Tushnet 1994).

Houston's work at the School of Law is an important and illuminating part of human rights advancement in America and provides insight into the purposeful strategic planning that enabled the law school to become a critical legal laboratory for advancing freedom. This strategy was clearly present in 1935 when Houston published observations regarding African American attorneys in an article titled "The Need for Negro Lawyers" (Houston 1935). He began the article by noting,

The social justification for the Negro lawyer as such in the United States today is the service he can render the race as an interpreter and proponent of its rights and aspiration. There are enough white lawyers to care for the ordinary legal business of the country if that were all that was involved. But experience has proved that the average white lawyer, especially in the South, cannot be relied upon to wage an uncompromising fight for equal rights for Negroes (Houston 1935, 49).

Houston's opening observations contained much of the purpose and pragmatic realism that compelled him and other faculty to demand provision of the finest legal education possible at the Howard University School of Law and also the highest performance of the School's students. Houston knew that relevant, timely, and highly rigorous legal education was essential in preparing more black lawyers for the progression of civil rights (McNeil 1975).

William H. Hastie, Houston's faculty colleague at the Howard School of Law recalled, [Houston] looked forward to decades of difficult civil rights litigation in which only lawyers of exceptional skill and dedication could prevail. Old concepts and precedents would have to be attacked. New approaches and procedures would have to be devised. Courts, more accustomed to vindicating the existing public order than to requiring changes in accepted behavior, would have to be persuaded that the late 1800's and early 1900's had witnessed fifty years of cumulative misconception and error in the application of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the hideous realities of American racism. Only first rate people with first rate training could possibly accomplish such a transformation in American law and in the society it regulated (Robinson 1977, 4).

As Vice Dean, Houston worked extraordinarily long hours to recruit excellent faculty, create a challenging and practical legal curriculum, and, promote use of the School of Law as a working laboratory. Such a laboratory was necessary for testing legal theories and strategies to combat, change, and overturn laws and practices that purposely inhibited the rights of African Americans in the United States. Collectively, these efforts provided the focus and purpose of civil rights instruction at Howard University.


From his own student experience at Harvard Law School where he was taught and mentored by legal giants such as Law School Dean Roscoe Pound, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and Professor Joseph Beale, Houston knew well the value of outstanding law faculty who, by example, pushed students to levels of excellence (Fairfax, 1998). Houston's Harvard Law School course notes show the challengingly comprehensive and analytic instruction that he received from the faculty and how through rigorous examination he was expected to probe cases and textual meaning well beyond factual matter and further into the conceptual domain. Just as his professors challenged him, Houston wanted faculty at the Howard University School of Law to do the same in creating a generation of African American attorneys who could more than measure up to their white contemporaries in depth of legal preparation and reasoning (Smith 1993).

A defining characteristic of the Howard University School of Law was the development of a work and civil rights service ethos by faculty example. Example setting ranged from conspicuous faculty behavior on cam pus to examples set in court rooms. In a faculty bulletin issued in October 1931, Houston encouraged his colleagues to intentionally leave the privacy of their offices and "to make it a point to do a little work at least, in our own library, by way of inspiration to the students. Nothing encourages a student to work more than to see his teacher working near him" (CHH Papers, box 163-6, file 1). He insisted that faculty maintain regular office hours for students with such hours posted on the bulletin board. Further, no one with teaching responsibilities was to let two complete days elapse without being at the School (CHH Papers, box 163-6, file 1). Student access to faculty remained a priority for Houston as did conspicuous faculty service for the advancement of civil rights.

Among the most compelling examples set by faculty members were their extensive engagements as practicing attorneys in pursuit of civil rights. A 1934 "Student Information Bulletin" contained multiple examples of faculty service outside of Howard University. The Bulletin noted Dr. William H. Hastie's appointment as Assistant Solicitor in the Department of Interior, his legal service on the New Negro Alliance, and his collaboration with a recent School of Law graduate, Edward P. Lovett (class of 1932) as "leading counsel in successfully defending an Alliance member arrested for picketing" (CHH Papers 1934, June 30, box 163-6, file 3, 2). Assistant Professor Leon A. Ransom was noted for his legal involvement with the NAACP and specifically his work in helping to defend an African American man accused of murder in the Crawford case as associate counsel with Vice Dean Houston. Professor William E. Taylor was actively engaged in efforts to get additional white collar jobs for African Americans and credited as being core to that endeavor in Washington, D.C. Professor George E. C. Hayes' activities further underscored the Howard faculty's work with the NAACP through his service as chairman of the Washington Branch's Legal Committee.

Vice Dean Houston's service activities outside of the University were no less impressive despite his heavy teaching and administrative duties within the School of Law. The Bulletin noted that Houston was counsel for the Crawford case in Virginia; legal defense for attorney Bernard Ades, an African American attorney in Baltimore who Houston saved from disbarment; a key participant in the U.S. Senate's Sub-Committee of the Judiciary hearings on the Anti-Lynching Bill, and speaker on "a Better Approach to Race Relations" at the YWCA's national convention (CHH Papers 1934, June 30, box 163-6, file 3, 2). Houston also was a lead investigator for a couple key cases involving falsely accused and convicted African Americans--specifically "... the Peterson case in Alabama and the Sam Jones and Page Jupiter cases in Maryland" (CHH Papers 1934, June 30, box 163-6, file 3, 2). Further, Professors Houston, Ransom, and Howard Law alumni E. P. Lovett and James G. Tyson were part of a delegation from Washington, D.C. protesting a Maryland lynching and demanding before the governor of that state the ". vigorous prosecution and punishment of the mob" (CHH Papers 1934, June 30, box 163-6, file 3, 2).

The Howard School of Law faculty that Houston recruited, mentored, evaluated, and managed were active practitioners of civil rights law and advocacy and brought their expertise daily into the classroom and library. Houston's own courses on civil rights in the 1940s drew liberally upon resources that he encountered as a practicing attorney including material received from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP which gave students insight into allied organizations that promoted civil rights and which could provide broad-scale advocacy through their membership (CHH Papers, box 163-6, folders 12-15). Houston's faculty colleagues shared his commitment to develop a new legion of civil rights attorneys who would labor diligently within communities of color to advance rights where few existed. Surrounded by faculty who applied the force of law to social injustices, students followed suit. As one student, Oliver Hill, recounted, "we started from the get-go, from our first year. Thurgood [Marshall] and I would look up things in addition to regular class work. We would think in terms of how we were going to tackle Plessy right on through law school" (Bond 2004, 11; Hill 2000). Students and faculty had ample opportunity to do so within Houston's School of Law as the rigor of the courses, examinations and other learning experiences demonstrate.


As an African American attorney living under the weight of legalized segregation and inequality, Vice Dean Houston knew that the Howard University School of Law needed to be relevant to contemporary issues facing African Americans of the time, produce and place graduates of outstanding quality with relevant skills, and motivate students through faculty example to serve as "social engineers" in the battle against racial inequality (McNeil 1983; Jonas 2007). Houston and Nabrit urged their students to be social engineers. To be a social engineer for the advancement of civil rights within highly prejudiced communities, a black attorney needed to be educated about those domains of life that were most relevant to African Americans and fully aware of rights denied and rights needed through legal action. Houston made certain that the Howard School of Law curriculum and the course on civil rights law focused on those domains. In 1935 he wrote,

it is where the pressure is greatest and racial antagonisms most acute that the services of the Negro lawyer as a social engineer are needed. If a Negro law school is to make its full contribution to the social system it must train its students and send them into just such situations. This does not necessarily mean a different course of instruction from that in other standard law schools. But it does mean a difference in emphasis with more concentration on the subjects having direct application to the economic, political and social problems of the Negro (Houston 1935, 51).

Houston was deliberate in reviewing the curriculum comprehensively with an eye on relevance, efficiency, and rigor. While most of the Howard School of Law course titles did not differ much from those of other law schools during Houston's time as Vice Dean (Agency, Civil Procedure at Common Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Jurisprudence, etc.), the emphases within the courses were different to ensure relevance to African American life (Smith 1993, 80). Houston focused on that which was most useful to African Americans and future attorneys who would further advance and defend their rights. This goal included developing an array of basic legal skills relative to the daily lives of black citizens in addition to courses that explored expansive topics such as the history of law and the meaning and role of jurisprudence within different societies.

Focused pragmatism at Howard University was underscored within a 1930 School of Law "Circular of Information" which noted a 1928 survey conducted by Houston "concerning the actual needs of lawyers in their practice, ... as a result the curriculum was thoroughly revised in order to strengthen the course of study and give the students some practical work in preparation for actual practice" (CHH Papers, box 163-6, file 6). Specifically, the circular noted that law students were now being trained to draft common real estate documents in the conveyance course, write different kinds of negotiable instruments in the "commercial paper" course where, as an additional course feature, they were provided with presentations by "recognized banking experts" (CHH Papers, box 163-6, file 6). While easy to overlook in terms of undistinguished course titles, these courses and their content were closely intertwined with core needs of the African American community where an absence of skilled and informed attorneys in matters of real estate and banking contributed to uncontested and unfair practices that denied civil rights to black citizens. African Americans in the pre and post-World War II periods continued to encounter labor discrimination in many northern industrial communities after migrating from southern states to escape oppressive agrarian labor practices. Those who attained jobs in northern cities often were placed in the lowest waged, most dangerous, and least secure positions (Sugrue 1996). Houston was well aware of such practices and did not focus the School of Law curriculum on any matters that were inapplicable to black citizens and their rights. This distinguished the Howard University School of Law from other law schools. Therefore, matters such as maritime law were overtaken by legal matters of transportation, employment, and commerce far more common to the lives of African Americans such as railroads, education, and real estate. These were the kinds of arenas of life that applied to African Americans most fully and where social engineers well-versed in law were most needed to create change.

Houston provided further insight into the practical and unique aspects of the Howard School of Law curriculum by explaining to the Howard University Law School Association how students were required within a unique "Criminal Law Laboratory" to venture with Houston outside of the Howard University campus to observe firsthand the offices and procedures that related directly to criminal law. According to Houston,

We carried the students ... to the station house and let them look at that. We took them to the morgue and to the coroner to see an inquest and we took them upstairs into the autopsy room and saw the workings there. We went on to the police court and went through the police court, and I had Frank Adams come in and pass around the various forms that they use there. We had a fingerprint expert come up and tell them how finger prints are taken and how they read them. We had Mr. Rover come over and explain how the district attorney's office works. Probation was explained to them. They were taken out to the jail and taken all through the jail and shown the inside workings.... It does put into their minds the subject, and vitalizes and vivifies the subject (AMD Papers, Series C, box 177-5, file 3).

Many years later, Thurgood Marshall remembered well experiences in Houston's Criminal Law Laboratory and how during an autopsy "I was on the floor.... Dead faint" (Ogletree 1993, 628). According to Marshall, every Saturday for an hour or two, Houston led students "through the entire criminal procedure--starting with the crime and the complaint, to the arrest ... to an autopsy, and everything up to the electric chair" (Ogletree 1993, 628). Houston even enabled students to sit in the electric chair which Marshall found unnerving (Ogletree 1993, 628). Oliver Hill remembered that the class also toured the FBI, St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the insane, the penitentiary in Lorton, Virginia, and the jail in Occuquan, Virginia (Hill 1993). The experiences of the Criminal Law Laboratory and other courses at Howard served their purpose of preparing students holistically and pragmatically for practicing law on behalf of people who too frequently faced unjustified and disproportionate criminal prosecution, incarceration, and capital punishment. Such persons were consistently denied their civil rights and needed attorneys who knew intimately every aspect of the processes that accused and convicted clients were subjected to. Marshall recalled that "[O]ne of my first cases was a criminal case ... and I found it [the laboratory] very valuable. I raved about it to some of my friends, big-shot judges--they've never been through it. They don't know what goes on" (Ogletree 1993, 628). So successful and notable was the Criminal Law Laboratory which Houston personally created and implemented in 1930, that it was given special note by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (AMD Papers, Series C, box 177-5, file 3).

Close examination of Houston's other courses between 1924-1935 show additional pragmatism for civil rights advocacy, attainment, and defense in courses like Legal Bibliography, Equity Pleading and Practice, and Evidence as well as carefully prepared intellectual explorations into the origins of law and jurisprudence. In Legal Bibliography, students learned the necessary aspects of finding particular case digests in the relevant legal digest volume and how to know if a specific case was "distinguished in its own jurisdiction" (AMD Papers, Series C, box 177-4, file 4). While representing basic legal mechanics, such skills also pushed students to be thorough and precise in their preparation for cases and well informed in oral argument. To prevail legally against racially discriminatory practices and laws, black attorneys had to be particularly thorough in thought, strategy, and action--all traits that Houston displayed regularly to students (McNeil 1983). Painfully apparent at the time was the fact that cases--including civil rights cases--were sometimes lost due to inadequate legal preparation and training, subpar strategic thinking, and sloppy work related to juristic reticence to advance cases that could topple existing social hierarchies and further human rights. As former Howard University law librarian A. Daniel Mercer noted, "one of the difficulties encountered was that many of the cases were lost because they were not properly handled in the lower courts where often the grounds for appeal were not laid before going to the higher court. This often left loopholes for an adverse opinion on procedure rather than on the merits" (AMD Papers, Series C, box 177-2, file 25). Houston chafed at procedural sloppiness as students discovered in pointed evaluations of classroom work.

Houston kept careful eye on student performance in the course through personal notations in his class record books. One entry during the 1929-1930 academic year noted that a student's "citation of dictum wrong" while another's "attitude toward court poor" (AMD Papers, Series C, "Class Record Book 1929-1930," box 177-4, file 8). In his Evidence course, Houston noted that a student "repeats answers; reacts slowly; can't frame questions well" while another was found "not aggressive; not resourceful; lackadaisical" (AMD Papers, Series C, "Class Record Book 1929-1930," box 177-4, file 8). As courts of law did not accept such performance, neither did Houston who knew that poor performance on the part of legal counsel could prove lethal to clients or, at best, cause them unnecessary loss of civil rights.

Houston, however, did not confine his interests to student performance on proper citation and research skills or in responding to questions creatively and energetically. The course in Legal Bibliography also pushed for knowledge of Constitutional matters as his examinations demonstrate. A makeup test from November 1933 required students to respond to the following questions: "Were the Negro slaves included in the census computation for the purpose of fixing the number of Representatives from each State under the Constitution?" Another question asked, "Is the 'full faith and credit' provision in the Articles substantially the same as in the Constitution?" (AMD Papers, Series C, box 177-4, file 4). Houston expected Howard School of Law students to explore legal concepts and constitutional questions at a level that went far deeper than recitation, surface explorations or explanations. Students encountered a flurry of cases and supplemental readings to use in mining further applications of law for equal justice and opportunity. These resources and their use were designed to create attorneys who could think expansively, creatively, and independently.

This was underscored in Houston's Evidence course where students were allowed to use books, notes, or anything else that they thought would be useful in responding to final exam questions. However, the number, nature, and depth of the problems rendered such tools impractical. Oliver Hill recounted, "Charlie gave so many essay questions that your initial reaction was that you would be lucky to read all the questions much less answer them. Other than your brains, extensively using reference materials was not a viable option" (Hill 2000, 80). Another of Houston's students, Edward P. Lovett, remembered that "in all our classes, whether it was equity or contracts or pleadings, stress was placed on learning what our rights were under the Constitution and statutes--our rights as worded and regardless of how they had been interpreted to that time" (Kluger 1975, 128). Students were pushed hard to find core meanings of the law and legal applications that were to the benefit of African Americans. This required thinking strategically and analytically given that application of the law in Houston's lifetime was rooted firmly in maintaining white privilege and power.

Students noted that Houston and other Howard law faculty frequently connected course content to contemporary issues encountered by black persons in America. Robert Carter, a Howard School of Law student in the late 1930s noted that, "in every course the legal fundamentals of the subject were taught and mastered, and if an area of discrimination against blacks existed, class discussion centered on possible avenues that might lend themselves to litigation to strike down the barrier" (Carter 2005, 24, 25). Such emphasis set Howard University's School of Law apart from other law schools of the time and contributed to its reputation as a laboratory for civil rights.


The academic experiences of Howard University law students were enhanced greatly by the professional civil rights service of their teachers as practicing attorneys. Such service sometimes enabled students to join with faculty during trial preparation and also to actively assist their teachers during the trials. Houston exemplified this practice. Prior to leaving his post as Vice Dean of the School of Law, Houston served as legal counsel in civil rights-related cases that were important strategically for the NAACP as well as African American defendants who, under Jim Crow, found securing fair trials virtually impossible.

In one particular and illustrative case, Commonwealth of Virginia vs. George Crawford (1933), Houston utilized his academically talented third year law student, Thurgood Marshall, as an important trial resource (Janken 2003). The Crawford case involved an African American man, George Crawford, who stood accused of murdering two white women in Loudoun County, Virginia. Given the charge, Crawford, if found guilty of actually committing the murder, would be hanged. Houston unsuccessfully fought Crawford's extradition to Virginia after Crawford fled to Boston to prevent probable lynching (James 2010). Extradition to Virginia meant that Crawford faced an all-white jury as Loudoun County did not have any African Americans serving on juries. Further, and in keeping with the vast majority of southern counties, Crawford's odds of receiving a fair trial were reduced by the fact that there were no practicing black attorneys in Loudoun County. Given this reality, Houston, through the NAACP, accepted responsibility for leading Crawford's defense. For Houston, Marshall, and other members of Crawford's defense team, this meant dangerous travel to and from a hostile region (James 2010). The presence of an all-black legal defense team for a black man accused of murdering white women was both remarkable and potentially lethal. Houston knew that a highly competent all black legal defense team would stand in full opposition to racist beliefs of the intellectual and professional inferiority of African Americans and prove a "turning point in the legal history of the Negro in this country" (Williams 1998, 58). With his commitment to the "social engineering" responsibilities of African American attorneys in mind, Houston wanted his student, Marshall, to be an active participant in the case.

Houston proactively sought the approval of NAACP executive secretary, Walter White, to involve Marshall in the Crawford case. With approval received, White soon observed Marshall's abilities, contributions, and ease in professionally challenging his mentor Houston and other Howard faculty that served on the defense team:

Each night during the trial the lawyers worked late in the library of the Howard University Law School. There was a lanky, brash young senior law student who was always present. I used to wonder at his presence and sometimes was amazed at his assertiveness in challenging positions taken by Charlie and the other lawyers. But I soon learned of his great value in doing everything he was asked, from research on obscure legal opinions to foraging for coffee and sandwiches (White 1995, 154).

White's observations underscored Houston's educational intent at the Howard University School of Law which was to create practical experiences for a new generation of black lawyers who, through the examples of their teachers and mentors, could exercise the advanced legal skills necessary to prevail against deeply ingrained discriminatory practices. Marshall's capacity to challenge the positions of Houston and other defense attorneys (two of whom, Edward P. Lovett and James G. Tyson, were Howard School of Law graduates) demonstrated both the depth of legal education provided at Howard University and the practice of being part of a highly dynamic collaborative effort to create the most effective legal arguments possible for the protection of civil rights (Smith 1993).

Through Houston's skilled, well-prepared, aggressive defense of Crawford and attacks on the prosecution's evidence, Crawford, while convicted, received a life sentence rather than death. Such an outcome was remarkable for the time and place of the trial. Houston's skill in court created an indelible memory for Marshall as a student, lawyer, and partner with Houston in the legal struggle for human rights (Williams 1998). Almost immediately following graduation, Marshall, Oliver Hill, and other graduates of the School of Law became full colleagues and social engineers with Houston in the fight against racism at local, state, and national levels. They, along with Houston and other alumni, continued to use Howard University and its law students as collaborators in litigating for civil rights.


Houston acknowledged both the strong instructional value of having students see him and other lawyers prepare to argue a case and also the value that students could bring to honing legal arguments through their own questioning. Houston's former student, Oliver Hill, recalled, after a case was prepared, but before the day for argument (these were all appellate court cases), we'd go to the law school and hold dry runs of the arguments. I attended several of those. I particularly remember that in the Gaines case, we had an extensive dry run; likewise in Dr. Andy Ransom's case, Hale v. Kentucky, involving jury discrimination. The principal objective was to sharpen the arguments for Charlie, or whoever was going to argue the case. We tried to be a strong devil's advocate, as strong as we possibly could. That was the purpose of the dry run (Hill 1993, 663).

Another Howard School of Law student, Robert Carter, recalled Houston holding a "dry run" in preparation for the 1938 U.S. Supreme Court case of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938). The Gaines case involved a black student who was denied admission to the University of Missouri Law School because the plaintiff, Lloyd Gaines, was black (Carter 2005). Carter, who later argued part of the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case before the U.S. Supreme Court as a member of Thurgood Marshall's legal team, noted,

Houston had a dry run of his Supreme Court argument in the law school the day before his scheduled court appearance. The significance of the dry run was that one of the students asked Houston the same question one of the justices put to him the next day. That created an NAACP tradition of its lawyers thereafter making each of their scheduled Supreme Court arguments before the Howard Law School students in advance of the Supreme Court presentation (Carter 2005, 25).

Houston's practice of using Howard University as a place to prepare actively and collaboratively for Supreme Court cases underscored his view of the School of Law as a legal laboratory where legal reasoning was honed and tested. Faculty and students were treated as critically minded co-investigators invited to expose faults in legal reasoning and application. Houston continued to use Howard University in such ways throughout the 1940s and, after his death in 1950, the practice was carried on by those he mentored. Jack Greenberg, Marshall's assistant and part of the NAACP's legal defense team who pled part of the Brown case before the Supreme Court, recalled that the "dry runs" at Howard University became standard practice for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund before actual arguments were made before the Court (Greenberg 1994). Greenberg noted that professors and lawyers would gather at Howard and pepper the preparing legal counsel with questions for two or three hours (Greenberg 1994).

Particular attention during these dry runs was given to anticipating Justice Frankfurter's questions (Greenberg 1994). Frankfurter, Charles Houston's former law professor, was known for actively engaging civil rights lawyers during oral argument and for doing so far more than any of the other justices. Underscoring the value of Houston's preparation process before Court argument, Greenberg wrote, "neither I nor any LDF [Legal Defense Fund] lawyer was ever asked a question in actual argument that had not first been asked at the dry run--until Warren Burger became chief-justice" (Greenberg 1994, 72).

The historic success in preparing for and winning U.S. Supreme Court cases that advanced human freedom and opportunity and that defeated Jim Crow was largely centered at Howard University due to the actions and leadership of Charles H. Houston. A. Daniel Mercer recounted the extensive use of the University's library for key resources and meetings in developing the legal arguments to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). With a librarian's intimate institutional memory, Mercer wrote,

Hundred[s] of cases were read and hours consumed in argument behind closed doors and also before the student body of the School of Law. If the area behind the 8th stack level of Founders Library could play back to us the sounds of the many voices that took part in these sessions it would be a record for the annals of the School of Law and the country. For here history was made (AMD Papers, Series B, box 177-2, file 26).


Charles H. Houston created a laboratory for killing legalized segregation at the Howard University School of Law. This was achieved by attracting and developing faculty who were active practitioners and scholars of civil rights-related law; creating a legal curriculum relating to the contemporary and practical needs of African Americans, and, exploring and exposing the dynamic tension between the law as written and societal practices that denied rights guaranteed within the law; developing within the classroom and courtroom students who, through remarkably thorough legal research and creative reasoning, could win lower court and Supreme Court cases leading to the demise of legalized racial segregation; and, providing ongoing generations of lawyers, scholars, and teachers who utilized Howard University as a credible place of civil rights research, scholarship, and legal advocacy (Tushnet 1994). Houston's ongoing legacy at Howard University is reflected in the development and maintenance of civil rights law courses that permeate the curriculum.

Following his groundbreaking legal work for the NAACP in New York, Houston returned to teach law at Howard and, with faculty colleagues such as James M. Nabrit, Jr. and Spottswood Robinson, created and taught courses specifically focused on civil rights law. These courses proved highly attractive to law students who swelled course enrollment numbers. The students gained the most current civil rights legal information and strategies directly from practitioners who, contemporaneously, were winning landmark civil rights cases. In turn, many of these students furthered Houston's goal of providing an extensive number of well-prepared black lawyers who dispatched themselves to communities where legal representation and advocacy were sorely needed. They also turned the tide of national legal history. As one scholar notes, "even after Houston's death, those 'social engineers' Houston influenced would go on to bring about some of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in American history" (Fairfax 1998, 42).


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Robert K. Poch

University of Minnesota

Robert K. Poch, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, 206 Burton Hall, 178 Pillsbury Drive S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455, (T) 612-625-5836, (F) 612-625-0709, Email:
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Author:Poch, Robert K.
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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