Civil Rights Tour: Legal
Charles Hamilton Houston, Civil Rights Attorney

3611 New Hampshire Avenue NW

“Law suits mean little unless supported by public opinion. Nobody needs to explain to a Negro the difference between the law in books and the law in action…The really baffling problem is how to create the proper kind of public opinion.”
(Charles Hamilton Houston, March 1936)

D.C. native Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) was a top civil rights attorney and a mentor to an entire generation of African American lawyers. Born in 1895, Houston attended the city’s segregated school system, graduating from M Street (later Dunbar) High School and went on to excel at Amherst College. The racism he experienced in the U.S. Army during World War I pointed him to a law career. Two degrees from Harvard University Law School later, he joined his father William Houston’s law firm and the Howard University Law School faculty in 1924.

In 1929, Houston rose to vice dean of Howard University Law School and began overseeing its transformation from a part-time night school to an accredited full-time program. It soon became a center for reform-minded, activist lawyers, where Houston, with his colleagues and students, developed the strategies for challenging institutional racism through the federal courts.

In 1935 Houston joined the national office of the NAACP in New York as the organization’s first special counsel. It was in this role that he developed and began carrying out a legal campaign to expose the inequality of segregated schools. The numerous cases he litigated against wage disparities among teachers, lack of transportation and inadequate facilities for black students, and unequal access to higher education, would lay the groundwork for the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, and D.C.’s companion case, Bolling v. Sharpe. After returning to D.C. in 1938, Houston took on racially restrictive housing covenants, losing many legal battles but winning the war in Hurd v. Hodge, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court as a companion case to the landmark Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948.

Houston lived at 3611 New Hampshire Avenue with his second wife Henrietta from 1943 until his death. They welcomed a son, Charles Hamilton Houston, Jr. in 1944.