Civil Rights Tour: Education - Howard University Law School

2900 Van Ness Street NW

"Our training included not only learning the law and how to think on our feet but also how to conduct ourselves in hostile situations. . . . Bound together by an overriding passion, we were a tiny band of fighters trying to establish defensible positions from which to launch a massive attack upon the entire system of legally enforced segregation."
(Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 1987)

Pauli Murray, who wrote these words, was the highest scoring student in the Howard University School of Law class of 1944. Although she faced discrimination as the only woman, she later recalled how important it felt to be part of what was happening there: "When a major case was to be presented to the Supreme Court, the entire school assembled to hear dress rehearsal arguments. Faculty members and alert students subjected the NAACP attorneys. . . .to searching questions, and by the time the attorneys appeared before the nine justices they were thoroughly prepared to defend their positions."

Over the course of the 20th century, Howard University School of Law became the nation's preeminent training ground to dismantling legal segregation. Its graduates include Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 became the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court. Marshall studied under Charles Hamilton Houston, who transformed the school from an unaccredited program with classes held three nights a week in faculty homes and offices downtown into the country's premier civil rights law school. "Eager students tested their abilities against experienced civil rights lawyers and vied with one another to present the most persuasive arguments for the overthrow of Jim Crow," wrote Murray.

Houston oversaw the school from 1929 until 1935, when he left to join the staff of the NAACP in New York, and returned part-time a few years later. He and his colleagues—including James Cobb, William Hastie, George E.C. Hayes, Oliver Hill, W. Robert Ming, Jr., James Nabrit, Leon Ransom, Spottswood Robinson III, and James Washington—were central to building the Supreme Court cases that required equal access to interstate transportation, ended the enforcement of racially restricted housing, and desegregated public schools. Like Houston, most of these attorneys were native Washingtonians.

To begin with, Howard University School of Law occupied a now-demolished building located downtown near Judiciary Square. In 1936, the law school moved onto the University’s main campus and remained there until 1974 when it took over the 22-acre Academy of the Holy Cross campus at 2700 Van Ness Street NW, where it remains today.

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