Charles Hamilton Houston House

As I happened to be riding down Swann Street in northwest D.C.’s U Street Corridor neighborhood during this lunchtime bike ride I noticed an historic marker sign on a wrought iron fence in front of an otherwise non-descript brick row house.  So as I am prone to do, I immediately stopped so I could read the sign and find out why it was there.  From the sign I discovered the house, located at 1444 Swann Street (MAP), was the childhood home of Charles Hamilton Houston.  Later as an adult, Houston lived there again along with his wife, Henrietta Williams Houston.  Later after the ride I researched him to find about him.  In addition to information on the sign (below), here is what I learned.

Charles Hamilton Houston was born on September 3, 1895, here in D.C., to William Le Pré Houston, an attorney, and his wife, Mary Hamilton Houston, a teacher.  And as I would find out, his parents’ occupations would greatly influence their son’s life.

Houston attended segregated local schools, graduating from the academic (college preparatory) program at M Street High School (now Dunbar High School) at the age of 15.   He then went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College in 1915, before returning to D.C., where be began teaching English at Howard University.  The following year, however, Houston joined the Army and served as second lieutenant in France during World War I.  Upon returning from the war in 1919, Houston began attending  Harvard University Law School, where he  was the first black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review, and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity which was founded by and for black students.  He would go on to graduate cum laude with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1922, and receive the Doctor of Juridical Science the following year.  That same year he was awarded a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship to study at the University of Madrid.  In 1924 he again returned to D.C, and joined the faculty at Howard University Law School and his father’s law firm.

From 1929 through 1935, Houston served as Vice-Dean and then Dean of the Howard University School of Law.  During this time he worked hard to develop the school, turning it into a major national center for training black lawyers.  He extended its part-time program to a full-time curriculum and gained accreditation by the Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Association.  During this time Houston served as a mentor to a generation of young black lawyers and influenced nearly a quarter of all black lawyers in the country, including former student Thurgood Marshall, who became the first black justice on the United States Supreme Court.  Houston believed that the law could be used to fight racial discrimination and encouraged his students to work for such social purpose.

Houston left Howard in 1935 to serve as the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving in this role until 1940. In this capacity he created litigation strategies to attack racial housing covenants and segregated schools, arguing several important civil rights cases. Through his work at the NAACP, Houston played a role in nearly every civil rights case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown verses Board of Education.  Houston played a significant role in dismantling Jim Crow laws, especially attacking segregation in schools and racial housing covenants. He earned the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”.

Sadly, Houston died from a heart attack on April 22, 1950, at the young age of 54.  It’s a shame to think had he lived how much more good he might have also been able to do during the civil rights movement.


[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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