Charles Houston & Brown
Negro attorney Charles Hamilton Houston’s colleagues, despite his death in 1950 at age 54, recognize him as the legal genius most responsible for racial integration. His strategy was carefully created, “a protracted legal struggle based on the planned, deliberate prosecution of test cases.” Houston’s legal team included former Howard University law students, black NAACP lawyers like Maryland’s Thurgood Marshall and Virginia’s Spotswood Robinson III.
Injustice is defined as a lack of fairness. Charlie Houston—described by his protégé Thurgood Marshall as the Moses of the Jim Crow journey—relied on Plessy v. Ferguson’s 1896 separate but equal doctrine to prove Alexandria’s Parker-Gray High School’s Wythe Street facility unequal. By implementing the Plessy rule, by confirming the high costs associated with the construction and maintenance of separate but equal school facilities, Houston hoped the states would “kill Jim Crow.”
Houston was born September 3, 1895, a child of the Jim Crow era. He was the educated son of Washington, D.C. lawyer William L. and Mary E. Houston; the grandson of escaped slave and Underground Railroad conductor Thomas Jefferson Houston. It was T.J. who taught Charlie the meaning of moral conviction.
With the abolition of slavery, southern states became increasingly uncomfortable with the freedman’s status. Several state legislatures passed restrictive laws, Black Codes in an effort to ensure white supremacy. In 1866 the federal government tried to remedy civil wrongs with passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Amendment, as ratified in 1868, overruled Dred Scott v. Sanford of 1857.
The Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1: “….No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive…without due process of law; nor deny…equal protection of the laws.”
After Reconstruction, America passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Short-lived, the US Supreme Court declared the Act unconstitutional in 1883. With Plessy v. Ferguson America’s Negro population was again contained. On May 18, 1896 the US Supreme Court, by a vote of 8 to 1, ruled that “all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches…shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.”
“The object of the [Fourteenth] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the equality of the two races before the law,” majority Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote, “but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to endorse social, as distinguished from political equality…If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.”
“The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country,” dissenting Justice John Marshal Harlan wrote. “And so it is in prestige, in achievement, in education, in wealth and in power…But in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens…Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law…In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case…[that blacks are] a subordinate and inferior class of beings.”
By 1902 Virginia’s Constitution had been rewritten, the poll tax added, and Alexandria’s trolley seats segregated. Plessy v. Ferguson remained law until 1954.
Houston, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Amherst College (1915) and Harvard Law School (1922), was admitted to the Bar of the District of Columbia in 1924. He joined his father’s law firm and became a Howard University law instructor in the same year. Coincidentally, on March 20, 1924 Virginia passed two heinous laws one of which was the Racial Integrity Act.
Beginning in October 1933—coincident with the organizing meeting of the Alexandria chapter of the NAACP—Houston, an acknowledged ally, “spoke on the necessity of high school facilities for negro children in Alexandria, and urged the citizens associated [with Parker-Gray High School] to continue their fight for equal school accommodations.”
“All education, white and Negro, is feeling the pinch of the [Great] Depression,” Houston wrote in 1934, “but in the South common rumor is that Negro education is being sacrificed so as to save white education from being curtailed.”
“Since education is a preparation for the competition of life,” Houston said in 1935, “a poor education handicaps black youth who with ‘all elements of American people are in economic competition.’”
“The white man claims black American slowness, backwardness, and less intelligence to justify ‘poorer teachers, wretched schools, shorter terms and an inferior type of education’ for blacks,” Houston continued, “but the reason for such treatment has nothing to do with alleged black inferiority.”
Houston, a Dean, left Howard University Law School in 1935 to join the New York offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] as Special Counsel for education and transportation. He returned to the District in 1939.
“The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment furnishes the key to future policies and practices which should govern the relationship of the Federal government…to Negro separate schools,” Houston concluded in 1938. “The existence of Negro separate schools is itself a negation of democracy, and the long range objective…must envisage the day when all Americans regardless of race or creed will attend the same schools.”
On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court unanimously concluded that America could no longer educate its young in segregated public schools. Brown v. the Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate but equal doctrine. Brown, a bundled series of cases included Bolling v. Sharpe (1950); another of Houston’s District of Columbia, Parent Consolidated Group’s school integration cases. He suffered a heart attack just prior to preparation.
“District Court was petitioned yesterday to declare that racial segregation in public schools here is unconstitutional,” The Washington Post reported November 10, 1950. “Attorney George E.C. Hayes said the suit [Bolling v. Sharpe] is designed to overthrow the “separate-but-equal” doctrine. The suit itself was not based on the premise that Negro schools here were necessarily-inferior in facilities to white schools. Instead, it follows the theory that segregation carried with it a stigma denying true equality of the races.”
Virginia was one of four states involved in the Brown decision [Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County]. In April 1951, black students at Prince Edward County’s Moton High School protested the high school’s substandard conditions. The NAACP filed suit, but the US District Court rejected the students’ plea concluding that segregated schools harmed neither race.
“These [Brown] cases come to us from the States of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware,” US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said. “They are premised on different facts…but a common legal question justifies…this consolidated opinion. Segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a State solely on the basis of race…denies to Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
“Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?” Warren asked. “We believe it does.”
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon colored children,” Warren continued. “The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”
“Equal,” NAACP Attorney Thurgood Marshall maintained, “means getting the same thing, at the same time and in the same place.”
Not until Samuel W. Tucker’s 1968 Green v. School Board of New Kent County, VA—a case argued one day before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination; the US Supreme Court’s extension of Brown—did Virginia School Districts implement full desegregation. Virginia NAACP attorney Samuel W. Tucker heeded Houston’s call because he was “born black in Alexandria.”
“When Brown against the Board of Education was being argued in the Supreme Court…[t]here were some two dozen lawyers on the side of the Negroes fighting for their schools,” US Supreme Court Justice and Brown solicitor Thurgood Marshall said in 1978. “[O]f those…lawyers…only two hadn’t been touched by Charlie Houston…[T]hat man was the engineer of all of it…If you do it legally, Charlie Houston made it possible…This is what I think Charlie Houston…means to us.”
In February, Black History Month, the Alexandria School Board will vote regarding the future of the re-segregated Jefferson [Charles] Houston School. After six years of academic mismanagement Jefferson Houston School remains a candidate for State takeover. A working committee anxious “to break with the past” has proposed a name change.
Houston’s history, some School Board members claim, is synonymous with the “dark ages;” the pun perhaps intended. More likely: ACPS Board members afraid of redistricting can no longer support Houston’s legacy of integration, of academic equality especially grades 6-8.
Written by: Sarah Becker, ©2014