From all accounts, Charles Hamilton Houston was a hardworking man who didn’t care much for the spotlight. Black History Month comes and goes every year without a single mention of his name in classrooms across the nation. And while most Americans might not know the monumental impact Houston made on the legal system, his efforts are still affecting lives today and shaping those of future generations. Now, he’s the subject of a new book, Genius for Justice: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Reform of American Law, written by University of Baltimore’s School of Law professor José Anderson.

Anderson first took interest in Houston after coming into possession of several documents from an uncle who practiced law. The young lawyer then began to study the influences of his greatest mentors and inspirations. All roads led him in some way to C.H. Houston, as Anderson says, because “he was not just an exceptional Black lawyer he was deemed the best lawyer practicing- a man that transcended race and class.”

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1895, Houston seemed destined for greatness. Following in his father’s footsteps, the younger Houston excelled academically, graduating at age 19 as a valedictorian of the Amherst College class of 1915. Houston then taught for a short time at Howard University, but it was a stint in the Army that forever changed the way Houston viewed the world and the plight of Black and brown peoples under Jim Crow laws.

The segregation of the United States Army in World War I was a major catalyst for Houston’s need to work tirelessly for change. Soldiers enlisted in any part of the U.S. Armed Forces could expect the same degrading treatment as Blacks in the Deep South, complete with segregated fighting units, isolated bunks, latrines and mess halls. Blacks fighting for America were constantly harassed and mistreated as Houston’s letters describe deplorable accounts of discrimination and even a harrowing night when a lynch mob of White soldiers surround Blacks in the same uniform.

Upon returning to America in 1919, Houston dedicated his life to changing the American legal system and striking all laws that upheld segregation and discrimination of any kind. “I made up my mind that I would never get caught again without knowing my rights…I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back,” wrote Houston in a letter about his struggles during this time. He fulfilled his promise, enrolling in Harvard Law School the very year of his return, and never looked back.

In his 25-year career, Houston became the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review, fought for equal pay for teachers, and argued cases that led to the desegregation of lunch counters, recreational facilities, and juries in court rooms. Houston also helped desegregate Baltimore libraries, and changed discrimination practices at the University of Maryland and the Maryland Institute College of Art. The latter cases set precedents and laid the groundwork for legal fights such as the seminal Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Houston also worked with his father at the family practice, Houston & Houston, and later became head of the NAACP Special Council that provided legal defense in groundbreaking cases for civil rights.

Today, many who are familiar with Houston recognize him as the predecessor and mentor to Thurgood Marshall, a Baltimore native who was the first African-American man to sit on the Supreme Court. The two met while Marshall was a student at the Howard University School of Law, where Houston was vice-dean and also a leader in gaining national accreditation for Howard’s School of Law. Together the men worked vigorously with the NAACP and other organizations to turn around legal discrimination and achieve human rights for all.

Known as “Iron Shoes” to his students, Houston was known for pushing his scholars to greatness, as many went on to be epic lawyers in their own right. “He wasn’t a cheerleader for himself and he preceded the media revolution. Thurgood was in the media era, and Houston selected Thurgood because he knew he had the personality,” says Anderson, when asked why so many still are unaware of Houston’s contributions to society, compared to the fame of his mentees.

Genius for Justice gives not only an in-depth look at the sheer volume of work Houston accomplished in his short career, but it will also give readers a glimpse into who the legend was as a man. Finally coming to fruition after six years in the making, Genius for Justice, will be released in the fall.

Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer