Charles Hamilton Houston and the Harvard Law School

portrait of Charles Hamilton Houston by Gregory C. StapkoKnown as “Mr. Civil Rights Lawyer,” Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) worked tirelessly to advance the cause of racial justice. His legal career was multifaceted: he partnered with his father in the Washington D.C. law firm Houston & Houston, served as dean of Howard Law School, and spearheaded legal strategy for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the NAACP he developed the blueprint and argued critical cases that paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case that recognized that government-enforced racial segregation violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution. Houston died at the age of 54, four years before Brown was decided.

In September 1919, Charles Hamilton Houston’s illustrious career was just beginning. This was the year he entered Harvard Law School (HLS), inspired to study law after experiencing racism while serving in World War I. Of his wartime experience he wrote, “I made up my mind that I would never get caught again without knowing something about my rights; . . . I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”


This exhibit commemorates the 100th anniversary of Charles Hamilton Houston’s first year at the Harvard Law School by exploring and celebrating his connection to HLS. We are grateful to Karolyne and Bryan A. Garner for lending us Houston’s copy of Black’s Law Dictionary. In conjunction with the exhibit, Houston’s portrait is on view in the Caspersen Room.


This exhibit was curated by KB Beck, Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections. It is on view through June 2022, Caspersen Room, Harvard Law School Library.


Houston at Harvard

At Harvard Law School, Houston distinguished himself immediately. He maintained an exemplary academic record throughout his legal studies, earning a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) degree in 1922 in the top 5% of his class. He remained at HLS to earn a doctorate of laws (S.J.D.) degree in 1923, again attaining an A average. His intelligence, diligence, and calm confidence garnered the attention of Professor Felix Frankfurter and Dean Roscoe Pound, among others. Houston’s fellow students looked up to him, and Black students were known to view him as a “guidepost.”


View of Charles Hamilton Houston's name and address inscribed in ink on his copy of Black's Law Dictionary

Like countless law students before and after him, Charles Hamilton Houston brought his own copy of Black’s Law Dictionary to school. Currently in its eleventh edition, Black’s has been edited for the past 25 years by noted lexicographer and grammarian Bryan A. Garner, and is known as the most widely cited law book in the world.

Houston inscribed his copy of Black’s with his name and address. He lived on Cambridge Street, near the Cambridge Public Library and within walking distance of the Law School.


Image credit: 

Henry Campbell Black

A Law Dictionary …

2nd edition; St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1910

On loan from the library of Karolyne and Bryan A. Garner, Dallas, Texas


The Harvard Law Review

Houston’s academic achievements won him a spot on the Harvard Law Review editorial board for Volume 35 as the Review’s first Black student member. In January 1922, during the final year of his LL.B. studies, he wrote a letter to his parents hinting at the challenges and pressures he faced:


The editors of the Review didn’t want me on this fall . . . now all is one grand harmony. But I still go on my way alone. They know I am just as independent and a little more so, than they. My stock is pretty high around these parts. God help me against a false move.


Thirty-two male members of the Harvard Law Review Board of Editors sitting and standing in front of Austin Hall

Charles Hamilton Houston stands in the back row, second from right.


Image Credit:

Harvard Law Review Board of Editors, Vol. 35, 1921-1922

Gelatin silver print, 17.2 x 23.1 cm

HOLLIS olvwork397915



A Student of the World

First page of handwritten letter from Charles Houston to Roscoe Pound, 1923Houston followed his stellar career at Harvard with a year in Spain, where he earned a doctorate of civil law from the University of Madrid in 1924. During this time, he wrote several letters to Dean Roscoe Pound. In this letter, Houston reveals flashes of his intellect, a penchant for hard work, and a striking autograph at the end. He writes on page 1:


“I find that I can read and understand the work fairly well and [my tutor] agreed with me that a strict tutorial procedure would be unnecessary. Our plan is to develop our evenings into real comparative legal studies as quickly as possible.”


Image credit:

Letter from Charles Hamilton Houston to HLS Dean Roscoe Pound, page 1

Madrid; October 9, 1923

Roscoe Pound Papers, Box 67, Folder 21

HOLLIS 990006015990203941

Houston's Harvard Legacy

Charles Hamilton Houston’s connection to the Harvard Law School endures to this day. The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice (CHHIRJ), founded in 2005 by HLS Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., honors and continues Houston’s work. According to the Institute, during his lifetime Houston facilitated “a continuous dialogue between practitioners and scholars,” ensuring


that legal scholarship would resonate outside the academy, and that new legal strategies would be immediately incorporated into the training and practice of lawyers. CHHIRJ uses this model to . . . ensure that every member of our society enjoys equal access to the opportunities, responsibilities and privileges of membership in the United States.


Sources referenced in this exhibit:


  • Randall Kennedy, The Moses of that Journey, 5 Constitution 28-34 (no. 1, Winter 1993). Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections, HOLLIS 990145668730203941.