Charles H. Houston, a key figure in the history of legal challenges to segregation, also has an interesting connection to the Rosenwald Schools. Houston, who was born in Washington D.C., went on to practice law in the area as well as instruct students such as Thurgood Marshall at Howard Law School. His career as a lawyer spanned the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and included many important civil rights cases. Kenneth W. Mack’s new book, Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer, gives an excellent background of Houston’s life and accomplishments.
Being a lawyer, Houston focused especially on the integration of the country’s legal system. At this time, segregation in the courts was different than the segregation faced by other professions, like doctors, teachers or small business owners. As W.E.B. Du Bois observed in 1899, since “a lawyer must have co-operation from fellow lawyers and respect and influence in court… prejudice or discrimination of any kind is especially felt in this profession.” Especially in the South, black attorneys were forced to put up with many hurdles and limits set up within the courtroom. In 1933, Houston accepted a case with which he could challenge the segregated Southern court system in Loudoun County, Virginia. In the murder trial of George Crawford, Houston set important precedents for the rights of black attorneys to argue major cases and the importance of black participation in juries.
Although Houston did not live to see the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a project he undertook during the fall of 1934 played a major role in the landmark verdict. During this time, Houston traveled to the South and filmed black schools in order to document the inequalities under Jim Crow segregation. These films (funded by a philanthropic organization out of New York, the Harmon Foundation) went on to be used as a vital exhibit in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (four years after Houston’s death).
These films are important to our project on Julius Rosenwald for an unlikely reason. While they were meant to demonstrate the failure of school districts to maintain black schools (the intertitles point out that the roofs and windows are in need of repair) they remain as possibly the oldest moving images of Rosenwald Schools. Houston’s footage of what is believed to be the Bethel Grade School in South Carolina will be featured in the upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools, a clip from which can be viewed here:
In addition to breaking down the barriers of segregation in the legal system, Houston was a great believer in the importance of equal educational opportunity. In 1935, he claimed that “Discrimination in education is symbolic of all the more drastic discriminations which Negroes suffer in American life” (quoted in Genna Rae McNeil and A. Leon Higginbotham’s biography, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights). Like Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington before him, Houston fought for equality in education for all.
By Michael Rose