In observance of Black History Month, I am devoting this space throughout the month of February to African-American pioneers who don’t always get the recognition they deserve.

When you have figures who loom as large as Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks, it’s sometimes easy to forget those who didn’t make as big a public impression. However, their work was crucial in paving the way for their more famous colleagues.

One such man was Charles Hamilton Houston.

Before the March on Washington, before the Montgomery bus boycott, and before the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kan.), Houston was fighting segregation through a series of legal cases. It could be said that his work provided the foundation upon which the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was built.

Born in 1895, Houston was the grandson of a slave who escaped to freedom and helped others escape as well. His father was a lawyer and part-time instructor at the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.

During World War I, Houston served as a judge advocate in the Army, handling cases involving African-American soldiers. The disparity in punishment meted out to white and black soldiers was glaring, and Houston vowed to spend the rest of his life “fighting for men who could not strike back.”

Houston received his law degree from Harvard in 1922, and began teaching at Howard. One of his students was Marshall, who would argue the Brown case before the Supreme Court and, in 1967, become the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

In 1935, Houston devised the NAACP’s long-term strategy of ending segregation in schools using the court system. In essence, they would work their way down, beginning at the graduate school level, then undergraduate students and finally elementary and high school. The idea was to get the public used to integration at an adult level first, then ease them into desegregation at the child level.

With Marshall now working at his side, Houston successfully argued a case involving a black man denied entry to the University of Maryland law school because of his race. A similar case involving the University of Missouri followed in 1938. With these victories in hand, Houston helped establish the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and toured the South gathering evidence for the ultimate goal: the end of public school segregation.

Houston wouldn’t live to see the decades of his hard work come to fruition. He died of heart disease in 1950, four years before the Brown ruling.

But his presence was in the courtroom nonetheless. And his work would prove to be the spark that ignited the civil rights movement.

“When Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka was being argued in the Supreme Court, there were some two dozen lawyers on the side of (the NAACP) fighting for their schools,” said Marshall. “Of those lawyers, only two had not been touched by Charlie Houston.

“That man was the engineer of all of it.”

Deputy Managing Editor Rod Harmon may be contacted at 791-6450 or at:

[email protected]