Unknown heroes: Charles Hamilton Houston and Lloyd Gaines

Lloyd Gaines had been denied entrance to the law school at the University of Missouri because he was black.

Charles Houston
Charles Houston


Born in Washington, D.C., Charles Hamilton Houston (1895–1950) prepared for college at Dunbar High School in Washington, then matriculated to Amherst College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1915.

From 1915 to 1917, Houston taught English at Howard University. From 1917 to 1919, he was a First Lieutenant in the United States Infantry, based in Fort Meade, Maryland. Houston later wrote:

“The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”

In the fall of 1919, he entered Harvard Law School, earning his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1922 and his Doctor of Laws degree in 1923. In 1922, he became the first African-American to serve as an editor of the Harvard Law Review.

The Lloyd L. Gaines Collection

Lloyd Lionel Gaines was born to the Gaines family in northern Mississippi in 1911. One of eleven children, seven of whom survived illness and accident, he moved with his widowed mother and siblings to St. Louis after the premature death of their father. They found a better, although not easy, life for themselves in Missouri. Gaines excelled in his studies graduating as valedictorian in 1931 from Vashon High School. At Lincoln University in Jefferson City, he graduated with honors and was President of the senior class, while participating in many extra-curricular activities and working to pay for his schooling.

Charles Hamilton Houston Wikipedia article

Through his work at the NAACP, Houston played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court starting in 1930… Houston’s plan to attack and defeat Jim Crow segregation by demonstrating the inequality in the “separate but equal” doctrine from the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision as it pertained to public education in the United States was the masterstroke that brought about the landmark 1954 Brown decision [argued before the Supreme Court by Houston disciple Thurgood Marshall].

In the documentary “The Road to Brown”, Hon. Juanita Kidd Stout described Houston’s strategy, “When he attacked the “separate but equal” theory his real thought behind it was that “All right, if you want it separate but equal, I will make it so expensive for it to be separate that you will have to abandon your separateness.” And so that was the reason he started demanding equalization of salaries for teachers, equal facilities in the schools and all of that.”

Lloyd Gaines
Lloyd Gaines

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

Lloyd Gaines… had been denied entrance to the law school at the University of Missouri because he was black. Instead, Missouri offered to pay his expenses for law school outside the state.

Charles Hamilton Houston, one of the few African Americans to graduate from Harvard Law School, argued that Missouri was obligated to either build a law school for blacks equal to that of whites or admit him to the University of Missouri. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in Gaines v. Canada (1938). The Gaines decision breached the walls of segregation.

A Supreme Triumph, Then Into the Shadows

Lloyd Gaines was moody that winter of 1939, acting not at all like a man who had just triumphed in one of the biggest Supreme Court cases in decades… he left his apartment house on March 19, 1939, never to be seen again. Had he not vanished at 28, Lloyd Gaines might be in the pantheon of civil rights history with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and other giants.

Lloyd Gaines Wikipedia article

In 2006, Gaines was granted an honorary law degree by the University of Missouri and the Supreme Court of Missouri named him an honorary member of the Missouri Bar.
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