Houston Playground

Houston Playground

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Born in Washington DC, Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) dedicated his life to ending segregation. After receiving degrees from Amherst College, Harvard Law School, and the University of Madrid, Houston opened a private law practice with his father. During his life, Houston held positions with Howard University, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the International Association of Railway Employees, and the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen and Locomotive Firemen.

Houston graduated valedictorian from Amherst College at age 19, and taught English for two years at Howard University before enlisting in the United States Army, then still in the grips of segregation. Commissioned first lieutenant in 1917 in an African American infantry training group, Houston soon received an assignment as second lieutenant in a field artillery unit of the American Expeditionary Force. He served for two years in France and Germany during World War I.

After his discharge in 1919, Houston returned home and enrolled in Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, he served as the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review. Houston received his law degree in 1922, graduating in the top five percent of his class. He stayed at Harvard for one more year, however, and earned his first Doctorate. Houston then traveled to Madrid, Spain where he studied for one year as a Sheldon Fellow at the University of Madrid, earning a Doctorate in civil law. Upon returning home in 1924, Houston was admitted to the Bar in Washington D.C.

Houston opened a private practice with his father, working there his entire career. In addition to his practice, Houston accepted a position on the faculty of Howard University in 1924 and was promoted to associate professor and Vice-Dean of Howard University School of Law in 1929. He overhauled the Law program at the University, transforming it into a full-time program and thus earning it accreditation by the Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Association. During his tenure at Howard University, Houston mentored illustrious figures such as Thurgood Marshall, William Bryant, and Oliver Hill.

In addition to his position at the University, Houston sat on the Washington Board of Education, the National Bar Association, the National Lawyers Guild, and the American Council on Race Relations. Between the years of 1935 and 1940, Houston served as full-time special counsel to the NAACP, the first in the history of the Association. He argued for legislation that targeted the issue of educational equality in an attempt to end segregation. His successful cases, all dealing with the admittance of qualified African American students to university programs, include Maryland v. Murray, Hurd v. Hodge and Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada which he argued before the Supreme Court. These victories set legal precedents leading to further NAACP triumphs, such as Shelby v. Kramer and Bolling v. Sharpe, the companion case to Brown v. Board of Education. Houston also argued the cases Hollins v. Oklahoma and Hale v. Kentucky that overturned death penalty decisions where no African Americans sat on the jury.

In the last years of his career, Charles Hamilton Houston served as the general counsel to the International Association of Railway Employees, and the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen and Locomotive Firemen. While serving the latter, he won two Supreme Court cases regarding racial discrimination in hiring practices. Houston died on April 22, 1950 of a heart attack and was buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Five justices of the Supreme Court attended his funeral. After his death, Houston received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal and in 1958, the Howard University School of Law building was named after him.

This property, bounded by Sackman and Powell Streets, Liberty and Glenmore Avenues, was acquired by the City of New York in 1965 in conjunction with the construction of the adjacent P.S. 332. Parks and the Department of Education have jointly operated this playground under agreement since 1966. Originally known as P.S. 332 Playground, Parks renamed the property in 1985 in memory of Houston.

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