Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Nora Faires


Undoing Plessy: Charles Hamilton Houston, Race, Labor, and the Law, 1895--1950, explores the manner in which African Americans countered racialized impediments during the first half of the twentieth century by attacking their legal underpinnings. Specifically, this work explores the professional life of Charles Hamilton Houston, and the degree to which it informs our understanding of change in the pre-Brown era. There were a wide range of forces at work, from individuals, organizations, and institutions, to government in its various forms (local, state, and federal), complicating any strategy to reformulate the parameters of equality. Using both labor and education law as the focus of this study, I examine the complicating issues of race, the state, and the workplace to demonstrate the interplay of forces which together constituted the structure Charles Houston and others sought to dismantle. Houston's life was replete with examples to illustrate the gains that could be made by an African American who sought to exercise his own agency, and contest the imposed boundaries that limited potential. /// The dissertation is divided into three parts, Establishing Plessy, Confronting Plessy, and Undoing Plessy, providing the legal and historical context to Houston's life. I argue that major inroads into the dismantling of Plessy were made after the incorporation doctrine was implemented through the Supreme Court's 1925 decision in Gitlow v. New York. The Gitlow decision rejuvenated the 14th Amendment's original intent, rescuing it from the reactionary and corporatist interpretations that relegated African Americans and labor to the predations of individual, local, state, and federal caprice. Early in his career with Gitlow providing the nexus of race, labor, and the state, Houston developed a three-pronged approach, taking advantage of the courts, the workplace, and politics, as a strategy to broaden the attack. By rejecting the purely legalistic approach regularly attributed to Houston, I assert that Houston's successes were linked to his understanding of the nature of race, labor, and the law in America.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access