The Charles Houston Bar Association (CHBA) was founded in 1955 as the Charles Houston Law Club. The group took its name to honor the groundbreaking lawyer and educator Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston was a remarkable constitutional lawyer and the key legal strategist in the early battles against racial discrimination in education, labor, and housing. He fervently believed that African-American lawyers should be “social engineers” who use the law to promote fundamental social change. Both his career and his life were devoted to this precept.
Law Club Beginnings
Between 1910 and 1940, there existed but a handful of black lawyers practicing in the Bay Area of Northern California. This small group included Lawrence Sledge, McCants Stewart, John Drake, Edward Mabson, Leland Hawkins, and Annie Virginia Stephens Coker (California’s first African American woman lawyer), among others. For the most part, neither law firms nor the government would hire them. So these lawyers set up their own private practices. Some, like attorney Tabytha Anderson, worked out of their homes. Others, like Frank Larche and John C. Henderson, managed a caseload around full time non-legal jobs. A few attorneys, like Oscar Hudson in San Francisco and H. Leonard Richardson in Oakland, for example, built up successful practices and acquired prominence in the community. When Charles Hamilton Houston would visit the Bay Area during national tours of the NAACP branches, he would stay at the Derby Street home of attorney H. Leonard Richardson in Berkeley, or with Walter A. Gordon, another prominent African American lawyer who, in 1958, was later appointed Judge of the Federal District Court of the Virgin Islands.
These early African American attorneys faced overt racism on all fronts. The legal community itself was unwilling to embrace its black practitioners. The American Bar Association refused to accept African Americans until 1943. Local Northern California bar associations would admit Blacks, but the role they would be permitted to play was perceived as restricted. In some Bay Area courts, these black lawyers faced intense hostility from the bench. Outside of the courtroom, they contended with a few competitive white attorneys who bad-mouthed them to potential clients, circulating false rumors and scaring away business. Even without the spread of these rumors, people generally seemed to prejudge black lawyers as less competent than their white counterparts. These attitudes towards the black lawyer made the task of developing a successful practice difficult.
Despite these obstacles, the number of black attorneys in Northern California grew. Unwelcomed by many of the communities they sought to serve, they turned to each other for support. During these times, when a recent black law school graduate passed the bar exam, he would often be extended the opportunity to start his legal career in the office of a more experienced black practitioner. For decades, black lawyers used this intimate system of employment and training to cultivate new talent in the profession.
In 1955, the African-American lawyers in Northern California were summoned together to formalize their bond as black practitioners. A law club, the likes of which had never been seen before in Northern California, was formed. At first, these founding members met monthly at each others’ offices after work. There, they discussed ways to promote their practices and counter the racial bias that affected them personally and professionally. They also used this time to share knowledge and experience with one another. They exchanged ideas and strategies for handling individual cases, served as each others’ mentors, and strengthened friendships.
The original Law Club members, our founders, consisted of thirty-two lawyers. They were: John D. Drake, Lawrence Sledge, George R. Vaughns, George D. Carroll, Carl B. Metoyer, Terry A. Francois, Clinton W. White, Lionel Wilson, Claude O. Allen, Thomas L. Berkley, Charles E. Wilson, Sherman W. Smith, Richard Bancroft, Franklin Williams, Wiley W. Manuel, Raymond J. Reynolds, Francis S. Heffron, Murvill C. Abels, Edward D. Mabson, H. Leroy Cannon, Joseph G. Kennedy, John Adams Jr., John W. Bussey, Hiawatha T. Roberts, William C. Dixon, Cecil Poole, Maurcie Hardeman, Armeka T. Jackson, Solomon Johnson, Garfield Steward, Wilmont Sweeney, and Charles Blagburn. John C. Henderson, one of the pioneer black lawyers of the Bay Area who had practiced in Oakland since 1934, passed away in May of 1952 but was included on the original Law Club roster in memoriam.
These ambitious men would go on in their professional careers to become judges, mayors, ambassadors, city supervisors, and successful businessmen. Almost all of them were active in the NAACP and helped support its litigation efforts. At least eight of them led NAACP branches as officers, including six presidents of Bay Area NAACP offices. Franklin Williams worked directly with Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund on important equal protection cases and would later be appointed United States Ambassador to Ghana. Ten of these founders would become judges, one of whom — Wiley W. Manuel — broke ground as the first African American Justice to sit on the California Supreme Court. Two others, John W. Bussey and Lionel Wilson, became the first African American judges on the San Francisco and Alameda County benches, respectively. Judge Bussey was also personally responsible for training a large bevy of lawyers, white and black, to pass the tough California bar exam.
It was founder Richard Bancroft, a graduate of Howard Law school, who proposed that the Law Club take the name of Charles Hamilton Houston, the celebrated American civil rights lawyer, teacher, and activist who strategized the legal plan that would one day topple America’s “separate but equal” doctrine of legalized discrimination. The membership agreed. Charles Houston exemplified the type of lawyers they aspired to be.
Over the next twenty years, between 1955 and 1975, the Charles Houston Law Club continued to grow. Annual events like the Christmas party and summer barbecue ripened into tradition. From this solid foundation, professional careers flourished.
Growth into a Bar Association
Benjamin Travis graduated as the only African American in his law school class in 1960 and promptly began working with Hiawatha T. Roberts, a member of the Charles Houston Law Club. At Robert’s invitation, Travis joined the club in 1961 and profited from the social and professional support. In 1973, he became the group’s president and embarked on a mission to transform the local law club into a nationally recognized bar association. Travis, aided by another prolific young attorney named Robert L. Harris, coordinated a reorganization of the group into a community-conscious political force that extended its collective voice to advocate against racial injustice wherever it arose — locally, statewide, and nationally. Under their leadership, the lawyers’ group gained official recognition as a specialty bar association under the State Bar of California in 1975 and became an affiliate of the National Bar Association. The Charles Houston Bar Association, or “CHBA” as it has come to be known, was incorporated in 1976.
Joined by colleagues from the association including George Holland, Alfred Reginald Brown, Henry Ramsey, Horace Wheatley, Gordon Baranco, Ruth Herch, Thomas Broome, Annette Green, Ruth Blackwell, Geoffrey Carter, Dale Rubin, Donald P. McCullum, and too many others to list here, Travis and Harris created the blueprint for the organization as it stands today. CHBA would soon become instrumental in breaking down barriers and opening doors of professional opportunity. Leading by example, Benjamin Travis accepted judicial appointment to the Alameda County bench. Robert L. Harris, after serving as CHBA President, went on to become the first National Bar Association President from west of the Mississippi River and the youngest president in that organization’s history.
Since 1976, CHBA has remained proactive in its efforts to increase diversity in the legal profession, to advance African American access to the courts, to bring services to under-served Bay Area communities, and to counsel youth. To that end, each year, CHBA’s Legal Affairs and Community Action Committees conduct neighborhood outreach and administer programs to benefit the community. The Young Lawyers Committee reaches out to support law school students and the many Black Law Students Association chapters of Northern Californian law schools. CHBA’s annual College Awareness Advisory Program focuses on high school students to discuss preparing for college.
CHBA members have been innovative in organizing groups and programs that benefit many people. In April of 1977, members co-founded, along with jurists from Southern California, the California Association of Black Lawyers (CABL), the first and only statewide alliance of predominantly African American bar associations. In 1982, our members helped create the Wiley W. Manual Law Foundation, a charitable organization providing scholarships to Bay Area students and administering an annual mock trial competition for students.
CHBA has also been involved in litigation aimed at protecting the legal rights of the African American community. In 1976, CHBA successfully sued the County of Alameda over perceived unfairness in the assignment of criminal defense cases involving indigent defendants.
In 1978, CHBA members defended, pro bono, the NAACP after police officers sued the association for libel and slander. In that case, CHBA’s motion for summary judgment was granted on the ground that the NAACP’s criticism of the police department was protected by the First Amendment. Lead counsel, Robert L. Harris, received the NAACP’s prestigious William Robert Ming Award for his successful advocacy.
In the early 1980s, CHBA and CABL sponsored anti-ku klux klan legislation, now codified at California Penal Code of Civil Procedure section 527.7 [allowing an injunction to be obtained against a group which is meeting and taking substantial action in furtherance of the commission of acts of violence if it can be shown that the group will probably engage in those acts].
In 1983, the association joined with other community groups to submit an amicus curiae brief to the United States Supreme Court on behalf of African-American firefighters in Memphis, Tennessee, who had been threatened by impending layoffs under an unfair seniority system. That same year, CHBA successfully petitioned the California State Supreme Court to review a Court of Appeals decision that held that the Unruh Civil Rights Act did not apply to charitable and volunteer organizations.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, CHBA supported affirmative action in state and federal cases. This fight continues today. In 1995, CHBA joined forces with numerous community groups to oppose Proposition 209. In February 2003, CHBA again spoke out to advocate for diversity in education when it joined an amicus brief, authored in part by member Eva Paterson, supporting the University of Michigan in the United States Supreme Court cases of Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, lawsuits attacking the school’s student admission policies.
The success of the Charles Houston Bar is due to the leadership of the association’s past presidents and the hundreds of board members and committee chairpersons who, over the years, have volunteered much of their precious time and energy to realize the organization’s benevolent goals. The association is equally indebted to the many Bay Area law firms and corporations who support CHBA’s endeavors. It is this wealth of talent and dedication of spirit that enables CHBA to continue its mission. Our work has not gone unnoticed. The organization’s efforts have earned recognition from the National Bar Association as one of its Most Outstanding Affiliates in 1977, 1986, 2002 and in 2004.
In 2005, CHBA celebrated its 50th Anniversary. April 22nd of that year, the anniversary of Charles Hamilton Houston’s death, was declared “Charles Houston Bar Association Day” by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in honor of the association’s significance to the community.
“The most hopeful sign about our legal defense is the ever-increasing number of young Negro lawyers, competent, conscientious, and courageous, who are anxious to pit themselves (without fee) against the forces of reaction and injustice. . . The time is soon coming when the Negro will be able to rely on his own lawyers to give him every legal protection in every court.” – Charles Hamilton Houston
*History researched and written by Chad Smiley