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Hastie, William Henrylocked

(17 November 1904–14 April 1976)
  • Peter Wallenstein

William Hastie.

With an unidentified woman.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-94041).

Hastie, William Henry (17 November 1904–14 April 1976), civil rights attorney, law school professor, and federal judge, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Roberta Childs, a teacher, and William Henry Hastie, a clerk in the U.S. Pension Office (now the Veterans Administration). He was a superb student and athlete. His father’s transfer to Washington, D.C., in 1916 permitted Hastie to attend the nation’s best black secondary school, the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1921. He attended Amherst College, where he majored in mathematics and graduated in 1925, valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa, and magna cum laude. After teaching for two years in Bordentown, New Jersey, he studied law at Harvard University, where one instructor adopted the custom of saying after asking a question of the class, “Mr. Hastie, give them the answer” (Ware, p. 30). He worked on the Law Review and earned an LL.B. in 1930.

Hastie returned to Washington, D.C., in 1930, passed the bar exam, and began his legal career as a practitioner and an educator. He joined the firm of Charles Hamilton Houston and Houston’s father, William L. Houston, which then became Houston, Houston, and Hastie. He also joined the law faculty at Howard University, where his first students included Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill. He took a year away to study again at Harvard, where he shared an apartment with his friend Robert C. Weaver and earned his S.J.D. in 1933. He returned to Howard, where, when he was working in Washington, he taught until 1946. At the same time he became active in civil rights. For him the two were one. His students researched current civil rights cases, participated in rehearsals of arguments on those cases, and attended the Supreme Court to watch Hastie and other civil rights giants argue cases. In 1935 he married Alma Syphax; they had no children before they divorced. In 1943 he married Beryl Lockwood; they had two children.

Hastie believed that, in the pursuit of justice, people should “struggle as best they know how to change things that seem immutable” (Ware, p. 147). In 1933, he was a founding member in Washington, D.C., of the New Negro Alliance, part of the “don’t buy where you can’t work” movement of the 1930s. He took a case in which a local court issued injunctions against African Americans picketing at chainstore outlets that, though operating in black areas, hired only white clerks. He argued the case in trial court and in federal appeals court but lost both attempts. He was unavailable to argue the case before the Supreme Court, which, convinced by the arguments Hastie and other attorneys had mounted, ruled in New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co. (1938) that the Norris-LaGuardia Act barred injunctions against peaceful labor-related picketing.

A champion of equal opportunity and racial integration, Hastie worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on major civil rights cases elsewhere, among them the 1933 Hocutt case in North Carolina, in which a black applicant unsuccessfully challenged the white-only admissions policy of the University of North Carolina. He also participated in cases that sought equalization of teachers’ salaries, including the 1939 Mills case in Maryland and the 1940 Alston case in Virginia, both of which the NAACP won. With Marshall he argued cases before the Supreme Court that secured victories against the white Democratic primary in Smith v. Allwright (1944) and against segregated interstate transportation in Morgan v. Virginia (1946). In 1945 he presided at a conference in Chicago on segregated housing that the NAACP called to plan litigation against the constitutionality of restrictive covenants.

A series of appointments with the federal government began in November 1933, when Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes recruited Hastie as assistant solicitor. In that capacity Hastie helped draft the Organic Act of 1936 for the Virgin Islands, which established a fully elective legislature and broadened the electorate to include residents regardless of their property, income, or gender. Hastie, like Weaver, was an early member of what became known as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “black cabinet.” His performance at the Interior Department led to his appointment in March 1937 to a four-year term as district judge in the Virgin Islands, the first black federal judge in U.S. history. He resigned from his judgeship in early 1939 to become dean of the Howard Law School. He took leave of the deanship in June 1940 to become civilian aide to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, in charge of handling matters of race in the military. In 1942 President Roosevelt also named Hastie a member of the Caribbean Advisory Committee, to advise the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission, established to foster the wartime social and economic cooperation of British and U.S. possessions in the Caribbean. Though Hastie’s work in the War Department earned him the title “father of the black air force” (Ware, p. 133), he resigned his position there in early 1943 in frustration over his limited effectiveness in curtailing racial segregation and discrimination in the military. For his efforts and his resignation over what he called the Army Air Force’s “reactionary policies and discriminatory practices,” he won the NAACP’s Spingarn Award in 1943.

Hastie resumed his work at Howard University, and he presided at a rally in 1944 for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee. In 1946 President Harry S. Truman nominated him for the governorship of the Virgin Islands. The only African American who had previously served as governor of any U.S. jurisdiction was P. B. S. Pinchback, who served for a month as acting governor of Louisiana after being elected to the state senate during Reconstruction. Hastie had a rough time dealing effectively with public affairs in the islands, but he tried to enhance Virgin Islanders’ self-government. He fostered a civil rights law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race or color.

In 1948 Hastie briefly returned to the mainland, where he campaigned effectively in black communities in support of President Truman’s reelection bid. In 1949 Truman appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Hastie took his seat as a recess appointment in December 1949, the first black federal judge with life tenure. Confirmed in 1950, he served as appeals judge until 1968, then as chief judge until he retired in 1971, and as senior judge thereafter. He wrote the decisions in more than 400 cases. He was considered for a Supreme Court appointment as early as 1954 and as late as 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson nominated Hastie’s former student Marshall instead.

A member of the Board of Directors of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund from 1941 to 1968, Hastie continued to give public lectures on civil rights. He also served on the Boards of Trustees of Amherst College and Temple University. Cool and suave, committed yet dignified, Hastie died in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He excelled as a law school professor and dean, as a civil rights attorney and leader, and as a pioneer black officeholder in the federal government.


The William H. Hastie Papers at the Law School Library, Harvard University, are available on microfilm. The Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville, Tenn., has a collection of Hastie’s papers, books, and memorabilia and maintains a permanent Hastie exhibit. Other materials are at Howard University and in the NAACP Papers at the Library of Congress. Hastie’s publications include “Judicial Method in Due Process Inquiry,” in Government under Law, ed. Arthur E. Sutherland (1956); “Toward an Equalitarian Legal Order, 1930–1950,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 407 (May 1973): 18–31; and “Affirmative Action in Vindicating Civil Rights,” University of Illinois Law Journal 14 (1975). The major works on Hastie are Gilbert Ware, William Hastie: Grace under Pressure (1984), which covers his childhood, his education, and his public life through his confirmation as a federal appeals judge in 1950; Jonathan J. Rusch, “William Henry Hastie and the Vindication of Civil Rights,” Howard Law Review 21 (1978): 749–820; and Phillip McGuire, He, Too, Spoke for Democracy: Judge Hastie, World War II, and the Black Soldier (1988). Memorials are in the Federal Reporter (535 F.2d 1–10 [1976]); the Crisis 83 (Oct. 1976): 267–70; and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review 125 (Nov. 1976): 1–13. Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post, 15 Apr. 1976.