William H. Hastie: Ground Breaking African-American Lawyer and Judge


We celebrate Black History Month throughout February by recognizing some of America’s overlooked Black historical heroes. This week, we remember William Henry Hastie, one of the twentieth century’s leading African–American civil rights activists, attorneys, and jurists and a distinguished educator and public servant.  

Hastie was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1904. In 1916 his family moved to Washington, D.C., where many of his greatest accomplishments would occur. After undergraduate studies at Amherst College, Hastie enrolled at Harvard Law School. There he served on the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review—becoming only the second African-American to do so—before he earned a bachelor of laws degree and later his J.D.

In 1933 Hastie founded the New Negro Alliance, which organized pickets and boycotts of white businesses to force increased hiring of African-Americans. During this time he also worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to devise legal strategies to fight racism in employment, housing, and education.

Soon thereafter Hastie was recruited to work for the Department of the Interior, where he fought against segregated dining facilities in the Department and helped draft the Organic Act of 1936, which restructured the government of the Virgin Islands and gave that territory greater autonomy. As a result of this work, he was appointed to the Federal District Court of the Virgin Islands in 1937, becoming the first African-American to be named a federal judge.

In 1940, with Germany rampaging through Europe, Hastie was hired as a civilian aide to the Secretary of War and charged with rooting out racial discrimination in the military. Hastie quickly identified and attacked discrimination against African-Americans such as unequal promotion, segregation in unequal training facilities, and violent assaults by police officers and civilians, but unsatisfied with the governmental response to his proposals to eliminate discrimination, he resigned in protest in 1943. However, Hastie’s efforts would not be for naught; his reports on racism in the military attracted national notice, and in 1944 the Army high command ordered that African–American officers be trained alongside white officers.

Following his work in the military, Hastie continued to practice law and plead civil rights cases for the NAACP. With the help of Thurgood Marshall, Hastie won several key civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. This included Smith v. Allwright (1944), where Hastie and Marshall persuaded the Court that the practice of holding all-white party primaries was unconstitutional, setting a vital precedent for later Supreme Court civil rights decisions, and Morgan v. Virginia (1946), in which the Court struck down a Virginia law requiring racial segregation on buses.

From 1946 to 1949, Hastie served as governor of the Virgin Islands, the first African-American to do so. In 1949 Hastie, he achieved another historic first by becoming the first African-American to sit on a federal appellate court after President Truman named him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. There, in 1968, Hastie was named Chief Justice. After retiring from the court in 1971, Hastie devoted himself to public interest law, including programs to provide legal aid for consumers, environmentalists, and minorities. A true patriot and American hero, he died, fittingly, in 1976 in Philadelphia.