William Henry Hastie Jr.
1904 - 1976
William Henry Hastie Jr. was a scholar in every sense of the word. His passion for learning was evident in his youth. Hastie graduated from Dunbar high school in Washington D.C. as valedictorian. Hastie’s high school efforts earned him admission to Amherst College in Massachusetts. Hastie majored in mathematics during his undergraduate studies. Hastie’s excellence in the classroom was unwavering.
He graduated with Phi Beta Kappa distinction, Magna Cum Laude honors, and once again at the top as valedictorian. Hastie stayed in academia upon graduation and taught for a couple years before attending Harvard’s esteemed law school.
After graduating from Harvard Law and passing the bar, Hastie went into private practice with the dean of Howard Law School Charles Hamilton Houston. Despite earning partner with this high-powered firm, Hastie continued his academic pursuits and earned his doctorate in judicial services from Harvard Law.
Houston leveraged the success of his professional partnership with Hastie into a means of convincing Hastie to join him on the teaching faculty at Howard Law School. Hastie can be credited with inspiring future U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall who was one of Hastie’s first students at Howard.
Hastie’s work preparing the appellants case in New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co. made him a popular figure in the Civil Rights movement and drew the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt. The Court ultimately ruled in favor of New Negro Alliance, determining laborers had a constitutionally protected right to peacefully picket for labor rights.
President Roosevelt rewarded Hastie’s lifetime of academic excellence and advocacy during the Negro Alliance court battle against Sanitary Grocery, with an appointment in Roosevelt’s cabinet as Assistant Solicitor. As assistant solicitor, Hastie advised Roosevelt and the federal government on racial matters.
This appointment led to Roosevelt requesting Hastie draft legislation aimed at expanding the rights of U.S. Virgin Island residents. The legislation Hastie drafted was the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands of the United States of 1936. This law created a functional legislature with elected officials that were voted on by residents. For Virgin Island residents, voting eligibility would not be dependent on property, income, or gender.
Roosevelt, thoroughly impressed with Hastie’s work, appointed Hastie District Judge in the Virgin Islands. This appointment made Hastie the first Black federal judge in U.S. history. After a short stint running the Howard Law School, Hastie returned to government, to serve as a civilian aide to Roosevelt’s Secretary of War. In this capacity, Hastie lobbied to eliminate segregation in the U.S. armed forces.
When nothing came of Hastie’s advice, he resigned in protest due to increasing inequities in the armed forces. For the courage he displayed in resigning his post with the War department, and lifelong pursuit of justice, the NAACP awarded William Henry Hastie Jr. the Spingarn Medal.