Our History

The U.S. Congress chartered Howard University, a coeducational private institution in Washington, D.C., in 1867. Howard is a historically black institution that offers an educational experience of exceptional quality to students with high academic potential. Particular emphasis is placed on providing educational opportunities for promising African Americans and other minority students. The university has a diverse student body and faculty. The main campus of Howard University is located in northwest Washington, with the law school on a separate campus approximately fifteen minutes away.

Howard University School of Law opened its doors in 1869 during a time of dramatic change in the United States. There was a great need to train lawyers who would have a strong commitment to helping black Americans secure and protect their newly established rights. In those days, the law school did not have classrooms, at least not the way we know them today. The students (there were six in the first class) met at night in the homes and offices of the faculty, all of whom were part-time. In time, the law school grew, as did the student body and faculty. The school grew not only in size, but also in the depth of its curriculum and in the outreach of its programs. In the 20th century, it became not only a school, but also the embodiment of legal activism. It emerged as a “clinic” on justice and injustice in America, as well as a clearinghouse for information on the civil rights struggle. Our law school and its alumni have fulfilled their mission as agents for social change continuously for more than 146 years.

Howard University School of Law started as Howard University Law Department on January 6, 1869 under the leadership of Professor John Mercer Langston. In 1870, Langston was appointed dean. The department opened with six students, and increased to twenty-two by the close of the session on June 30, 1869.

Initially, two years were required for the LL.B. degree. Ten of the two year students graduated on February 3, 1871 - eight of whom were admitted to practice in the District of Columbia on the following day. The school officially extended its requirements for graduation from two years to three years in 1877-1878. The new three year program began in 1900.

During this fledgling period, classes were held three nights a week in the homes and offices of the four instructors. Arrangements were later made for the department to use a room in the Second National Bank at 509 Seventh Street, N.W. Classes were later held in the Lincoln Hall building on Ninth and D Street, N.W., until December 5, 1886, when the building was destroyed by fire. Classes then moved to a room located at Seventh and E Street, N.W. On June 23, 1887, the University purchased a house at 420 Fifth Street, N.W., which served as the site of the law school until it was moved to the main campus in 1936. In 1974, the school purchased the Dunbarton College at 2900 Van Ness Street, N.W., its current location.

In 1931, the School of Law was accredited by the American Bar Association, (ABA), and in the same year the school was granted membership in the Association of American Law Schools, (AALS). Today, Howard School of Law confers an average of 185 Jurist Doctorate and Master of Law degrees annually to students from the United States and countries in South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. It has a faculty of approximately 50 full-time and adjunct professors. From its humble beginnings, the school has grown in size, structure and stature under the leadership of its deans. Among the more nationally noted are Charles Hamilton Houston, 1930-1935; William Henry Hastie, 1939-1946; James M. Nabrit, 1958-1960; Spotswood Robinson III, 1960-1963; and Wiley A. Branton, Sr., 1978-1983.

In 1872, the law school graduated the first black woman lawyer, Charlotte E. Ray. She is also recognized as the first woman to be admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. James C. Napier, another 1872 graduate, was the Registrar of the United States Treasury, 1911-1913, and a member of Howard’s Board of Trustees, 1911-1940. Other graduates who have received merited recognition and distinctions include Thurgood Marshall, the first black United States Supreme Court Justice (LL.B. 1933); Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. former president of the National Urban League, (LL.B. 1960); Damon Keith, Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, (LL.B. 1949); William Bryant, Judge, United States District Court for the District of Columbia, (LL.B 1936); Spotswood W. Robinson III, Chief Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, (LL.B. 1939); Douglas Wilder, former Governor of the State of Virginia; and Sharon Pratt Kelly, former Mayor of the District of Columbia. (Pictures of alumni are on display throughout Houston Hall-see 2nd Floor for earliest photographs).

The School of Law was created to provide legal education for Americans traditionally excluded from the profession; especially African Americans. The objective of the School of Law is to produce superior professionals, capable of achieving positions of leadership in law, business, government, education, and public service. Most importantly, Howard School of Law is dedicated to producing “social engineers.” As stated by Charles Hamilton Houston, “A lawyer’s either a social engineer or … a parasite on society … A social engineer [is] a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who [understands] the Constitution of the United States and [knows] how to explore its uses in the solving of problems of local communities and in bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens.”

Howard University School of Law is fully approved by the Council of the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

American Bar Association
Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
321 North Clark Street, 21st Floor
Chicago, Illinois 60654
Phone: (312) 988-6738

The School of Law is also a member of the Association of American Law Schools.

Association of American Law Schools
1614 20th Street, N.W.
Washington D.C. 20009-1001
Phone: (202)296.8851