William Henry Hastie

Ruth Patrick
Irving W. Shandler

Judge Hastie was a man of many accomplishments: first black federal judge, first black governor of the Virgin Islands, member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “black cabinet,” and civil rights pioneer. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Hastie moved with his family to Washington, DC when his father accepted a position as a clerk in the U.S. Pension Bureau. He attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, considered one of the best black schools in the country. His parents were both college-educated and ambitious for their son.

A fter graduating with a degree in mathematics from Amherst College in 1925 (Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude), Hastie taught at the Bordentown Manual School in Bordentown, New Jersey before going on to Harvard University to receive a law degree in 1930. At the time of his graduation, less than one percent of all U.S. lawyers were African American. Hastie moved to Washington DC and joined the black law firm of Houston and Houston (later Houston, Houston, and Hastie). He returned to Harvard, receiving a doctorate of juridical science in 1933.

Hastie was a champion for civil rights during a period when segregation and racial discrimination often went unchallenged. During the early 1930s he argued his first civil rights case, when he represented Thomas Hocutt, an African American who unsuccessfully challenged the whites only policy of the University of North Carolina. Hastie began his federal career as a solicitor for the Department of the Interior in 1933. While at Interior, he penned the Organic Act of 1936, which facilitated the U.S. Virgin Islands transition from Danish colonial law and granted the predominantly black islanders basic American rights, including ending income and property requirements for voting, and extending suffrage to women.

Upon the recommendation of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Roosevelt nominated Hastie to the U.S. District Court in the Virgin Islands. After a contentious Senate confirmation hearing, where Southern senators argued that appointment of a black judge would be unacceptable to the people of the Virgin Islands, he was confirmed in 1937. He served at that post until 1939 when he left to become dean of Howard University’s law school.

Roosevelt tapped Hastie again in 1940, for a position at the War Department. He served there till 1943 when he resigned due to the armed forces lack of a commitment to integration. Hastie then wrote several articles condemning segregation in the military. Harold Ickes again recommended Hastie in 1946, this time as governor of the Virgin Islands. After what Hastie described as a “rather vigorous fight,” he was confirmed by the Senate. He served in that capacity until President Truman nominated him for the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 1949 (covering Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and the Virgin Islands), eventually becoming chief judge. He sat on the bench to June 2, 1971, retiring to Philadelphia--but continuing to serve as a senior judge. He served as a trustee of Temple University.

William Hastie maintained a long standing relationship with the NAACP, as legal counsel in its battles to ensure salary parity between black and white teachers and to end racial segregation in public education and public transportation. Hastie was one of the architects of the legal arguments that culminated in the landmark Brown versus Board of Education decision. President Lyndon Baines Johnson seriously considered Hastie for the supreme court, but decided instead on Thurgood Marshall, who Hastie had mentored when Marshall was a law student at Howard University; the two men had also worked together on civil rights cases. Hastie received the Philadelphia Award of 1974 for his contributions to civil rights.

Lee Arnold

Sources: Obituary, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1976; Mario A. Charles, “William Henry Hastie (1904-1976),” Notable Black American Men (Detroit, 1999); Peter Wallenstein, “William Henry Hastie,” African American National Biography (Oxford, 2008); Who was Who in America, vol. 7 (Chicago, 1981); Denise Dennis, “William H. Hastie,” Century of Greatness: The Urban League of Philadelphia (Phila., 2002); John Dubois, “Judge Hastie Receives Phila. Award,” Evening Bulletin, Apr. 8, 1975; “Retired Judge Wins the Phila. Award,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 8, 1975; Francis M. Lordan, “Hastie Wins Phila. Award,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 26, 1975. The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records, Series 2 (Recipients & Nominees, 1965-1999), Box 7, folder 15: program, clippings; Series 3 (Award Ceremonies, 1922-2004), Box 17, folder 11: clipping. Photo: Image courtesy Enid M. Baa Public Library & Archives, Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Comment: During the 1970s Hastie was critical of black separatism, which he argued would “only lead to greater bitterness and frustration and to an even more inferior status than black Americans now experience.” For him the goal was always full integration into American society, while retaining one’s values in the process.