William Henry Hastie, Jr. (November 17, 1904 – April 14, 1976) was an American, lawyer, judge, educator, public official, and advocate for the civil rights of African Americans. He was the first African American to serve as Governor of the United States Virgin Islands, as a federal judge, and as a federal appellate judge.
Hastie was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of William Henry Hastie, Sr. and Roberta Childs. His maternal ancestors were African-American and Native American. Family tradition held that one female ancestor was a Malagasy princess. He graduated from Dunbar High School, a top academic school for black students. Hastie attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he graduated first in his class, magna cum laude, and Phi Beta Kappa. He received a LL.B. from Harvard Law School in 1930, followed by a S.J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1933.
He was in private practice of law in Washington, DC from 1930 to 1933. From 1933 to 1937 he served as assistant solicitor for the Department of the Interior, advising the agency on racial issues. He had worked with Charles Hamilton Houston, former dean of the Howard University Law School, on setting up a joint law practice.
In 1937, President Roosevelt appointed Hastie to the United States District Court for the Virgin Islands, making Hastie the first African-American Federal judge. This was a controversial action; Democratic Senator William H. King of Utah, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee called Hastie’s appointment a “blunder.”
Hastie served as a judge for two years. In 1939, he resigned from the court to become the Dean of the Howard University School of Law, where he had previously taught. During his tenure as a legal professor at Howard University, Hastie had become a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity. One of his students was Thurgood Marshall, who led the Legal Defense Fund for the NAACP and was appointed as a US Supreme Court Justice.
Hastie served as a co-lead lawyer with Thurgood Marshall in the voting rights case of Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944), in which the Supreme Court ruled against white primaries. One of Houston’s sons became a name partner at their law firm.
Photo: The Knoxville Mercury0