Hocutt v. Wilson, N.C. Super. Ct. (1933) (unreported), was the first attempt to desegregate higher education in the United States.[1] It was initiated by two African American lawyers from Durham, North Carolina, Conrad O. Pearson and Cecil McCoy, with the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).[2] The case was ultimately dismissed for lack of standing, but it served as a test case for challenging the "separate but equal" doctrine in education and was a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (holding that segregated public schools were unconstitutional).[3]


Students at the North Carolina College for Negroes, which is now North Carolina Central University in Durham, were plaintiffs in desegregation suits against the all-white University of North Carolina system.[4]: 21  North Carolina was an ideal place for civil rights work because Durham had a generally non-violent racial status quo, the state was slightly more progressive than other Deep South states, and it was close to Washington D.C., where Charles Hamilton Houston taught the most prominent civil rights lawyers.[4]: 31 

The plaintiff was Thomas Hocutt, a 24-year-old student at the North Carolina College for Negroes and graduate of Hillside High School. Hocutt wanted to become a pharmacist, having worked for many years at a local drugstore,[5]: 2  and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had the only pharmacy program in the area.[6]: 1, 34  In March 1933, he sought admission to the program.[4]: 30 [7] Attorneys Conrad Odell Pearson and Cecil McCoy and journalist Louis Austin had been seeking out potential litigants to test racial segregation in higher education. Hocutt agreed to be the plaintiff, a decision historian Jerry Gershenhorn describes as courageous, due to the potential for white backlash.[6]: 1, 34  Six years later, as Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP were looking for just such a plaintiff in Virginia, they were "unable to get a qualified applicant with courage to apply".[6]: 34 

Conrad Odell Pearson and Cecil McCoy brought the case in February 1933.[5]

Pearson graduated from Howard University's law school under Charles Hamilton Houston and began practicing in Durham in 1932. McCoy graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1931 and also practiced in Durham.[4]: 30  Initially, Pearson and McCoy wrote to NAACP General Secretary Walter Francis White for financial support. White ratified the case and sent a copy of the Margold Report[8] on discrimination in public schools to support the attorneys.[4]: 30  The NAACP also sent Harvard-educated William Hastie to assist Pearson and McCoy on the case.[4]: 32  At the trial, Hastie became the lead lawyer.

The suit did not have the support of many black leaders in Durham. But it was supported by Louis Austin, the editor of the major black-owned newspaper, The Carolina Times. The white-owned newspaper, Durham Morning Herald warned, "[t]o our way of thinking, [Pearson and McCoy] will find in the end that they have won not a victory but a costly defeat."[9] Additionally, James E. Shepard, president and founder of North Carolina College for Negroes did not support the lawsuit, because he wanted the state to fund graduate programs for black students at his university. Shepard refused to release Hocutt's transcript.[1]

When Hastie, Pearson and McCoy failed to present an official transcript, Hocutt no longer satisfied the admission requirements for the Pharmacy School and the case was dismissed.[4]: 33  Despite defeat, the Hocutt case laid the groundwork for subsequent civil rights cases that challenged racial segregation in public education, leading to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which ruled that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional.[6]


  1. ^ a b "Brown v. Board at Fifty: "With an Even Hand": A Century of Racial Segregation, 1849–1950". Library of Congress.
  2. ^ The Center For Urban Affairs, North Carolina State University, Paths Toward Freedom: A Bibliographical History of Blacks and Indians in North Carolina by Blacks and Indians 172 (1976).
  3. ^ "Durham Civil Rights Leader and Lawyer, Pearson, Dies". Durham Morning Herald. June 27, 1984. p. 1A – via Newspapers.com. Article continues on page 2A.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Samuel R. Diamont, Local Civil Rights Litigators: Durham's African American Attorneys 1933-1954,(2008) (published Ph.D. dissertation, North Carolina Central University) (on file with North Carolina Central University Archives Department).
  5. ^ a b University of North Carolina, Documenting the American South, Oral History Interview with Conrad Odell Pearson, April 18, 1979. Interview H-0218. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/H-0218/menu.html.
  6. ^ a b c d Gershenhorn, Jerry (2018). Louis Austin and The Carolina Times: A Life in the Long Black Freedom Struggle. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-4696-3876-8.: 1 
  7. ^ Jerry Gershenhorn (July 2001). Hocutt v. Wilson and Race Relations in Durham, North Carolina, during the 1930s. State Archives of North Carolina. JSTOR 23522330.
  8. ^ Nathan R. Margold, Preliminary Report to the Joint Committee Supervising the Expenditure of the 1930 Appropriation by the American Fund for Public Service (1931).
  9. ^ Leslie Brown, Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South 310 (2008) quoting Editorial, Durham Morning Herald, Feb. 1933, at 21, 24.