Texas Originals

William J. Durham

1896–December 22, 1970

William J. Durham was born to a family of sharecroppers near Sulphur Springs in 1896. When his father took young Willie to see a trial at the local courthouse, an attorney so impressed the boy that he decided he would someday be a lawyer. He ultimately became Texas’s leading civil rights attorney for more than three decades.

After serving in World War I, Durham got married and moved to Sherman, where he established his legal practice. In 1930, a lynch mob burned the courthouse and the Black business district, including Durham’s office, but Durham confronted the mob and saved his house.

Durham moved to Dallas in 1943, where his lucrative corporate practice enabled him to take on pro bono civil rights cases. As the resident counsel for the Texas NAACP, he filed scores of lawsuits to secure voting rights, the equalization of teachers’ salaries, and the desegregation of schools, swimming pools, railroads, and golf courses.

Durham worked on a number of cases with Thurgood Marshall, who relied on Durham’s thorough knowledge of Texas procedure. One of their landmark Supreme Court victories, Smith v. Allwright, outlawed the exclusion of African Americans from primary elections, while another, Sweatt v. Painter, desegregated The University of Texas Law School.

Durham fought tirelessly for equal rights throughout his career and served as a mentor to younger Black lawyers until his death in 1970.

For More about William J. Durham

In 2013, the Texas State Historical Association published the Handbook of African American Texas, an online encyclopedia that features more than 850 entries on African Americans in Texas, highlighting the significant contributions made to the state by African Americans throughout history.

Selected Bibliography

Gillette, Michael L. "Heman Marion Sweatt: Civil Rights Plaintiff." In Black Leaders: Texans for their Times, edited by Alwyn Barr and Robert A. Calvert. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1981.

Gillette, Michael L. "Rise of the NAACP in Texas." In The African American Experience in Texas: An Anthology, edited by Bruce R. Glasrud and James M. Smallwood. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2007.

Hine, Darlene Clark. Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979, 2003.

Lavergne, Gary M. Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.

Linden, Glenn M. Desegregating Schools in Dallas: Four Decades in the Federal Courts. Dallas: Three Forks Press, 1995.

Payne, Darwin. Quest for Justice: Louis A. Bedford, Jr. and the Struggle for Equal Rights in Texas. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2009.

Pitre, Merline. In Struggle against Jim Crow: Lulu B. White and the NAACP, 1900–1957. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010.

Shabazz, Amilcar. Advancing Democracy: African Americans and the Struggle for Access and Equity in Higher Education in Texas. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 

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W. J. Durham (right), attorney for the NAACP, talks with Thurgood Marshall, the organization's chief counsel, in federal court, July 30, 1959. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.