Durham, William J. (1896–1970)

By: Richard Allen Burns

Type: Biography

Published: December 1, 1994

Updated: October 21, 2020

William J. Durham, Black civil rights activist and attorney, was born on a farm near Sulphur Springs, Hopkins County, Texas, in 1896. After completing one semester at Emporia State College in Kansas, he served in the United States Army in France during World War I, after which he studied law in the office of Ben F. Gafford, a White attorney in Sherman, Texas. After passing the bar examination in 1926, Durham established his practice in Sherman and began taking on civil-rights cases, even though in the Sherman riot of 1930 a lynch mob burned the Black business district, including Durham's office. Though such lawsuits were rarely profitable, Durham had a lucrative practice as legal counsel to an insurance company and could therefore spend part of his time fighting for equal rights. By 1940 he was recognized as the leading Black lawyer in Texas. Gasoline shortages during World War II and his growing business ties and activities in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Dallas gave Durham enough reason to move in 1943 from Sherman to Dallas, where he became known not only as a civil-rights champion and the most effective Black leader of the NAACP, but also for his effectiveness in court and pretrial strategy. He took part in more than forty civil-rights cases involving such causes as school integration, voting rights, and equalization of teachers' salaries. He and other attorneys fought successfully to enroll Heman M. Sweatt at the University of Texas law school, to which Durham advised Sweatt to seek admission. Durham knew that there was no law school for African Americans in the state at that time and that UT would consequently be particularly vulnerable to a lawsuit if the school rejected Sweatt on the basis of race. Durham became best known for the school-integration cases in which he and his associates went to court to implement the 1954 Supreme Court rulings. Additionally, Durham was on the national board of the NAACP and assisted in directing its education and legal-defense fund. He also helped organize the Texas Council of Voters.

After living in Dallas and practicing law there for twenty-seven years, Durham died, on December 22, 1970. He was buried in Greenville Cemetery in Greenville, Hunt County. He was a trustee of Good Street Baptist Church.

Dallas News, December 26, 1970. Michael L. Gillette, The NAACP in Texas, 1937–1957 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1984).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
  • Civil Rights, Civil, and Constitutional Law
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Civic Leaders
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Richard Allen Burns, “Durham, William J.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/durham-william-j.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

December 1, 1994
October 21, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: