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The Washington Telephone Traffic Union and its Leader Mary Gannon: 1935-47

8 Feb
Gannon leads telephone workers on wartime strike: 1944

Mary Gannon, leader of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, in 1944.

By Craig G. Simpson

The Washington Telephone Traffic Union had its roots as a company-sponsored association, but by 1944 was the most militant local union in the Washington area and one of the fiercest telephone operators’ union in the country.

The union staged as many as 200 mini-strikes—most only an hour or two long and were often sympathy strikes in support of other local unions across the country, usually winning victories because of Washington, D.C.’s location as a strategic communications center.

Their leader Mary Gannon was the first woman to lead a sizable and influential District of Columbia union.

The 3,000-plus member overwhelmingly female operators union was also a forceful advocate of equal pay for women and of a strong national organization to take on the monopoly Bell system. It was a powerful voice for women within the larger union at a time when union leadership was a near exclusive men’s club.


1920 ca C&P Telephone switchboard enhanced

C&P Telephone Co. operators worked side by side connecting calls from one line to another.

In an era with no mobile phones, e-mail, messaging or social media, the telephone reigned supreme for one-to-one communications.

Operators worked at rows of switchboards to connect a call from one telephone number to another. Rotary dial phones were introduced in 1918, bypassing the operator for local calls, but by the early 1940s about half the country’s local calls still had to be connected through an operator and all long distance calls went through operators.

American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T, the Bell System or “Ma Bell”) was a monopoly that controlled nearly all the phone service in the country as the sole provider of long distance calls and its local phone company subsidiaries in urban and suburban areas.

Locally the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. (C&P) was a wholly-owned subsidiary of AT&T that served the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland and Virginia. There were three other AT&T subsidiaries with the same name serving three other areas–the rest of Virginia, the rest of Maryland and West Virginia.

In Washington, D.C. during the 1940s there were between 2,500 and 3,000 operators who worked side-by-side in a regimented environment where permission was needed to take off a headset to scratch your ear.

Early Unionization

Like most large corporations, the AT&T system was long hostile to labor unions. Near the beginning of the 20th century the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) gained a foothold of about 20,000 members by the time of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917.

In December 1917, President Woodrow Wilson nationalized U.S. railroads and set up national adjustment boards in each industry with representatives from both labor unions and management. But the Bell System was put under the Post Office—an anti-labor organization—that set up a Wire Board that took little action initially.

Nevertheless, phone operators in New England went on strike and were joined by cable splicers, test room technicians, and other workers from the electrical union. Elsewhere telegraph workers walked out in the South after the discharge of 300 of their co-workers. As other areas threatened strikes, Postmaster-General Albert Burleson was forced to act.

Burleson issued a directive to the telephone companies to permit union organizing without retaliation and charged the national Wire Board with enforcing the order.

The Company ‘Union’

Cartoon lampoons company unions: 1934

A Rubber Workers Union cartoon slams company unions as puppets of management.

Two days later, AT&T issued its own directive that a company union—The American Bell Association—was to be organized among its employees. Chapters were to be set up in each local area around the country and in larger cities multiple chapters were organized. Where multiple chapters existed in a local area, there were representative meetings from each chapter.

Such was the case in Washington, D.C. where installers and telephone operators had their own chapter, sending delegates from different job classifications to a city-wide meeting. It is not clear if other classifications such as the C&P cafeteria workers or office workers also had their own chapter.

Thomas Brooks writes in Communications Workers of America: The Story of a Union that a company official in Pennsylvania, Harold Porter, explained that employees elected as representatives to larger councils should be “only those who are ‘simon-pure’ employees.” Foremen and other supervisory personnel were encouraged to be a “big brother and boss to his people.”

Porter counseled that individual grievances were to be avoided, but, “All questions are decided by getting the facts. No change in our working practices governing carfare, vacations, hour of work, etc. is made without full discussion with the employee committees and gaining their agreement.”

Early dial telephone: 1920 ca.

A circa 1920 dial telephone that made bypassing the operator possible for local calls.

Meetings were chaired by management, but efforts were made to, “make them [employees] feel they are part of the works in their proper sphere.” Further, “it is better to discuss wages…in the committees than on street corners.”

However, the reality was these associations didn’t discuss wages and benefits and functioned only as a way to forestall real workers’ unions.

William Walsh, a worker with Ohio Bell, recalled that things worked a bit differently in practice than Porter set out. He described the local Bell Association by saying that, “…once in a while you’d have a so-called membership meeting, but if anybody talked about anything other than about the pencil sharpener needed replacing or was dull, why, there [would be] some reprisal very shortly thereafter.”

AT&T’s efforts paid off for the company. Legitimate unions were staved off by the associations and the IBEW lost most of its members in the telephone industry during the period the American Bell Association was active.

Growth of Unionism

Sen. Wagner celebrates labor law win: 1937

Sen. Robert F. Wagner celebrates Supreme Court upholding a labor law in 1937 that bore his name.

This was the system that Mary Gannon stepped into as a young woman in 1935 when as a new employee, she became active in the local Washington, D.C. association.

The time was in the midst of the Great Depression where a series of major industrial work stoppages around the country resulted in clashes between police and workers.

In response to this growing and uncontrolled unrest, Congress passed the 1935 Wagner Act setting out an orderly means of unionization and collective bargaining.

The Committee of Industrial Organizations was also formed in 1935 and set itself to the task of organizing millions of workers in basic industry across craft lines into a single union for each broad sector of the economy—auto, steel, rubber. electrical and other large sections.

One of the provisions of the Wagner Act made it illegal for an employer “to dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it.”—effectively outlawing the American Bell Association.

AT&T and its subsidiaries began cutting ties with the American Bell Association and their chapters, although some awaited the outcome of a court challenge to the law. Many in business believed the Wagner Act would be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court like a number of other New Deal laws, believing it to be a violation of their property rights.

True Unions in the Bell System

The Telephone Worker: 1945

The National Federation of Telephone Workers was formed in 1939 and published The Telephone Worker. Here, Mary Gannon is featured on the cover of the April 1945 issue.

In 1937 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act and the Bell System severed all formal ties with its employee association while attempting to continue to utilize them to blunt any unionization drives by old-line crafts of the American Federation of Labor or the new CIO industrial union organizing drives.

While some associations quickly began acting like a union, particularly in the southwest and in Ohio, most continued close ties with management. Many newly independent associations were initially given seed money by the Bell System and some continued to be allowed to meet for free on the company premises.

Washington, D.C. phone workers followed the old American Bell Association organizational model with a federation—the District Federation of Telephone Employees–with branches in at least two crafts; installers and operators.

Telephone operators, supervisors, installers clerical employees, accountants, elevator operators, rest room attendants and food service workers at C&P numbered perhaps 6500 in total.

However, women were the vast majority of 2,500 telephone operators, 500 food service and 200 clerical workers while nearly all the 3200 installers and many accounting clerks and customer representatives were men. The majority of telephone operators reported to the headquarters at 13th and G Streets NW, but also worked at some 30-odd satellite facilities around the city and close-in suburbs.

In 1935 Mary Gannon was an activist in her new local union and although the District workers were now organized, those working for the same Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company in northern Virginia were not.

Gannon, along with others, set out to organize the northern Virginia workers into a union and beginning in 1937, Gannon served as traffic (telephone operator) chair of the Northern District of the Virginia Federation of Telephone Workers and in 1940 she was elected president of her home union, the Washington Telephone Traffic Union.

At the same time as Gannon was taking the reins of the operators in Northern Virginia, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was had an eye on unionizing the telephone system, across craft lines into a large industrial union and ultimately established the American Communications Association that picked up the Northern California Telephone Traffic League.

The established American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was largely organized along craft lines, was also eyeing telephone workers. It held a meeting of Washington, D.C. telephone operators in June 1937 of its fledgling National Telephone Operators Union that attracted 35 women, but the effort failed to gain traction.

However the number of true independent unions that arose from the former Bell Associations grew and in December 1937, The Ohio Federation sent out a nationwide call for a conference to be held in St. Louis.

Helen Ward from the District of Columbia Traffic Union was sent to attend this first national conference in St. Louis.

Eight women and 21 men from across the country representing perhaps 60,000 workers attended the first meeting. A proposal was put forward to form a loose federation with a national office. The measure was voted down and the first attempt to form a national union failed.

The following year, two more conferences were held in Chicago and New Orleans that finally launched the National Federation of Telephone Workers in New York in 1939 with a national office, but with each local union running its own affairs.

Women and the NFTW

Pansy Harris--1st woman on board of national phone union: 1942

Pansy Harris from the Southern California League was the first woman vice president of the NFTW–elected at the founding convention in 1939.

Men from the plants, installation and repair facilities were suspicious of women and weren’t sure women could be real trade unionists.

However approximately 62 percent of telephone company employees were women and the percentage eligible for the union was higher since the nearly all-male management was excluded from membership. The traffic unions were almost entirely composed of women.

The new constitution at the founding convention of the union in 1939 provided for seven board seats from which three would be elected as the officers. Pansy Harris of the Southern California Traffic League was the only woman elected to a board seat.

The convention elected men to all three officer positions–president, vice president and secretary-treasurer.

The 1940 convention of the NFTW passed a resolution recognizing that “the nature of the problems and interests of…women workers differ in so many ways from the problems and interests of the male workers represented in the federation” that “in order to most equitably represent the will of women workers and to best serve their interest, the elected feminine member of the executive board shall be in attendance at all conferences where the opportunity may present itself to plead their cause.”

The 1940 convention expanded the number of executive board seats to nine and Harris was re-elected. However other women running for executive board slots were defeated, causing a wave of resentment among the telephone traffic units.

The following year, women met before the annual convention and the traffic unions threatened to withdraw their locals from the NFTW unless they had more representation within the national union and their concerns as operators were addressed.

Nationwide telephone operators panel: 1942

The 1942 traffic panel at the NFTW convention.

During the 1942 convention of the NFTW, a panel discussion was held on the appropriate number of women that should serve on the executive board.

At one point in the discussion, Gannon in exasperation, angrily declared:

“Why shouldn’t we have three women on the board if it is necessary? What difference does it make if the president, perhaps, should be a woman? I am afraid I don’t see things from the man’s point of view alone. I think there are intelligent women in the world.”

The traffic units put forward a resolution that three representatives from the operator local unions should sit on the executive board. But men dominated the number of delegates and voted the constitutional amendment down.

A compromise was ultimately reached and the convention voted to reserve another seat on the executive board for traffic units, allowing for two in total. Theresa Donahey of the Ohio traffic union was elected along with Harris.

Equal Pay

At the meeting before the 1942 convention, women also sought to place “equal pay for equal work” as a demand and it was adopted at the convention.

AT&T was constantly taking job duties from a higher paid, predominantly male classifications, and transferring those duties to lower paid predominantly female classifications without any increase in pay.

Further, many AT&T subsidiaries listed different pay scales for the same job for men and women with the male jobs paying more.

As a result the NFTW became one of the pioneer unions in advocating for equal pay for equal work

A 1944 study by the federal Women’s Bureau found that the top pay of some women’s clerical classifications in the telephone industry was below that of the starting pay for similar male classifications.

Three women leaders of the telephone union: 1945

Top NFTW women officers in 1945: traffic panel chair Mary Gannon, executive board member Anne Benscoter, and executive board member Frances V. Smith.

Gannon, the national chair of the union’s traffic panel during that period editorialized in The Telephone Worker, the NFTW periodical, for equal pay for equal work.

The traffic panel sponsored a successful resolution at the 1944 NFTW convention that encouraged local unions to end separate job classifications for men and women.

The National War Labor Board endorsed the policy of equal pay for equal work.   During World War II, strikes in defense-related industry were illegal and disputes were settled through the federal Labor Board.

The telephone union often made the demand for equal pay when a contract dispute went before the Board. As a result many telephone labor contracts contained “equal pay” provisions.

Similarly Congress took up the Equal Pay Act of 1945, supported by the NFTW, that provided for equal pay between “comparable” jobs. But despite strong support from powerful elected officials, the Act failed to pass.

Faced with the problem of the loss of telephone operator jobs through conversion to direct dial, the traffic panel also sponsored a resolution that was endorsed by the NFTW convention to encourage local unions to increase severance pay for operators who were laid-off.

Another demand of the traffic panel was urging the Labor Department to re-categorize operator work from semi-skilled to skilled in order to bolster their case for higher pay in cases before the War Labor Board. The union provided reams of data to the the Labor Department on skills and training. After a lengthy study period the Labor Department found in 1946 that the operator position met the criteria for “skilled.”

The War Labor Board had since lapsed, but the finding was useful to the NFTW and later Communications Workers of America (CWA) in making the case to bolster telephone operator pay.

Despite having a majority of members, no woman ever served as an officer of the NFTW and women had only one executive board seat when there were seven total and later only two of nine. However, even with the domination of men, the NFTW women were able to successfully advocate for women workers.

Washington Comes into its Own

D.C. Western Electric building: 1949

Western Electric’s D.C. headquarters at 1111 N. Capitol St.  

It’s not clear how Gannon underwent a transformation from the “simon-pure” employee described by Porter to a militant trade union leader, but the roots probably lay in the turbulent times of the Great Depression and her exposure to other trade union leaders through initial meetings of the efforts to form the local and national telephone unions.

The regimented, military-style command structure of C&P Telephone with its micro-managing, invasive rules probably also played a role.

It’s not clear exactly when the Northern Virginia District of the Virginia Federation of Telephone Workers became part of the Washington unit, but it probably occurred in 1940 around the time Gannon was elected president of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union.

The Washington union’s first brush with a possible strike came in 1941 when 8,000 phone and equipment installers at Western Electric, a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T, threatened a nationwide strike over wages. Western Electric in the District of Columbia had about 600 workers in a separate unit of the NFTW.

The fledgling NFTW, with 150,000 members, announced that its operators and service personnel would honor picket lines. The dispute was resolved without a strike through the intervention of federal mediators, but marked a new militancy by the independent union.

Another strike was threatened by the NFTW long lines union—direct employees of AT&T—who could shut down long distance service across the country if they walked out. This too would have affected the Washington unions if the long lines workers set up picket lines at local facilities. The NFTW constitution required affiliate local unions to respect the picket lines of other affiliates.

It is not clear when Washington, D.C. telephone workers obtained their first labor contract, but an article in The Washington Post mentions a contract with an effective date of April 1942.

In August 1942, with the United States now at war against Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and their allies, Ohio telephone installation and repair workers staged a strike over wages that spread across the state to Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron and Canton. Telephone operators refused to cross picket lines, disrupting communications across the state.

The World War II War Labor Board, instituted by executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt to settle labor disputes in broadly defined defense-related industries, quickly settled the Ohio dispute, but the strike reflected a rising militancy on the part of Ohio telephone workers–and of the NFTW as a whole.

In October 1942, the Washington Federation of Telephone Employees sought negotiations for improvements with C&P ahead of the April 1943 expiration of their contract that covered 6,500 workers in the plant, traffic, commercial and accounting departments.

The WFTE membership covered Washington, D.C., Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland.

However the company refused to bargain other than to demand an extension of the current labor agreement.

D.C. telephone workers win wage increase: 1943

The Washington Post covers the arbitrator’s recommendation for a $2 per week wage increase.

A federal arbitrator was appointed in February in an attempt to settle the dispute and recommended a $2 per hour pay increase in March 1943, retroactive to January 1, 1943.

The War Labor Board upheld the arbitrator’s finding in June 1943 applying the $2 increase to about 4,400 of the workers and granting increases to about 1,300 other workers to maintain differentials. One of the suburban facilities in Silver Hill, Maryland, had their pay equalized with other telephone workers covered under the contract.

In September 1943 the WFTE again asked to open negotiations for a new agreement asking for pay increases, a reduction in the time it takes to reach top pay, arbitration of grievances, a union membership requirement for traffic workers, and seniority rights.

Once again the War Labor Board took jurisdiction over the dispute. After hearings were held, a panel recommended no general wage increase, a voluntary maintenance of union membership and a shorter wage progression plan.

Separate Bargaining

Sometime between 1943 and 1944, the two unions comprising the Washington Federation of Telephone Employees each began pursuing their own contract negotiations.

There seems to be no record as to the cause of the split, but it was likely the tensions between the predominantly male installers and the predominantly female operators.

Venus Green writes in her book Race on the Line, “According to male and female organizers, plant men often resisted women unionists and feared operators’ militancy.”

Later, the conservative nature of the local installers union was clearly revealed and contrasted sharply with the militancy of the traffic union.

Gannon headed the Washington Telephone Traffic Union while Helery Robinson served as president of the C&P installers’ Federation of Telephone Workers of D.C.

Representation of other classifications were split between the two unions with the traffic union containing cafeteria workers, clerks, rest room attendants and general helpers while the Federation had the accounting clerks, elevator operators and service representatives.

C&P Telephone, Black Workers and the Union

African American telephone union members: 1946

Black union members mix with white union members at Turner’s Arena during the Jan. 1947 “continuous meeting.”

Like many companies in Jim Crow Washington, D.C., C&P Telephone openly practiced discrimination against Black people. Black people were hired only for the most menial jobs, including janitorial, food service and window washing. Elevator operator was the top position open to African Americans.

Black workers were not permitted to eat with White workers in the eight company cafeterias, according to one person whose mother worked for the company.

There doesn’t seem to be records covering Black participation in the earlier employee association in the District, but when the District Federation of Telephone Employees was formed, predominantly Black classifications were covered and Black workers in those classifications were signed up as union members. This positive step avoided establishing separate Black and White Jim Crow unions like the postal workers had at that time.

In response to a threatened march on Washington organized by Black labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, President Franklin Roosevelt issued executive order 8802 in June 1941 that barred discrimination in defense and defense-related industries based on “race, creed, color or national origin” and quickly established a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to enforce desegregation orders.

In 1942 the Committee on Jobs for Negroes in Public Utilities was formed to challenge Jim Crow in publicly regulated utilities that included Capital Transit, Chesapeake and Potomac (C&P) Telephone, Washington Gas Light Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco). Leaders included William S. Johnson, of local Communist Party and the leader of the cooks union, Dorothy Strange of the National Negro Congress and Ralph Matthews ,of the Washington Afro American newspaper.

Pressure on C&P

An FEPC investigation into public utilities in 1942 and pressure from the Committee on Jobs spurred the company to establish a business office at 14th and U Streets staffed by Black employees.

The jobs included a Black manager, service representatives, consumer representative, accounting and toll clerks and typists—about 25 workers in total. These were first Black workers hired into these positions.

However, no Black operators were permitted and Black workers were not permitted to transfer to all-White facilities elsewhere in the city and suburbs.

Fighting Jim Crow at Capital Transit: 1942

William S. Johnson (center)  Ralph Matthews (standing), and Dorothy Strange (2nd from right) at a Committee on Jobs for Negros in Public Utilities meeting in 1942.

Johnson and Mayme Brown of the Committee on Jobs sent a letter to the company protesting the move as a “dodge” to evade training Black workers for operator and other jobs in the phone company across the city.

“Your company’s long-time policy of racial discrimination in employment is now quite untenable. This fact is in no way altered by the segregated business office you now propose to establish,” the letter to the company said.

“Your public responsibility requires the supplementing of your staff of operators with the large number of competent colored girls now available for employment. This we call upon you to do,” it continued.

Citing President Roosevelt’s executive order, the group stated that “whether to employ colored operators is no longer solely a question of social ethics, but an established policy of the government.”

Most of the jobs created at the facility at 14th and U Streets were covered by union contracts. The telephone traffic union covered clerical employees and helpers while the installer’s union covered accountants and service representatives.

One of the first to integrate C&P Telephone: 1944

Gloria Ricks, one of the first eight Black workers hired at the all-Black facility at 14th & U Sts. NW is shown with her husband Ulysses in 1944.

The unions signed up most of those employed at the facility for union membership.

The national union was not a loud voice for desegregation of the operator job. But the NFTW ran a short favorable article in their national publication The Telephone Worker on the 1944 FEPC-sponsored agreement in New York to hire 26 Black people into telephone operator positions for the first time in a major metropolitan area.

The article noted that the local Traffic Employees Association took part in the conference and quoted the union as saying that they “did not anticipate any problem in the union because of the employment of Negro operators.”

The article had some additional significance because it appeared shortly after a long unionization drive and subsequently tough contract negotiations in the south that brought many new workers into the national union in an area where Jim Crow held the strongest sway among the White population..

Union meetings

With Washington, D.C. still a Jim Crow town, there were few large facilities that permitted mixed-race seating so a decision had to be made as to whether to hold separate union meetings for Black and White members, establish Jim Crow seating in a facility that permitted Black and White to gather in the same hall or to hold meetings with no seating restrictions in one of the few halls that permitted open seating..

Gannon took the issue head on and held mass strike meetings in facilities with no seating restrictions–Black and White workers mixing together in 1944-45 at the Hamilton Hotel and in 1946-47 at Turner’s Arena.

However, a joint meeting of six D.C. area NFTW local unions sponsored by the national NFTW was held at the Uline Arena, a Jim Crow facility, for their 4-hour work stoppage in 1945.

The FEPC lapsed in 1946, failing in its attempt to desegregate C&P telephone operators.

During the 1947 nationwide strike by telephone workers, Black union members marched together with white workers on picket lines at the various locations around the city in addition to the all-Black facility at 14th & U Streets NW.

Renewed Pressure on C&P

After World War II, the Urban League pressed the White House to act on integrating public utilities while the NAACP filed suit against C&P Telephone in 1953.

1952 ca Mary Church Terrell Tomlinson Todd

Civil rights icon Mary Church Terrell being interviewed by Dr. Tomlinson Todd for his One America program circa 1952.

Dr. Tomlinson D. Todd was a key figure in the desegregation of Washington, D.C. Jim Crow restaurants, along with civil rights icon Mary Church Terrell.

Todd had in 1943 first discovered and publicized the 1871 and 1872 “lost laws” in the District that prohibited discrimination in public accommodations. They were called “lost laws” because they were removed from the city code without being repealed.

Regular pickets and boycotts of Jim Crow restaurants were held 1949-53 and a lawsuit was filed where in 1953 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the District’s so-called “lost laws” and outlawed segregation in public accommodations in the city.

However, employment was not covered by those 19th century laws. Todd had a radio show in 1953 and interviewed C&P Telephone officials about their refusal to hire Black operators.

The Washington Afro American reported a C&P official said:

“The telephone company would never hire colored operators…until other things in Washington changed such as the integration of the school system.”

“When children learned through the schools to live and work together, then industry would be willing to accept them on an integrated basis—this would take time…within the next two or three generations.”

Suit against C&P cites lack of black operators: 1953

Pressure on C&P to desegregate its workforce included a lawsuit by the NAACP.

However rights activists were not waiting and were now pressuring the President’s Committee on Government Contracts, which was the agency charged with ensuring that firms holding government contracts did not practice discrimination.

In February 1954, C&P agreed to begin desegregating clerical employees and transferred two Black accounting clerks from the 14th & U Streets office to the downtown office.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its Bolling v. Sharpe decision May 17, 1954, ordering desegregation of District of Columbia schools.

First Black Operators

By 1956, the company permitted some Black clerical employees to train as telephone operators and ultimately transferred some into previously all-White facilities, beginning a slow process of desegregation that would continue long after the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in employment.

In contrasting the role of unions in desegregation, the Capital Transit Company in the District barred Black bus and streetcar operators until 1956, citing union opposition and the fear of a wildcat strike whereas C&P officials were never able to blame the union. When it comes to union organization, the WTTU admitted Black members on an equal basis with no Jim Crow seatings at members in contrast to the postal unions that expelled Black members early in the 20th century, forcing Black postal workers to set up separate unions and locals.

But there is no record that the WTTU was a forceful advocate of desegregation in contrast to those CIO unions and the AFL cooks and laborers that championed abolishing Jim Crow during the same period.

However it can be said that Gannon and the WTTU were not an impediment and that Black members that were hired by C&P were enrolled in the union as equal members.

Use of the ‘Union Meeting’ Strike

Telephone union calls work stoppage - 1944

The Washington Star reports on a planned walkout by telephone operators Sept. 29, 1944.

It was during World War II that Gannon began to use the mini-strike as a weapon to obtain workers’ goals and build solidarity nationwide.

Gannon called her first city-wide job action September 29, 1944 when she summoned union members to an “emergency meeting” at the Hamilton Hotel during working hours.

The War Labor Board had again taken charge of a wage dispute between Gannon’s union and C&P Telephone and Gannon feared another long, drawn-out process.

One of the issues, besides a wage increase, that was of paramount concern to the union was the company’s practice of recruiting out-of-town operators and paying them a living expense in addition to regular wages. Local operators resented this because they faced the same expenses.

The practice began in 1941 after the U.S. entered World War II. The number of these out-of-town operators had decreased from around 400 to about 200, but still nagged at the local workers whose pay also lagged behind other industries.

Learning of the meeting and potential strike vote, the Board sent a telegram to the union which read in part that, “The New Case Committee of the National War Labor Board has today voted to refer the dispute for immediate hearing to a national panel of the board.”

The Board went on to say, “We would appreciate it if the union would make known to those attending the meeting the fact that this dispute has been referred to a national panel. In view of the untold damage that would be done in the National Capitol to the Allied war effort should any interruption of its telephone service occur, the board expects the meeting tonight to be conducted in such a manner as not to result in any interruption or impairment of vital telephone service.”

More than 1,200 members heeded Gannon’s call and a tumultuous union meeting followed where at one point several dozen women chased away news reporters. At the conclusion of the two-hour meeting, the women voted to return to work since the Board had expedited hearings on their dispute with C&P Telephone.

Nevertheless, the two-hour meeting served notice of just how effective even a short strike could be.

The Washington Post reported:

“Long distance telephone service was delayed last night and in some of the outlying exchanges operations were seriously disrupted. Residents in the Capitol Heights (Maryland) area and Falls Church (Virginia) section reported they were almost completely cut off for a time. Even connections to fire and police departments were affected, it was said.”

“Serious disruptions in service were also reported by telephone subscribers using the Alexandria and Locust exchanges.”

It was far from the last time that Gannon would use a “union meeting” as a type of strike.

Wartime Strike

Striking telephone operators pass by their boss: 1944

Telephone operators picket the main C&P office on 13th Street NW Nov. 23, 1944 during a sympathy strike with Ohio workers.

During World War II, strikes in defense-related industries were barred and disputes settled by the War Labor Board. Telephone workers fell under this umbrella.

Operators in Dayton, Ohio walked off the job November 17, 1944 in defiance of the Board over the issue of a pay premium for workers imported from out-of-town.

The night before the Thanksgiving holiday, a mere two months after her last “emergency meeting, Gannon called another and this time telephone operators voted to stage a sympathy strike with the Ohio workers.

Hundreds of operators, including those on the night shift, crammed the assembly room and halls of the Hamilton Hotel for a meeting that was held in two shifts because of the size of the crowd of workers.

Upwards of 2,000 of the 2,500 operators struck and were joined by other workers who refused to cross picket lines at the downtown offices as well other locations around the city and suburban locations.

C. A. Robinson, vice president and general manager of C&P Telephone released an appeal to employees that said in part, “We need not tell you that Washington is the communication center of the entire Allied world—that fast and dependable telephone service is vital to the war.”

The Washington Star reported that, “R. A. Morgan, city commercial manager of Western Union, said the telegraph company began to feel the effects of the strike about the middle of the morning when messages increased and many of them carried the notation that the senders had been unable to put through telephone calls.”

Gannon said that special crews had been authorized by the union to handle calls from War and Navy Department and the White House. Most defense agencies already had their own direct long-distance lines and were unaffected by the strike. However, long distance calls from private lines to the government facilities, including the White House, were interrupted.

Strike Begins to Spread

Detroit, Mich. workers also walked out while a dozen local unions in other cities scheduled meetings to consider joining the strike.

Gannon told reporters, “We want it made clear that we are not striking for a raise…All we want is equality. We want them to send these imported workers home or raise us to their pay level. We should have come out before Ohio. This has been pending for a long time. All we want is fairness.”

The Washington Post reported a conference of federal officials was held to consider seizing the companies and resuming telephone operations using the Army Signal Corps.

The local Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) urged a return to work, but also laid the blame for the strike at the feet of the company.

Oliver Palmer, head of the Cafeteria Workers Union, and Henry Beltacher of the United Federal Workers issued a statement that the C & P Telephone “must bear its share of responsibility for the strike because of its consistent policy of not hiring qualified Negro telephone operators in the District of Columbia.”

“Instead, it has imported operators and paid them extra subsistence pay,” the statement said.

Strike Called Off

Union leaders end wartime phone strike:1944

Robert Pollack of The Ohio Federation and Mary Gannon call off the strike.

By 6 pm on November 23rd, Robert Pollock, president of the Ohio Federation and Gannon held a press conference where they announced they were calling off the strike. The two had become convinced that federal seizure of their companies would freeze wages and working conditions in place, preventing any ruling on the “imported worker” issue.

One outcome of the strike was the National War Labor Board set up a separate panel to hear telephone disputes—cutting the wait time for hearings in the industry.

Gannon was pleased with the strike.

“I’m sincerely glad that it didn’t do any more harm to the war effort than it did. We’re glad to return to work. But we’re more than glad that we supported Ohio,” Gannon told the Washington Star.

Labor Board Findings

Striking telephone operators: 1944

Pickets in front of the main C&P building on 13th Street NW Nov. 23, 1944.

The War Labor Board issues its preliminary findings in the Washington case in December raising the wages of telephone operators with less than 10 years of service by $4 per week and those with more than 10 years of service by $3 per week and left in place an agreement to end imported workers by February of 1945 provided that there was no effect on telephone service.

The recommendation was blasted by the union as insufficient, which filed a brief that said in part,

“Certainly if the telephone company paid better wages it would not have been required to import hundreds of operators into the District and pay them an incredibly inflationary rate of $18.70 [per week] above the local rate.”

The union went on to charge that “the company deliberately undertook to pay these extraordinarily high wages to relatively few employees …in order to keep from being required to raise its general wage levels to a point where it would be able to recruit labor in Washington.”

In a victory for the union the War Labor Board made its final ruling in March 1945, granting a $4 per week increase to all employees.

The strike demonstrated both the strengths of the fledging national union and its weaknesses. The solidarity strikes by Washington and Detroit with other local unions poised to join them demonstrated the strength of telephone workers nationally.

But it also demonstrated their weakness—there was no central decision-making means of calling a nationwide strike and any action was left to local decisions against a company that held a monopoly in the telephone industry.

Gannon, already influential in the national telephone union, was propelled into near stardom among telephone operators for her role in taking out the high-profile Washington, D.C. union on a solidarity strike.

Sit-Down Strikes

Company ad claims 13th work stoppage: 1946

C&P ad responding to January 3, 1946 sit-down strike.

Gannon used all the direct action tactics at her disposal and perfected the use of mini sit-down strikes over grievances beginning in 1943.

Sit-down strikes where workers remain at work, but refuse to perform their duties had been outlawed by the National Labor Relations Board and a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1939 affirmed that they were illegal.

Despite the unfavorable legal ground, Gannon called sit-down strikes anyway.

Information on these mini-strikes is scant, but the company published an advertisement in the Washington Star in January 1946 that claimed a 1-hour sit-down strike was the 13th work stoppage in the past two-and-one-half years.  Brooks’ book puts the number of mini strikes by the D.C. traffic union at around 200 in the post-World War II era.

Madge Giles, a steward and later president of Washington Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 2300 described how it worked, according to Brooks in his book.

“On getting the word from Mrs. Gannon, the stewards would go and ask a friendly service assistant, ‘May I get in position?’ I would pick up the SA stand (a ring would follow on everyone at the same time). ‘We have a work stoppage. We’ll explain later.’ and it would be explained later,” Giles is quoted.s

Conflict Over Supervisor’s Duties

The issue of the company using supervisors as supplemental operators was one  flash-point for these strikes.

Supervisors were union members and were more akin to lead personnel in the industrial setting and had no power to discipline employees

On February 19, 1945 when supervisor Hazel Woodville refused to handle calls at around 7 p.m. at the central office on 13th Street NW, management suspended her and upwards of 100 operators responded by sitting at their consoles and refused to connect calls.

After a conference between Gannon and the management, Woodville was returned to work and the protest ended.

Gannon told the Washington Star that a meeting would be held with company officials later to clarify the duties of supervisors. She asserted that supervisors had in the past been required to assist during peak periods, but not during times of normal traffic.

Before the meeting with company officials was held, C&P suspended another supervisor who refused to handle calls at the Woodley exchange office. About a half dozen women out of 17 operators on the evening shift refused to answer calls at the facility.

C&P Telephone main office: 1940 ca.

The C&P Telephone main building at 725 13th Street NW circa 1940.

However, the issue remained unresolved.

The January 3, 1946 job action was called when supervisors were again ordered to perform the duties of operators. Gannon called a one-hour sit-down strike between 10 and 11 a.m. where some 600-700 workers, including supervisors, sat at their consoles but refused to handle any calls.

Gannon said the job action was “a demonstration against sweatshop practices and a drive on the part of the company to break the union,” the Star reported.

She charged that the company had been calling employees in one-by-one and in small groups to discuss issues that were a matter of collective bargaining.

The company was by-passing the union on matters of grievances, working conditions and discipline according to Gannon.

“Supervisors are constantly having to plug in on operators because service is not 100 percent perfect. The reason for this is that the company pays such low wages turnover is high and it cannot obtain a sufficient number of operators,” Gannon explained as quoted in The Washington Star.

The mini-strike slowed long distance service and halted service at seven local exchanges where local calls hadn’t yet been automated.

The sit-down ended when management agreed to meet with the union on the issue.

The Mini-Strike as a Sympathy Strike

Strike hits Hotel Washington: 1946

Pickets at the Hotel Washington during the Oct. 1946 city-wide strike. The WTTU refused to put telephone calls through to the hotels during the strike.

Chicago telephone workers walked off the job November 19, 1945 in a dispute over wages. As the strike took hold, upwards of 9,000 workers were involved.

The Chicago union was challenging a War Labor Board award of a $4 per week wage increase and demanded a $6 per week increase.

Gannon responded to the Chicago strike by instructing telephone operators in Washington, D.C. to refuse to handle calls into the telephone exchanges served by the Chicago union.

As the Chicago strike entered its sixth day, Washington telephone leaders announced that they expected a call from Chicago—one way or another—for a support strike from D.C. area workers and that they would honor the request.

NFTW president Joseph Beirne alerted local phone unions around the country to be on alert for a national strike call to support Chicago.

However the Chicago strike was settled through intervention of federal mediators and the union agreed to an increase retroactive to January 1945 of $4, an increase of another $2 per week in February 1946 and negotiations with the company over other wage items. This precluded any further action by the Washington telephone union.

Hotel Strike

In another example of a solidarity job action, Washington’s telephone operators refused to place calls to the 18 Washington, D.C. hotels during a 21-day strike by the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union in October 1946.

The Washington Post reported, “The telephone action, ordered by Mrs. Mary Gannon, president of the telephone operators’ union, halted the incoming and outgoing long distance service of all hotels through hotel switchboards…”

“The company has not authorized or agreed with the union to refuse to handle any calls. Our operators are instructed to answer calls in order of their appearance,” the Post reported a hotel spokesperson said.

The use of the sympathy strike was a powerful weapon in building solidarity among workers across the country.

Eleanor Jane Palmer, the secretary-treasurer of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union at the time, recalled how Gannon staged sympathy strikes to aid telephone workers in other areas and helped to lay the basis for a real national union. Brooks quotes her in his book:

“Whenever anybody in the country was out! I remember at one time in St. Louis the traffic girls were trying to get some air conditioning put in, and the only thing the company would offer were the tubs of ice. You’ve heard about them. In order to get some satisfaction on their grievance, they could have had a work stoppage, but they weren’t in the prime position where they were really disturbing the country or upsetting the country. So what they did was call to Washington and ask our president if she could give them some help.”

Sympathy strikes were later outlawed by the 1947 anti-labor Taft-Hartley law.

First National Work Stoppage

First nationwide telephone strike: 1945

Washington area telephone workers mill outside the Uline Arena October 8, 1945 during a 4-hour meeting that served as a nationwide work stoppage.

Two major challenges faced the national NFTW in October 1945.

The first involved the CIO’s United Electrical Workers challenging the certification of the NFTW as a bargaining agent.

A National Labor Relations Board agent subsequently made a recommendation to de-certify NFTW affiliates at the massive Kearny, New Jersey manufacturing facility and at facilities throughout New York and New Jersey covering 30,000 workers–claiming the local unions were company unions in violation of the Wagner Act. The recommendation was widely seen as a tilt by the Board away from independent unions and toward the CIO.

A final decision would surely be followed by other unions challenging the NFTW certification as the collective bargaining representative at units across the country.

The other major issue the NFTW faced was the fragmentation of bargaining by local units in different geographical areas that resulted in widely disparate wages and benefits for those doing the same job.

4-Hour Union Meetings

NFTW president Joseph Beirne called for simultaneous four-hour national union meetings October 8, 1945 across the country as a show of strength to address the challenges.

Workers at the Kearny facility were the first to walk off the jobs for the meeting followed by the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, which left their jobs two hours early before the meeting of all Washington NFTW locals scheduled for 2:00 p.m. at the Uline Arena.

“By 1:00 p.m. a phone company official said the walkout was virtually 100 percent effective,” reported The Washington Post.

The response across the country was similar with operator-assisted service halted in hundreds of towns and cities as 200,000 workers quit their jobs to attend the meetings.

It was the first national telephone work stoppage in history.

In Washington, D.C. 6,000 installers, operators, repair personnel, cafeteria workers and office workers from six locals in the District, Virginia and Maryland jammed the Uline Arena and unanimously voted to authorize the national NFTW to call a strike.

The Washington meeting and those around the country voted to pass five resolutions:

• Authorize the national federation to seek an NLRB strike vote.
• Authorize the federation to call other meetings like the one held October 5th.
• Give the federation blanket authority to act in the Kearny, N.J. case that involved a recommendation by an NLRB examiner that federation-affiliated unions is 22 Western Electric Co. plants in New York and New Jersey be dissolved as company-dominated.
• Write to congressional members and government officials seeking justice in the Kearny case.
• Send presidents of local NFTW unions to Washington to confer with officials who might help in getting a reversal of the recommendation in the Kearny case.

Union Reaction

Union leaders were euphoric with the response of their members.

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Gannon.

NFTW’s Dunn named to War Labor Board: 1944

William M. Dunn, an NFTW representative on the War Labor Board.

William M. Dunn, the labor representative on the War Labor Board Telephone Commission responded to a reporter’s question about the members losing pay as a result of the meeting:

“Let me tell you this. For every dollar it costs in wages, it costs the telephone company $5 in income.”

The Washington Star reported that all calls that were operator-assisted were halted along with long distance service, NBC and ABC teletype service and telephone communications to some countries.

In smaller cities and communities in Maryland and Virginia where automated local calls had not yet been introduced, service was non-existent. Those included Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Suffolk, Staunton, Virginia Beach, Williamsburg in Virginia and Frederick, Hagerstown and Cumberland in Maryland.

Beirne was asked by a reporter why the union called for a meeting and a strike vote before filing an exception with the NLRB or seeking a hearing on the Kearny case.

“It is senseless,” Beirne replied, “to wait until your throat is cut.”

The four-hour national strike put Beirne in a position to demand a national contract, if he could get his affiliates to go along and was a powerful demonstration that the NFTW was not company-dominated.

The full NLRB board hearings dragged on for months, but the the decision finally went in favor of the NFTW.

D.C. 8-Day Telephone Strike

Operators walk off job for ‘continuous meeting’ - 1946

Members of the D.C. traffic union leave the main C&P office on 13th St. NW Jan. 10, 1946 for a “continuous union meeting.”

Workers at the Kearny facility went out on strike over wages January 3, 1946 and the bitter dispute threatened to spiral into a national sympathy strike.

In addition, Western Electric installers were chafing over a World War II Labor Board decision that failed to grant installers “a wage structure with wage levels comparable to a wage structure with wage levels of telephone plant employees,” according to Brooks.

Beirne received a letter January 9th from the national installers union president asking for approval for a strike that had already begun. Installers planned to picket all telephone facilities, triggering a nationwide strike.

That day Beirne told news media he was considering calling a national strike.

Gannon’s Union on Collision Course

Meanwhile Gannon was growing increasing inpatient with C & P Telephone over its use of supervisors. She had just concluded a one-hour sit-down strike over the issue on January 3rd and the rank-and-file was growing irate over “sweatshop conditions.”

Gannon’s union was on a collision course with a C&P management that in turn had grown tired of the regular work disruptions.

Brooks writes, “The Washington Traffic group took on its management in a contest over ‘excessive and dictatorial’ supervision.”

“Under a new ‘service program,’ supervisors were ordered to ‘observe’ experienced operators as well as trainees.”

“Systematic spying reinforced these orders: ‘Keep a plug in your hands at all times, be alert, use a courteous tone of voice at all times, keep your eyes on the board at all times, don’t talk to the adjacent operator, keep your headset adjusted one-fourth of an inch from your mouth.’”

“’Do not change headset from one ear to the other without calling your supervisor, sit up straight with both feet on the rail, keep hands on the edge of key shelf, if the customer says ‘good morning,’ don’t answer him, hold the plug at a forty-five degree angle, don’t take an aspirin without being relieved from your position.’”

The list of miniscule infractions went on and on.

Mass Meeting

Phone workers call for ‘continuous meeting’ - 1946

Washington Telephone Traffic Union members jam Turner’s Arena Jan. 10, 1946 at the start of their 8-day “continuous meeting.”

Gannon called a continuous union meeting at Turner’s Arena for January 10th at 11 a.m. with instructions for union members to leave work at 10 a.m.

As union members entered the hall, they were given a flyer asking them to honor any picket lines set up by the installer’s union.

The 11 a.m. meeting was delayed an hour as union wardens searched for a reporter who had slipped into the meeting hall. Nearly all the union’s 2,500 operator members attended according to Gannon.

When the meeting ended at 12:50 p.m., Gannon announced that a federal conciliation conference would be held that afternoon and that the meeting would be reconvened at night.

“The union members will meet briefly tonight, when I simply will report whether the conference was successful,” Gannon said according to the Star. “If it fails we will recess until tomorrow morning.”

Gannon said when the meeting would end was up to the company, which she said must meet the union’s demands.

The Washington Star summarized Gannon’s 4-point demands as follows:

• Too many “service programs” and constant reminders of rules and regulations concerning the operation of switchboards.
• The “plug in” rule requiring that an operator relieving another must have the connecting cord in her hand as the operator going off duty leaves her seat.
• Excessive observation of operators by officials
• Meetings of employees called by officials to “hammer home” directives.

“The management of the offices constantly walk up and down behind the girls at switchboards, making them nervous. Sometimes they look over operators’ shoulders and even breathe down their necks,” Gannon told reporters.

“The day chief, the evening chief, the night chief, the assistant chief and the manager of the office take turns at this.”

“The supervisors must account for every minute of their time—must be constantly checking on the girls’ work, listen to customers’ complaints and report on equipment out of service.”

“We have girls leaving the boards and going home because of these conditions. Absenteeism is terrible and the public is not getting the service it should. The people remaining on the job are doing so under terrible handicap.”

C&P Reaction

C&P ad responds to union work stoppage: 1947

C&P Telephone responds to the “continuous union meeting” in a Jan. 12, 1947 ad in the Washington Star.

H. R. Maddox, vice-president and general manager of C&P denounced the union in a statement that read in part.

“Telephone operators walked off the job today because the company requires that telephone operator supervisors perform the duties of the job for which they were hired. This is the 14th strike in the past two-and-one-half years.”

“The situation is exactly the same as it was last Friday when the union staged a one-hour, sit-down strike.”

“This matter has been discussed with the Washington Telephone Traffic Union but the discussions were fruitless. It has been apparent from the start that the union had embarked on a program of deteriorating telephone service in Washington and dictating what type of service the public should have.”

“Now the union is changing its attack and seeking to accomplish the same result by charging that the performance by employees of their traditional duties results in working conditions unacceptable to the union.”

No picket lines were set up because Gannon claimed it wasn’t a strike, but simply a long union meeting.

Once again, long distance and other operator-assisted service slowed to a crawl as management personnel, engineers and others attempted to continue service.

Even the White House was not exempt; incoming long distance calls were blocked and outgoing long distance service had to be routed through military lines.

Installers Strike

DC Western Electric workers strike: 1946

Western Electric workers set up picket lines at C&P facilities around Washington, D.C. shown here at an unidentified facility Jan. 12, 1947.

Meanwhile, telephone installers across the nation employed by Western Electric (an AT&T subsidiary company) went on strike and set up picket lines at most telephone facilities bringing nationwide long-distance service to a crawl.

Western Electric manufactured and repaired telephones and equipment and installed large equipment.

The effects in Washington were limited because operators had already called their continuous union meeting and long distance service was already halted. But the 600 installers in the city set up picket lines outside the main C&P office on 13th Street NW and at some satellite facilities.

Beirne had hoped to hold off the Western Electric installers.

He had been working to cobble together local union telephone labor contracts that were expiring over the next year in order to facilitate a national bargaining agreement.

At a Milwaukee conference in December 1945 where 38 of 47 local presidents attended, they formulated national demands of a return to the 8-hour day from the wartime 48 hour day, a $0.65 per hour minimum wage retroactive to August 1945, and a $2 per day wage increase.

Beirne undoubtedly knew many of the bargaining units were conservative and repeatedly asking them to strike was a doomed strategy.

Affiliates Split on Installers’ Strike

Phone union leaders consider nationwide strike: 1946

This January 13th meeting of the NFTW executive board called off the Western Electric strike, postponing it until other affiliates filed legally required strike notices.

A number of the NFTW affiliates rebelled against the installers strike and voted not to honor picket lines, including the large New York City union while others, including Washington, pledged to refuse to cross them.

Meanwhile the federal government made preparations to seize the nationwide telephone service to end the strike.

Beirne called a January 13th meeting of the national executive board where it was decided to announce that a nationwide strike would be called, but only after each affiliate filed the legally necessary 30-day strike notice.

Meanwhile, he announced, the installers would go back to work. Installers’ pickets were withdrawn January 14th.

Beirne still had a shot at nationwide bargaining and a pact between the NFTW and the Bell System.

Washington Strike Continues

'Gannon’s girls’ at Turner’s Arena: 1945 ca.

An undated photograph of a Washington Telephone Traffic Union mass meeting at Turner’s Arena.

Separate from the activity on the national scene, Gannon’s conference with C&P and the federal conciliator on the first day of their “continuous meeting” ended without movement by either side, Gannon announced at the evening session of their January 11th meeting.

Commissioner Richard Goodrick of the federal Conciliation Service told the press that he would not be involved further until prospects of a settlement between the two sides brightened.

At a morning meeting on Saturday, January 12th, Gannon told the members that the company had upped the stakes and filed notice to terminate recognition of the union on April 1st and that it would refuse to negotiate on the termination after March 1st.

The contractual agreement to recognize the union was one of four labor agreements between the Washington NFTW affiliate and the company, but the most important because the others were meaningless without union recognition.

Gannon told the 2,000 union members assembled that the meeting would be adjourned until Monday morning. She had a message for the press in response to the company’s termination of bargaining rights notice.

“If there are any member of the press present,” she said addressing the meeting,” I want them to know we don’t mean we will be out until Monday—we mean indefinitely.”

She later added that C&P’s termination notice was, ‘just another one of its anti-labor acts. We intend to ignore it,” reported The Washington Star.

“We don’t like work stoppages and continuous meetings”, she continued. “We don’t like strikes; the word isn’t nice. But what do you do when you have your back against the wall?”

Union Meeting Continues

Just briefly crossing the picket line! - 1946

With permission from the striking Western Electric workers, striking traffic workers cross the picket line at 14th and R Streets NW to pick up their last paycheck Jan. 12, 1947.

Meanwhile, arrangements were made with the installers for the telephone operators to cross installers’ picket lines, which were still up, in order to pick up their last paycheck for work performed before the continuous meeting.

On Monday, January 14th, a little more than 500 members came to the fourth “continuous meeting” at the arena—significantly less than those the previous week.

According to the Star, Gannon exhorted her members, “Stay with me—I know what is best. Today will bring good news.”’

“I hope you will hear from newspapers and radios that you will be returning to your jobs,” she continued.

She told those assembled that the union’s demands were just and that the company had not learned what collective bargaining is.

“I don’t need to tell you we must stick together. I assure you that when you do go back to work there will be no discrimination against you or interference with your seniority.

When the meeting concluded, she invited press into the arena and urged the crowd to show how they felt.

The crowd broke into a loud, rhythmic clapping as a demonstration of continued support for the strike.

But Gannon knew the resolve of some of her members was weakening. Some were contacting management and telling their bosses they wanted to go back to work. Others were talking among themselves asking how were they going to make it as they spent the money from their last paycheck.

Red Herring

C&P uses red herring to gain support: 1947

C&P’s most effective ad used a red herring to gain public support. This version was published Jan. 17, 1946.

After the “continuous meeting’ began, C&P published daily advertisements in local newspapers putting out their side with headlines like, “Should the union manage the telephone business?,” “Telephone strike follows long slow-down,” “No telephone strikes in 65 years,” and “Should a telephone operator be dismissed for not striking?”

The last initially appeared Tuesday, January 15th and a version ran for the duration of the strike. It was one of their most effective. The union had a security clause in their contract which required members to remain in good standing.

The company used this as a red herring to claim that the union would use this clause to attempt to have the company dismiss any member who crossed picket lines. The company then used their advertisement to announce that they would never dismiss an employee who crossed a picket line.

Editorial boards, congressional representatives and others chimed in to support the company stance over a non-existent issue that the union never raised.

But it had its effect and a trickle of operators began to return to work.

The union responded the same day by releasing details of a proposal it had made the previous Friday.

Beirne Weighs-In

Joseph Beirne; Federation of Telephone Workers president: 1945

NFTW president Joseph Beirne in 1945.

National NFTW president Beirne told reporters that local union had made a “fact finding proposal” to the company in order to end the “continuous meeting.”

The Washington Star reported Beirne explained, “When it was seen the company and union entertained a wide difference of opinion in the issues involved, the union presented a compromise, which I thought was eminently fair and would be accepted by the company.”

“The union suggested that each side appoint an equal number of representatives to sit on a committee which would function in a fact-finding manner and investigate all the issues in dispute. After a period not to exceed six months, the committee would report back its findings.”

“During this period, the company would revert to the employer’ practices in force during the [World] war and up to November 1st. It is the union contention that the company has put disagreeable practices in effect since that time.”

By releasing the proposal publicly, the union was presenting itself as reasonable and casting the company in an unfavorable light and pointing blame toward C&P as the root cause as to why telephone service was still interrupted.

Gannon scheduled her fifth union meeting for the next day, Wednesday, January 16th.

The meeting was brief—only about 15 minutes–where Gannon updated the members that a meeting was held between the company and the union and that another was scheduled in the afternoon.

General Agreement

Telephone operators begin strike: 1946

Operators walk off the job for the beginning of their “continuous meeting” January 11, 1946.

She also scheduled another union meeting for the next day at 10 a.m.

Following the meeting, union public relations spokesperson Al Herrington told reporters that “an agreement was reached on general principles which will resolve the dispute.”

“We will try to write the language that will result in a contract covering the settlement of the dispute and return to work,” Herrington told reporters.

To confuse matters, the company announced that no progress had been made and that it was unaware of any afternoon meeting.

Meanwhile C&P announced that about 100 operators had returned to work out of the 2,500 on strike.

At their sixth meeting at 10 a.m. on the seventh day of their strike, Gannon reported to the members that the union would be making a revised proposal to the company that afternoon and another union meeting, hopefully the last, was scheduled for 7 p.m. that night.

Al Kane, general counsel for the union addressed the crowd and also told them that he believed the union’s modified proposal to be placed before the company that afternoon would be accepted.

Some Dissension

There was some dissension as a few workers grumbled about missing a paycheck while one operator complained that she had two children to support and couldn’t afford to stay out, according to the Star newspaper..

“Can’t we stick together?” Gannon replied and assured those assembled that they would be going back to work soon.

But most of those assembled had sentiments were captured after the meeting by women who said, “Well, if we don’t stick together, we won’t get anything,” and “We’ve stayed out all week and lost a week’s pay, we might as well get something for it,” as reported by The Washington Star.

Members at the meeting said that company officials had been calling them at home and telling them if they didn’t come back to work they would lose their jobs.

In response, the union posted designated representatives outside each location to persuade those wavering to hold fast.


Operators vote to end strike: 1946

“Victory!” Mary Gannon stands in front of ecstatic workers at Turner’s Arena after they vote to end their “continuous meeting” Jan. 17, 1946.

At the meeting that night on the eighth day of their strike, Gannon announced, “Victory!”

For the first time—anywhere–a part of the AT&T system acknowledged that workers were entitled to “good working conditions.” That basic tenant of industrial relations is taken for granted today and is part and parcel of most union contracts, but it was an earth-shaking concession for the Bell System at the time.

The Washington Star reported, “About 1,700 operators cheered and sang in Turner’s Arena when Mrs. Gannon told them they could return to work.”

The terms of the settlement were as follows:

• The union and the company both agree that the public is entitled to the best possible telephone service and that such service should be rendered under good working conditions. The operating force will return to work and perform the duties pertaining to their employment as assigned by the company.
• The union and company agreed to appoint a committee of six, three from the union and three from the company, composed of employees other than the present bargaining agents, which committee will institute a study of the work assignments and make recommendations for any changes that may appear desirable. This committee so shall function to March 31, 1947, unless otherwise mutually agreed.
• There shall be no recrimination or punitive action or discrimination on the part of the company or the union for any reason resulting from this work stoppage. Non-payment of wages for time lost during the work stoppage is not to be considered as disciplinary, punitive or prejudicial action.

“You can’t have everything. You take what you can get and you like it. After almost nine days, you have won a nice victory. Some say women can’t stick together. I think now that some will change their minds,” Gannon told the meeting according to the Star.

Operators Ecstatic

Telephone operators return to work: 1946

Happy telephone operators return to work at C&P Telephone headquarters at 725 13th St. NW Jan. 18, 1946.

Ecstatic operators began returning to their consoles after the meeting and by morning normal long distance service had been restored.

As the union prepared for local contract bargaining, The Washington Star reported March 7, 1946 that Gannon indicated many of the issues had been resolved by the committee.

“Grievances over working conditions which brought about an eight-day operators’ strike in January will not figure in the bargaining Mrs. Gannon said.”

“These matters are being nicely ironed out by a company-union committee appointed at the end of the strike to recommend working condition improvements, the union leader added. She said many improvements had been effected in training courses and supervisor observer tactics since the strike.”

“The committee will function until March 31, 1947, and there is reason to believe most of the grievances will be settled by then,” Gannon said according to the Star.

Gannon had done what many of her male counterparts felt was impossible—unified a nearly all-women workforce and led them on a successful 8-day strike.

Seek National Bargaining 

Smiles as telephone workers take strike vote: 1946

The Washington Telephone Traffic Union votes to authorize a strike at a Feb. 7, 1946 meeting at Turner’s Arena.

Beiirne’s attempt to cobble together enough local contracts to bargain nationwide was still alive.

The union’s national executive board held a number of debates. Seven of the 17 local unions willing to go along with Beirne’s plan gave the bargaining rights to Beirne while the others pledged to “coordinate their bargaining” and honor any strike by the seven.

All seventeen units, including the Washington, D.C. traffic union, filed the legally necessary 30-day strike notices. However, the Washington, D.C. C&P installers did not join in and set about to bargain their own agreement separate from the national effort.

The national executive board settled on using the AT&T nationwide long-lines as the key bargaining unit with other local telephone company subsidiaries pledging to adopt the outcome in what’s known as “pattern” bargaining.

The NFTW executive board set a strike deadline of 6:00 a.m. March 7, 1946 if no agreement were reached. Beirne announced that seventeen units would legally strike while the remaining 33 units across the country would respect picket lines.

Union in Good Position

The country was beset by a strike wave—the largest in U.S. history by some measurements—after wages had been depressed by a ban on strikes during World War II.

Both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats and Harry Truman, a Democrat had ascended to the presidency upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, a climate relatively favorable to labor.

AT&T’s monopoly of equipment manufacture, repair, local and long distance phone service made it a possible target for nationalization or regulation. Truman had already made preparations to seize the company during earlier labor unrest under wartime rules and some in Congress were advocating a takeover.

With these conditions in the background, Beirne was in a good position.

As the March 7th deadline approached, progress toward a settlement bogged down.

Government conciliators had all but given up as AT&T dug in on their final wage offer–that Beirne rejected.

Conciliation Chief Edgar L. Warren made an announcement to the press after the fourth session involving federal mediators attempting to reach an agreement, the final session lasting 14 hours and ending at 2:00 in the morning on March 6th.

Warren said he could see no “eleventh-hour action—other than a satisfactory company offer—which can prevent a strike.”

Strike Inevitable

Washington operators strike for one hour: 1946

Washington, D.C. telephone operators walk off the job at the main C&P office in the early morning hours of March 7, 1946.

Beirne sent telegrams to local union leaders across the country saying “strike is inevitable.” Locally, Gannon prepared her troops for picket duty.

Labor Secretary Lewis B. Schwellenbach stayed at the ready to enter negotiations if necessary.

Brooks described what happened in his book:

“With Labor Secretary Schwellenbach ‘standing by,’ AT&T vice president Cleo F. Craig entered the Long Lines negotiations at the eleventh hour. After a brief conference between Craig and Director of Conciliation Edgar L. Warren, NFTW president Beirne was called to the Department of Labor and his arrival placed the negotiations on a national basis.”

Craig later testified before a Senate subcommittee and Brooks described his testimony,

“He [Craig]…claimed that his staff canvassed the member companies the night of March 6th as to their willingness to bargain with their respective unions on the basis of a settlement in Long Lines. And though ‘no company delegated any authority to me to bargain,’ they ‘did say that I could bind them; that they would make an offer to their union.’”

Last Minute Settlement

After a long night of bargaining March 6-7, AT&T sweetened their wage offer and Beirne accepted. Beirne and Craig initialed the document that became the first national agreement between a union and AT&T.

An hour and a half before the strike deadline, the Gannon’s members walked off the job and set up picket lines. It had been less than two months since their nine-day strike. Maryland phone service centered in Baltimore also struck early.

The strike was called off at 5:45 a.m., minutes before the nationwide strike was to begin.

The agreement was a pattern for all pending wage settlements as was to run from March 7 1946 until March 6, 1947. The increases are per week and represented an 18.2 percent increase.

The March 1946 issue of the Telephone Worker described the wage settlement thus:

• “For plant workers–$5 at starting rates, $8 at top rates.
• “For traffic workers–$5 at starting rates, $7 at top rates.
• “For clerical workers–$5 at starting rates, $7 at top rates.
• “For janitors, house service and dining room workers etc.–$5 across the board.
• “For administrative workers—engineers, staff technicians, etc.–$8 across the board.
• “For manufacturing workers 17.6 centers per hour, distributed in any way the union and company can agree to.”

Pressure From Schwellenbach Key

Telephone union president Joseph Beirne: 1945

NFTW president Joseph Beirne in 1945.

Asked later how he achieved the national agreement, Beirne said, “We were not only able to get Craig of AT&T, who was a top man, vice president of AT&T, down into Schwellenbach’s office, but we were able with Schwellenbach to keep the pressure on,” according to Brooks.

Gannon had pickets walking at 30 exchanges from 5:30 a.m. until 7 a.m. when she was able to get the official word out that the strike had been called off.

Pickets carried signs in front of the main C&P office at 725 13th Street reading, “We want $2 a Day So We can Maintain a Reasonable Standard of Living,” “Two Bucks a Day to Hike Our Pay Enough to Keep the Wolf Away,” and “The Voice With a Smile Will be Gone for a While—She’s Walking These Lines ‘Til Mamma Bell Signs.”

Gannon had to be pleased–not only for her bet on a national effort and a strengthened national union, but that she could turn her members out for a potentially long strike so soon after the last one.

D.C. Installers Look Foolish

In contrast Helery Robinson of the Washington installer’s Federation of Telephone Workers of D.C. had voted against the national effort at the union executive board meeting in February and struck a bargain with C&P a month before the national strike deadline.

“We may ask for a mutual re-opening of our contract,” Robinson was quoted in The Washington Post. “I am hoping the company will see their way clear to give us new consideration. Otherwise we are saddled with our contract until 1947. The contract now held by us in some categories is about $1 a week less than was granted last night.”

Gannon probably gritted her teeth remembering how male union leaders at national conventions had disparaged women telephone workers and in her mind the decision on the local level to split from the installers was vindicated.

In fact, Beirne had made a private verbal agreement with Craig that all previously signed contracts would have wages brought up to the national standard.

Beirne explained later, “We had stuck together and we did move the giant. But then to put frosting on the cake, we had more money put into the pockets of those who had signed off…” as quoted in Brooks’ book.


Railroad workers defy Truman; resume strike: 1946

Railroad workers at Potomac Yards in Alexandria, Va. walk off the job in May 1946 during the strike wave of 1945-47.

Internally, AT&T chaffed at the agreement they made and immediately began making preparations for the March 1947 contract expiration.

The political situation changed during the November 1946 elections when the Republican Party swept into power with a large majority in the House of Representatives and a slim majority in the U.S. Senate.

Many Republicans, along with some Democrats, had vehemently opposed the 1935 Wagner Act that put into law many union rights and helped lead to the unionization wave of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Republican leaders in both houses began putting together the elements of a bill that would become the Taft-Hartley Act, outlawing sympathy strikes, secondary boycotts, leaving the open shop decision to the states, barring radical labor leaders from serving in official union positions, making it easier to issue injunctions against strikes and a number of other anti-union measures.

Caravan to Oppose Taft-Hartley Act: 1947

A car caravan against the Taft-Hartley Act drives around Washington, D.C. in 1947 with the U,.S. Capitol in the background.

The strike wave of 1945-47, where several million workers in the mines, oil industry, railroads, steel plants, electrical plants, meat packing and auto industry and dozens of local workplaces staged strikes for higher wages and benefits, also led to a backlash on Capitol Hill–and with some segments of the public–against unions.

Further public support of union power was eroded by the growing “Red Scare” and the alleged communist leadership of 11 national unions and the influential presence of left-leaning leaders in many others.

AT&T devised a strategy to walk-back their national negotiation that had resulted in the wage settlement of 1946,

This time they planned to break union power by refusing to to conduct negotiations on the national level, making unacceptable offers at the local level and forcing the union to strike. Their objective was to peel off weaker local unions to make sub-par settlements with the local phone companies after strikers began to miss paychecks.

On the Union Side

Telephone union president Joseph Beirne: 1945

NFTW president Joseph Beirne in 1945.

Beirne had been strengthened by the 1946 wage agreement, but its weaknesses were also apparent. 17 unions had bargained for the 33 that went their own way. Beirne needed a stronger national union and went about trying to build it.

He campaigned to form a new union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) with a new constitution that would make the autonomous local unions “divisions” of the new union. Further it would grant the national union the power to approve or disapprove local contracts and strikes, appoint administrators in cases where fraud or insolvency had occurred within the local unions and designate local unions as trustees of the funds of the local union.

It set the power of the union in the national convention and the national executive board between conventions.

This meant that Beirne would have the power to lead a national strike without local unions cutting their own deals. He hoped to have the new union in place by November 1946 in order to take on AT&T in March 1947.

Beirne toured the country and pressed locals to authorize their convention delegates to approve the new union. Many local unions were persuaded by Beirne’s arguments that stronger organization was necessary to take on the AT&T monopoly, but were hesitant to give up their own power.

At the November 1946 Detroit convention of the NFTW, the vast majority of locals hadn’t yet voted on the issue. The convention voted to establish the CWA, but only on an interim basis until locals totaling at least 115,000 members had voted favorably and been issued charters.

The convention also empowered Beirne to name a coordinated bargaining committee that would determine the exact wage demands. Others such as improved vacations and pensions, union shop and dues check-off were voted favorably by the convention delegates.

Mildred Beahm of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union served on the bargaining committee appointed to formulate demands for 1947 bargaining.

Shortly after the convention the national union bargaining committee developed a 10-point demand list that included a $12-weekly across-the-board wage increase, shorter wage progression, uniform pay for job classifications across the country, along with improved pensions, vacations and union security provisions.

But Beirne seemed destined to prepare for his demand for national bargaining with the same loose structure of the NFTW.

Local unions were told to proceed with local bargaining, to hold strike votes and to file any legally necessary strike notices to be prepared for a national strike on April 7, 1947.


Telephone strike vote: 1947

The WTTU conducts a strike authorization vote at Turner’s Arena March 20, 1947.

AT&T’s strategy quickly became apparent to the NFTW. Across the country the telephone company subsidiaries of AT&T refused to make a wage offer and instead offered to extend local agreements by 3-6 months.

The Washington Telephone Traffic Union opened negotiations February 17, 1947 and the District Federation of Telephone Workers—the D.C.-area installers affiliate of the NFTW—opened earlier on January 31st.

Legally necessary 30-day strike notices were filed with the federal government on March 1, 1947 by affiliates of the NFTW in 23 states, including the two Washington, D.C. C&P locals.

Negotiations Fruitless

“Mrs. Mary E. Gannon, president of the WTTU, said no wage proposal had been made by the company although the union had asked for $12 a week wage increase for all workers,” The Washington Star reported March 2nd.

The same article quoted Beirne:

“After more than a month of continuous bargaining, not one Bell telephone company has offered a penny of wage increases. They have rejected all our proposals for union shop, shortened apprentice periods, narrowing of wage differences between large and small towns, and have refused to consider improvements in vacations and pensions.”

Gannon’s negotiations were going nowhere.

“We’re just battling back and forth and we’re getting nowhere,” Gannon was quoted in The Washington Post March 4th.

By March 10th, Gannon broke off negotiations with the company, the Post reported:

“Mrs. Gannon charged the company with insisting upon a return to working conditions which existed ‘before the union came into being’ and with refusing all wage boosts ‘notwithstanding undisputed evidence respecting the tremendous increase in the cost of living since last spring.’”

“She contended the company has ‘taken an unreasonable attitude in bargaining’ but emphasized the union is willing to resume negotiations ‘when and if the company decides to make a realistic approach to the problem.’”

Negotiations would, in fact, resume later but with little change.

Strike Votes Across the Country

C&P Telephone cafeteria at Congress Heights: 1940 ca.

The C&P cafeteria at the Congress Heights exchange. About 500 members of Gannon’s union worked at 8 C&P cafeterias across the city.

Gannon called a meeting for Turner’s Arena March 20th to hold a strike authorization vote. The secret ballot vote was in favor of a strike by a 7-1 margin–2635-390. Gannon declared that the “WTTU has voted decisively to join in whatever nationwide action is taken,” according to the Star.

Ballots across the country were overwhelmingly in favor of following the recommendations of the national bargaining committee according to the union.

Gannon broke off talks with C&P again on March 22nd and again reiterated that “in the event of a change in attitude on the part of the company, the union would be willing to resume negotiations,” The Washington Post reported.

Beirne Worried

Behind the scenes, Beirne was worried. He attempted to persuade the national policy committee to hold off on the strike deadline. He was concerned that the union lacked organizational cohesion and felt that you shouldn’t call a strike when the company is trying to push you into one.

“We should not strike, that we should hold off any notion of a strike until we got our structure that would cause us to stay together…We are not equipped financially, and we are not equipped organizationally to maintain a unified strike…the other side will clobber us, and we’ll begin to fall apart,” Beirne recalled that he told the union’s national policy committee according to Brooks.

But with AT&T’s last minute 1946 settlement on wages, many of the NFTW leaders were more optimistic and they had even more local unions on board this time.

“I won’t speak for anybody but myself, but I’m satisfied most of the people in the union felt the same way and that was the company couldn’t stand a strike. I didn’t think it would last over three days, and I thought we’d get what we wanted within reason,” D. L. McCowen a union national policy committee member from Texas recalled later as quoted in Brooks’ book.

Beirne was outvoted almost unanimously.

Pressure on Both Sides

Pressure on both sides ramped up as the April 7th deadline approached.

U.S. mediators were sent to negotiations across the country to attempt to affect a settlement. U.S. Senator Wayne Morse (R-OR), urged the company and the union to “adopt voluntary peaceful procedures” to avoid a strike and suggested arbitration of the dispute

Beirne attempted to convene national bargaining with AT&T, by sending a telegram to the company, but was rebuffed again.

“Your telegram of March 24 has been sent to Bell System companies whose employees are represented by NFTW representatives for their consideration. As you know, labor agreements with the unions affiliated with NFTW are with operating telephone companies and all bargaining matters are handled by each company with its union,” AT&T replied.

C&P Telephone echoed the same response in a statement to reporters saying that they “consider negotiations for a contract a purely local matter.”

“We have always maintained wage levels that compare favorably with wages being paid for similar work in this community.”

Congress Weighs-In

Fred Hartley of anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act: 1940 ca.

U.S. Rep. Fred Hartley (R-NJ), while crafting the anti-labor provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, introduced legislation making it easier to issue an injunction against the pending NFTW strike.

While crafting the provisions that would become the Taft-Hartley Act to limit all U.S. unions, the Republican-controlled Congress also began looking at ways to blunt the NFTW and any strike.

U.S. Rep Gerald Landis (R-Ind.), ranking Republican member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that Congress would quickly give the President the power to seize the telephone company in the event of a national strike.

Meanwhile U.S. Rep. Fred Hartley (R-N.J.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced legislation to provide an injunction against a strike by the NFTW.

By the end of March, telephone subsidiaries of AT&T began offering arbitration of wages as a way to avert a strike. The offer only addressed one of the ten NFTW demands and was limited to a comparison of like local jobs, skills and training and excluded both any consideration of cost of living increases when inflation was then running at 8.3 percent and the ability of the company to pay higher wages while the company was enjoying substantial profit. Further there was no offer of national arbitration.

Both Gannon and Robinson, the leaders of the two D.C. area unions, separately offered to arbitrate all union proposals, but the offer was quickly rejected by the local phone company.

Strike Preparations

C&P and union strike headquarters: 1947

This 1951 photograph shows the main C&P building at 725 13th Street NW (the tallest) and the D.C. union strike headquarters (labeled) at 711 13th Street NW.

Both sides prepared to strike.

In Washington, D.C., C&P assigned 800 management personnel to handle plant, maintenance and operator work.

Cots were brought into each work place and food stocked for 24-hour operation by management personnel. Of the eight company dining rooms, the management planned to keep four open on a limited basis. Elevators in buildings with multiple floor would be reduced as the elevator operators would be on strike while restrooms would be cleaned by the management.

The union set up strike headquarters at 711 13th Street close to the company’s headquarters and pickets were assigned to 35 C&P Telephone locations. They planned for 24-hour picketing.

The union had no strike fund, but began soliciting donations of food and money to sustain the strikers.

The union offered to permit striking operators to staff emergency lines, but the offer was rejected by the company.

Virginia workers, including those represented by Gannon’s and Robinson’s unions in Northern Virginia, would not be immediately participating in the strike due to a state law requiring utility workers to undergo a waiting period before walking off the job and the intervention of the governor before any strike could be called.

Meanwhile federal conciliators attempted to move stalled negotiations across the country forward.

Move to CWA on Hold

As the strike deadline approached, the 49-member national union policy committee voted to put on hold any further moves to form the CWA.

There was a significant minority of local unions resistant to surrendering local control and some others that favored immediate alignment with the CIO. These unions included the strategic long lines division. The operators unit in Baltimore, Md. and the Pennsylvania Federation of Telephone Workers voted against joining the proposed stronger national union and the Connecticut Union of Telephone Workers left the NFTW in month of March during the runup to the strike deadline.

CIO chief meets with Labor Secretary Schwellenbach: 1946

Labor Secretary Louis Schwellenbach (right) attempted to craft a settlement at the last minute like he had a year earlier, but failed.

The news media paid particular attention to the long-lines negotiations since they had provided the pattern for the 1946 wage settlement. But those negotiations went nowhere like the rest.

Religious leaders asked the union to postpone the strike for a week and continue bargaining, with nationwide arbitration on any items not settled by direct talks. Beirne rejected the proposal out of hand saying that the company had three months to put an offer on the table and thus far had not responded in a positive way to any of the union’s 10 demands.

U.S. Labor Secretary Lewis B. Schwellenbach got personally involved in the final days and conferred with both Craig and Beirne by phone seeking a solution and on April 6th asked the union to postpone the strike by 48 hours. The union’s policy committee turned down his proposal.

As the hours slipped by toward the 6:00 a.m. deadline on April 7th, Schwellenbach roused the 49-member union policy committee from their beds in local hotels at 4:30 a.m. for a meeting at the Labor Department in Washington, D.C.

With union officials gathered in the Labor Department, Schwellenbach telephoned Craig. When he hung up, he had nothing to offer the union and the strike was on.

The National Strike

Nationwide strike hits AT&T: 1947

NFTW president Joseph Beirne and WTTU president Mary Gannon walk the picket line at the main C&P building on 13th Street NW on the first day of the strike April 7, 1947.

Across the country about 65 percent of the nation’s local phone service was affected and about 80 percent of its long distance service.

With broadcast television in its infancy, radio was the main means of instant mass communication. It was largely unaffected by the strike because direct connections were available between networks and local affiliates. However remote programs in areas without direct connections were halted.

However telegraph, radio, teletype and any long-distance phone calls put through by the company’s management personnel would be vulnerable over time to breakdowns because of the walkout of maintenance personnel.

Government operations in Washington, D.C. were largely unaffected because of inter-office phone lines and the ability of the government to route outgoing long distance calls through military and other secure lines. However long distance calls from private numbers into government buildings were curtailed by the strike.

The one non-dial exchange in the city serving about 5,000 lines was staffed by management personnel, as were two suburban exchanges that also lacked dial service.

Round-The-Clock Picketing

In Washington, D.C. union members began round-the-clock picketing of C&P and Western Electric facilities. Only a handful of union members crossed the initial picket lines.

Picket signs included, “The voice with a smile will be gone for a while,” “Millions for profit but nothing for workers,” and “On Strike for Union Security.”

The Washington Afro American reported, “Twenty-six colored employees of the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company joined the telephone strike in Washington Monday morning, leaving the company’s branch office at 14th and U Streets northwest to be operated by its colored manager, C. A. Robinson and his assistant, T.C. Newton.”

Black cafeteria workers, elevator operators and helpers joined other picket lines around the city.

Beirne & Gannon Join the Line

Beirne and Gannon, in the late stages of her pregnancy with her first child Tommy, paraded with the Washington pickets outside the company offices on 13th Street NW.

The strike began with 300,000 workers out—either through a strike or respecting another union’s picket line–causing delays in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The number of workers out rose to 340,000 in the next few days.

On the first day of the strike while long distance service was cut to about 20 percent of normal nationwide, it was estimated at 10 percent of normal in Washington, D.C.

Direct dial service was not impacted. However six million users across the country were still on operator-assisted local service compared to 20 million that had direct dial. The Washington area had only about five percent of local calls that were operator assisted.

The heady days early in the strike gave way to the drudgery of picket duty as time elapsed. There would be periodic rumors of progress in talks, but these gave way to the reality the company was not making any offer of substance at a national level or local level.

Managers Become More Proficient

Supervisor connects emergency calls during strike: 1947

A manager connects emergency calls at the main C&P building on 13th Street NW during the April-May 1947 nationwide strike by telephone workers.

Managers operating the switchboards became more proficient and a greater percentage of calls went through. Mechanical breakdowns in direct dial service were few and were handled by managers who had been former equipment workers.

C&P Telephone and other AT&T subsidiaries began running ads in daily local newspapers across the country pushing their side of the issues and slamming the union.

The first early contract offers by AT&T subsidiaries and their long lines department centered around proposals for local arbitration.

The first potential break in the strike came when the AT&T long lines division and the union reached a tentative agreement providing for arbitration of wages, length of schedules, vacations, and leaves of absence for union officials. The NFTW local union, which covered long lines nationwide, and the AT&T reached agreement to settle 87 other issues.

The AT&T long lines division had been the key to settling the 1946 contract as its wages were applied to AT&T local telephone company subsidiaries.

However this time, federal mediators announced that the company was only settling this one contract and was not obligating itself to apply any of its terms elsewhere.

The question remained, would the union roll the dice that a long-lines settlement could be used as a pattern anyway?

No Deal

The union’s 49-member national policy committee rejected the settlement April 11th, still believing they could attain a national agreement.

Both sides hardened their negotiating stance. Beirne demanded a meeting with national AT&T officials. Management of the local subsidiaries refused to seriously negotiate unless local union leaders would agree that they wouldn’t submit any settlement made to the national union.

Across the country, AT&T attempted to organize back-to-work movements as they telephoned individual members asking them to cross picket lines.

In Washington, D.C. as the strike entered its eighth day on April 14th, Gannon responded by holding a rally at Turner’s Arena and a march on the main offices of C&P Telephone on 13th Street NW.

Workers March on C&P

“More than 2,000 traffic department employees left the morning mass meeting [at Turner’s Arena] to form at Franklin Park, 13th & I Streets NW, and march to the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone headquarters at 725 13th Street NW,” reported The Washington Star.

Telephone workers dancing in the picket line: 1947

Dancing on the picket line in front of C&P headquarters at 725 13th St. NW April 23, 1947..

“Singing and laughing they walked in single file until they formed a complete square around the company buildings. Led by Mrs. Mary Gannon, president of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, the girls demonstrated for about 15 minutes and then withdrew as normal picketing resumed,” the Star continued.

On April 15th U.S. Labor Secretary Schwellenbach made a proposal to both sides to have a five-member national arbitration panel rule on wages and five other union demands for each of the bargaining units with the other issues to be settled in “intense negotiations,” with a return to work within three days.

Craig, the AT&T vice president, countered saying the proposal was “impractical” and offered instead 12 regional arbitrations. Bierne and the 49-member national policy committee of the union rejected the proposal saying that AT&T must make a wage offer.

At an April 17th rally at Turner’s Arena by the two C&P Washington NFTW affiliates, Bierne told the hundreds of union members present that he expected a settlement soon but to show “courage” if the walkout is prolonged.

“We’re working toward a settlement this week, but if we don’t win this year, we never will,” Beirne told reporters after the meeting.

Beirne Attempts to Call Off Strike

But behind the scenes, Beirne knew he could not hold the local unions together much longer. He urged the union national policy committee to abandon the strike and continue negotiations while threatening another strike. He received only one vote for his proposal.

On April 18th C&P Telephone made an offer to the two Washington unions that was identical to the one Craig laid out nationally, again showing Craig’s claim that each subsidiary acted independently as a sham.

The unions responded by demanding that C&P make a wage offer and making their own offer.

C&P ad on strike tries to justify their position: 1947

A C&P Telephone Co. ad in the April 14, 1947 Washington Star. AT&T subsidiaries ran ads in newspapers across the country.

“The union made an offer today which apparently was intended to cloud the issue and raise the hopes of its members in an effort to stem the tide of the back-to-work movement which is gaining momentum,” J. B. Morrison, vice president and general manager of C&P told reporters.

“We are willing to put the matter of our basic wages before such a board [of local arbitration]. We believe that the union hesitates either because they know that our employees are well paid or they cannot move without the approval of the National Federal of Telephone Workers, with which they are affiliated.

The same was heard by local union bargainers across the country and resulted in the NFTW taking out its first ads in local newspapers across the country laying out its case for a national settlement.

Meanwhile Gannon continued to rally her troops, visiting picket lines across the area and reporting “high morale.” By her count only six traffic union members had crossed picket lines since the strike began.

Flying Squadron

The following day she held another information meeting at Turner’s Arena. Out of that meeting came plans for a squad of “flying pickets” to travel by car, bus and streetcar to the different C&P facilities around the metropolitan area to bolster the morale of picket lines.

Gannon’s union, which had no strike fund, also organized a dance at the Silver Spring Armory to raise money for the union’s welfare fund that aided the strikers who were now nearly all in dire financial shape.

Across the country, aid to the NTFW began to arrive. The CIO pledged financial support and instructed affiliates not to cross picket lines.

Contributions came in from unions across the country—Cigar Workers, Ladies Garment Workers, Steel Workers, Teamsters, Clothing Workers, Machinists, United Auto Workers, Mine Workers and many others—totaling $128,000 or about $1.8 million in 2022 dollars.

At the national level, hope for a settlement began to rise during the third week of the strike when General Motors, U.S. Steel and Westinghouse Electric either made offers or reached agreement with their unions on $0.15 per hour wage increases—translating to about $6 per week.

While AT&T officials had indicated they would not set a pattern with their own bargaining, they never ruled out following a pattern set by other industries.

However, hopes were dashed when Edgar Warren head of the U.S. Conciliation service said that AT&T officials claimed other industry increases would have no effect on them.

“They tell us that the wage increases recently given do not affect them right now. They say these other increases have not yet affected the market price for labor and they cannot raise wages for the time being,” Warren told reporters.

Tempers Rise on Picket Line

Two-and-a-half weeks into the strike, tensions were rising on the picket lines as a few union workers began crossing the lines.

Telephone operators picket against the wind: 1946

A windy day on the picket line in front of C&P headquarters April 28, 1947.

Brooks describes some of the turmoil in his book, “Rancor soured the unfolding spring. Two strikers were injured and 22 arrested after a picket line brouhaha with police in Detroit. Police dispersed a mass demonstration in San Francisco. Someone cut telephone cable in lower Manhattan” and a dozen other places, and 250 telephone circuits were slashed near Fort Worth, TX.

Locally, pushing and shoving between picketers and scabs occurred at the main office at 723 13th Street NW, resulting in one arrest.

“Sgt. Douglas said he saw Mrs. Mary E. Gannon, president of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, kick one of the girls leaving the building on the shin,” reported the Star.

“Then he saw another picket jostle a second worker with her hip and knock her against the building, the policeman said,” according to the Star. That picketer was arrested.

Gannon denied the allegation.

“If I had kicked anyone it would have hurt me more than the person I kicked,” she told the Star. “I was wearing open-toed shoes.”

“Insisting that Mrs. Gannon started the affray with a kick, Sgt. Douglas said he would have arrested her except that ‘the kicked girl ran off and there was no complaining witness.’”

Other incidents were reported including an arrest at the Hyattsville, Md. picket line.

Managers at the switchboard: 1946

As the strike went on management personnel became more proficient and were supplemented by scabs.

C&P gave strike-breakers a whistle that could alert company officials in the event they had trouble crossing a picket line. In return, Gannon’s union gave pickets whistles to blow while they picketed to annoy management and scabs working inside.

Madge Giles of the D.C. telephone traffic union later said that the company had the police on their side.

“They’d go in the operating building, and the company was feeding them their lunch and dinners and breakfasts, what have you…I think the company had them right in the palm of their hand,” she recalled in Brooks’ book.

First Defection from Strike

The first defection from the NFTW occurred April 25th when the Baltimore, Md. installers’ union reached an agreement with C&P to arbitrate four items and negotiate the rest after returning to work.

The agreement covered 2,200 predominantly male workers while the predominantly female operators continued to honor picket lines. The Maryland installers withdrew from the NFTW after their agreement with C&P.

On April 26th, two more women were arrested for harassing a former employee who crossed picket lines to scab at the Franklin exchange at 120 7th Street NE. A third was arrested for disorderly conduct for cursing at police at the exchange on the 1400 block of Columbia Road NW.

The same day the NFTW cut its wage demand from $12 to $6 in line with other industry settlements.

Union Publishes Ad

Telephone union responds to company newspaper ads: 1947

The NFTW buys an ad in the April 27, 1947 Washington Star in an attempt to counter C&P Telephone’s ads. 

Three weeks into the strike on April 27th, the union published its side of the story in an advertisement in The Washington Star while the two local Washington unions rallied again at Turner’s Arena.

The packed arena heard NFTW president Beirne tell them that he expected “a major break in the not too distant future” in the form of a wage offer from AT&T to the long lines division whose contract “would probably set a pattern” as it had a year earlier.

Beirne characterized the settlement and disaffiliation of the Maryland installers as a “stab in the back” at the Turner’s Arena rally. He urged the gathering to “keep the walkout in full force today…Once we get together on money issues the other issues should be easy. The end may be in sight,” the Star newspaper reported.

While other companies had unofficial discussions with their unions about wages, Northwestern Bell made the first wage offer to a NFTW affiliate on April 28th in the amount of a $2.50 increase per week.

Despite the company’s public relations push, a national Gallup opinion poll in early May demonstrated that the public backed the union by a 2-1 margin of those that had an opinion.

More Local Unions Break Away

But, independent unions in New York and Pennsylvania that had been coordinating their strikes with the NFTW, broke ranks and reached settlements with their companies on April 30th. Pennsylvania settled for $3-4 increases while New York settled for $4 across the board.

After the New York rank-and-file repudiated their leaders’ agreement and continued their strike and picketing, Beirne addressed a mass rally there and urged them on while hoping to discourage others from settling.

However other affiliates were reaching agreements on April 30th and submitting them to the union’s policy board. In Milwaukee, 7,000 telephone workers reached an agreement for wage increases from $3-5 per week and Fort Dodge, Iowa a small unit reached an agreement for increases of $4-6 per week.

Despite Beirne’s and the 49-member policy board’s best efforts, strike unity crack had begun to widen.

Number of Scabs Increases

Pickets keep their eyes up: 1947

Pickets look skyward after a management employee or scab dropped an egg on them outside of the main C&P building on 13th St. NW April 27, 1947.

In Washington another women striker was arrested May 1st for spitting on a scab at the telephone company’s headquarters.

The lengthening strike and the company-organized back to work movement had some success. Most of those strikers returning to work were installers. C&P reported about one-third of the 3,200 installers were back, while only 90 of 3,400 in the traffic union had returned.

While the women of traffic union were able to hold their strike together, the predominantly-male installers’ union did not.

Madge Giles recalled in Brooks’ book, “No, we didn’t shut the phone company down completely, no, because they had a lot of their management people who were working switchboards, and then at times, we had some fellow workers from the plant department that finished their tour and went into the traffic operators’ switchboard and worked. This was one of the things that caused the trouble between the traffic group and the plant group. We thought this was wrong. We saw no reason why, if they had to be strikebreakers, why they couldn’t go home at the end of their tour and leave the traffic operating board alone…We were quite a few years overcoming that feeling, but we have.”

NFTW Abandons Nationwide Bargaining

As an increasing number of local unions were beginning to reach settlements with local phone companies, the 49-member national policy committee of the NFTW abandoned their objective of national bargaining and left Washington, D.C. to return to their home bases on May 7th.

The same day the District Federation of Telephone Workers representing 3200 installers, accountants and sales representatives settled with C&P for $2-4 per week increases, undercutting the D.C. traffic union.

The D.C. installers settled by sacrificing three employees who had been fired for picket incidents, without addressing lost company service while on strike and losing maintenance of dues. The installers’ union recommended respecting the traffic union’s picket lines, but nearly two-thirds of the installers showed up for work.

The next day, the key Long Lines division of AT&T settled for a $4.40 per week increase and telephone unions around the country began falling like dominos.

Washington Operators’ Settlement

Razzing scabs at the telephone building: 1947

Strikers express their feelings when a scab crosses their picket line May 2,1947.

As the D.C. traffic union closed in on a settlement, Western Electric workers, 600 of whom were employed in the District and had been honoring strike picket lines, were ready to call a strike of their own.

Despite the increased pressure on Gannon to get her members back to work, Gannon held firm.

The Washington Star reported on May 10th, “Mary E. Gannon, WTTU president, said the union’s policy is to respect picket lines of other National Federation of Telephone Workers affiliates, and that the WTTU members would be advised of this.”

To strengthen her hand with the company, on May 12th, Gannon put the company’s latest offer up for a vote at Turner’s Arena by the traffic union members. Despite being on strike for five weeks, the group overwhelmingly voted down C&P’s latest offer.

Poison Pills

The offer contained wages of $2-4 per week increases, similar to most being settled for across the country, but contained “poison pills” that the members wouldn’t swallow.

Gannon explained, “The company asked us to give up our present seniority and grievance procedure as well as maintenance of dues,” as reported by the Star. She added that a clause giving the company the right to fire employees for picket line incidents was also unacceptable.

The following day, C&P announced that seniority for benefit and other purposes would not be affected by the strike, removing one obstacle to settling the operator’s strike.

While it is common today for many women to continue working up until the time they go into labor, it was unusual in the 1940s. However Gannon hardly missed a beat.

After giving birth to her son Tommy, she postponed the strike of her Virginia members that had been stalled by a Virginia law and returned to the bargaining table.

Gannon settled her contract May 17th, the 41st day of the strike. With the seniority issue already settled, adding extra steps to the grievance procedure resolved that issue and maintenance of dues was replaced by the company deducting union dues from those workers who volunteered to do so at no cost to the union.

Three Members Fired

The thorniest issue was about three of Gannon’s union members who were discharged by the company for incidents on the picket line. The union and the company accepted a federal mediator’s proposal to arbitrate whether the three should be returned to work.

A C&P Telephone Co. file clerk: 1930 ca.

A C&P clerk is shown at work circa 1930. C&P clerks were part of the traffic union. 

Wages were a $4 increase for 90 percent of the unit, a $3 increase for some clerical employees, and a $2 increase for other cafeteria workers, general helpers and rest room attendants.

The contract also applied to Gannon’s members in northern Virginia, settling that issue.

The union had about 3,000 telephone operators, 500 cafeteria workers, 250 clerks, 55 rest room attendants and a few general helpers.

The contract was ratified by yet another mass meeting at Turner’s Arena where Gannon advised those present that they should report to work as scheduled the next day, but to respect any picket lines put up by Western Electric workers.

Sure enough, the pickets from the Western Electric installers were established at all C&P facilities and the operators refused to cross the picket line.

The Western Electric strike settled the same day for a $4.40 per week increase—one of the best settlements made—and the Washington Telephone Traffic Union went back to work the next day with their heads held high.

The Traffic Union

Union president Gannon pickets with her ‘girls’ - 1947

Gannon (center), in the late stages of pregnancy. when the strike was called, had her baby and returned to the bargaining table to conclude contract talks.

Gannon’s union was one of the last to return to work nationwide—fighting until the end to win as much as could be won and holding out an extra day in an expression of solidarity with the Western Electric workers.

Gannon undoubtedly thought back to the 1942 NFTW convention when men sought to limit the number of women on the national executive board in part because they were suspicious, thinking women weren’t real trade unionists.

She surely felt anger that men had led the back to work movement in Baltimore and the installers union in D.C. had 95 percent of the scabs between the two unions during the strike. But she also had to feel pride that the women unionists under her leadership fought until the end and went back to work together.

If the national strike failed in its objective, the Washington Telephone Traffic Union wasn’t to blame.

Solid, Unified, Militant Union

Gannon had accomplished building a solid, unified, and militant union by years of constant communication with members and the experience the members had with previous work stoppages. They trusted their leader and their leader could place trust in them.

Gannon had her finger on the pulse of the members at all times and knew the steps she could take—and what she couldn’t.

The tactics she used during the strike to hold her unit together included frequent mass meetings, regularly visiting picket lines, organizing a flying picket squadron to bolster morale and discourage scabs, staging a march on the company headquarters, making statements to the press that were aimed as much at the company and her members as they were to the public, and raising funds for member emergencies during the strike—all while dealing with the issues of her late term pregnancy.

National Strike Analysis

Union leader Gannon leads phone strike picket line: 1947

NFTW president Joseph Beiren walks the picket line behind Mary Gannon during the 1947 national strike.

The national strike was probably the most extensive in the country up until that point in time.

The June issue of the NFTW The Telephone Worker said, “The AT&T is the largest corporation ever to have been struck. The strike extended over more territory and into more communities than any previous strike in the history of the nation. Thousands of the smaller communities had their first experience with a strike through the telephone walkout. Very few strikes have involved so many workers.”

Few, if any, unions staged national strikes with a weaker federation of unions.

Beirne said shortly after the strike, “We were trying to make a federation of unions to do the kind of job which can only be done by one union in the telephone industry. The latter states of the strike demonstrated that the separate organizations composing the national federation would act separately and individually—based on their own autonomy—when the going got tough,” according to Brooks in his book.

Contrary to some union claims during the strike, AT&T did not set out to break the union—only to substantially weaken it. AT&T still feared that if the NFTW failed completely, they would be faced with an affiliate of the then left-leaning, militant CIO. They succeeded in the short term with their objectives—weaker unions and lower wage costs than other industries.

Alvin Loren Park wrote in a thesis on the strike:

“It was the feeling of the Conciliation Service that AT&T would accept as the final cash settlement approximately the pattern that had developed in manufacturing industries. This amounted to 11.5 to 12.5 cents per hour ($4.60 to $5 per week)( with 2.5 to 3.5 cents per hour extra for fringe issues.”

“AT&T would not accept these figures, however. It chose instead to exploit the situation [the fracturing strike] to the fullest extent, and through the subsidiary companies, it proceeded to work out, with relatively weak local unions, settlements that were lower than the manufacturing pattern,” he continued.

Telephone companies were already paying less than the national manufacturing standards and the pay structure fell further behind with the 1947 settlements.

Beirne looked at the glass as half-full when he gave a statement to telephone workers after the strike.

“The united front and singleness of purpose of the policy committee during the time of its existence served as an influence in breaking what would have been a $2 [per week] pattern,” Beirne said.

However, the defeat of the effort at national bargaining had immediate consequences for the NFTW.

CWA and the CIO

Petitions urge veto of Taft-Hartley anti-labor act 1947

CIO Vice President Allan S. Haywood (center) shows off anti-Taft Hartley Act petitions in 1947. Haywood also headed the CIIO Telephone Workers Organizing Committee (1947-49).

The issues that had divided the union over the proposal to form a Communications Workers of America immediately came to the fore again after the strike. Some even doubted whether the founding CWA convention in June would even be held given the tenuous financial position of the NFTW.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) formed a Telephone Workers Organizing Committee (TWOC) in late May and organized a convention May 31-June 2 in an attempt to beat the CWA to the punch.

The American Federation of Labor was never a real serious contender for the loyalties of the NFTW locals since they would only offer a division within the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and not their own telephone union.

The TWOC was headed by CIO vice president Allen S. Haywood and soon announced that the key long lines unit and the Western Electric plant employees in New York/N.J. would be joining the CIO along with the Baltimore-based Maryland telephone traffic union. Northern California telephone workers were already part of the CIO before the strike.

Some of the unions felt that the strike demonstrated they needed direct affiliation with a more powerful national federation. Others were enticed by the CIO’s more liberal autonomy for local unions than the CWA was offering.

Forty-three union leaders of 19 telephone unions with a membership of about 200,000 met in Atlantic City, but many were not authorized by their local unions to bind themselves to the TWOC. For example, Glen Watts of the Washington, D.C. installers union attended as an observer, but the local had already affiliated with the CWA.

CWA Convention

Telephone union president Joseph Beirne: 1945

Joseph Beirne, NFTW president, became the Communications Workers of America’s first president in 1947.

Beirne went ahead with the planned convention to launch the CWA on June 9th with 200 delegates from about 30 local unions representing about 177,000 members. Those included the two Washington, D.C. unions that represented employees at C&P Telephone.

The issue of affiliation with the CIO dominated the CWA convention. Two amendments were put forward to change the CWA constitution. The first was to permit a majority of votes cast to decide affiliation with a national labor organization instead of a majority of all eligible.

The D.C. traffic union represented by Mildred Beahm voted in favor while Robinson of the installers union voted against. Each local voted their number of members. The result was 63,900 in favor and 95,111 against.

The second amendment put forward called for a referendum of the membership to determine affiliation with a national labor organization. Again Beahm voted for the constitutional amendment and Robinson against. This time the vote was closer—71960 in favor and 85,055 against.

With the convention, the Washington Telephone Traffic Union passed out of existence and became CWA Division 50.

The CIO claimed it had recruited unions representing over 100,000 members, but Beirne says the numbers for the CWA approached 300,000 when counting local unions who affiliated, but didn’t send delegates.

“We have the members, the CIO has the claims. It is our firm belief that even those officers of phone unions who have been dickering with the CIO will eventually go along with the CWA, and will come back to the union representing most phone workers,” Beirne told reporters.

Over the next two years, the TWOC and the CWA waged representation battles across the country. CWA mostly held its ground against CIO encroachment, but the CIO picked up a number of unaffiliated unions. Instead of a single stronger union coming out of the strike, there were now two competing unions.

The bitterness of the competition for members between the two unions led to a lot of anger. Brooks writes that Washington, D.C.’s Madge Giles, who was on loan to the CWA during a representation battle in the Baltimore area, told a CIO organizer, “Mr. CIO…over my dead body would I ever be a part of the CIO.”

1948 Contract

A C&P Telephone line worker: 1929 ca.

A C&P line worker is shown in 1929. After the 1947 strike, the installers’ union was in shambles as about 1/3 had crossed picket lines during the strike and union membership was down from nearly 100% pre-strike to about 50% post-strike.

Gannon’s union began preparing the expiration of their contract in mid-May by opening bargaining with the company at the beginning of April 1948.

The loss of the long lines division to the TWOC left the CWA without a clear choice for a pattern-setting union. However Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company was a wholly-owned subsidiary of AT&T.

The installers union in the city was still in shambles. Before the strike, they had nearly 100 percent of the workers signed up in the union. After the strike, it was around 50 percent.

So the best choice to potentially bargain a pattern settlement was Washington D.C.’s Division 50.

Gannon’s union was still strong and had nearly 100 percent membership.

C&P may not have known it, but Gannon and Beirne both knew that after the long strike of the previous year that ended in defeat, there was little appetite for a strike by District of Columbia telephone operators or by telephone workers around the country.

Now there were two different fiercely competing national unions. There was no possibility of nationwide bargaining.

Further, industrial wage settlements had not yet been made for 1948 and left no clear guidepost for the weakened Bell Telephone unions.

Gannon set out to reach an agreement that would buy time to rebuild and wait for a more favorable time to challenge AT&T again.

Washington Sets the Pattern

After six weeks of nearly continuous bargaining, a three-year agreement was signed on expiration date of the old one-year agreement late in the evening on May 17, 1948.

It provided for no immediate wage hike, but contained provisions that permitted either side to re-open the contract for wage talks any time in the next year. And, provided an agreement on the first wage re-opener was reached, a second re-opener was permitted at any time after one year.

It also made some other improvements.

Mary Gannon with her ‘girls’ – 1945 ca.

Gannon (center) with union members.

Gannon told reporters that the long-term contract, the first 3-year agreement with C&P, “gives workers more liberal termination pay, ties the pensions down to the union’s contract, improves the grievance procedures and a holiday differential and clarifies the wording of the contract in a number of ways.”

The increase in termination pay was a key issue as AT&T continued o expand the use of direct dial for local calls and cut operator positions. Gannon also knew it wouldn’t be too long before direct dial was introduced for long distance calls.

The contract also provided that if no wage agreement was reached before the end of the first year, either side could terminate the agreement. The same held true for the second re-opener.

It was the first contract signed with a Bell System company that year and the right contract for the time.

Beirne hailed it saying, “Terms of Division 50’s settlement can serve as a basis for settlement of other CWA contracts and prevent the possibility of a strike in the industry. This agreement, and many others like it that may be negotiated across the country, can provide long-term stability in the industry if proper wage adjustments are made within the next 12 months and thereafter in accordance with the wage provisions of the contract,” according to Brooks in his book.

Ten CWA divisions followed with 3-2 contracts similar to Washington. The CIO’s long lines division made noise about a strike, but ended up settling along similar lines.

The battle with AT&T for a national agreement had been postponed to rebuild the unions.

CIO Again

The CWA convention followed the Washington agreement in June and the primary question was affiliation with the CIO to create one telephone union again.

After an initial vote to affiliate lost narrowly, a substitute motion was made to have the union executive board investigate affiliation with the AFL, the CIO or John Lewis’s then independent Mine Workers union. The board could then recommend affiliation and conduct a referendum of the entire membership. The motion passed.

1949 Re-Opener

Telephone union leaders plot strike strategy: 1952

Glen Watts, 2nd from right, is shown in a 1952 meeting of Washington, D.C. CWA locals. Margaret Ross, president of the D.C. operators’s union is at far right.

The two Washington C&P unions started negotiations on the first wage re-opener in their agreement September 15, 1948.

The installers union was now CWA Division 36 and was under the new leadership of Glenn Watts, a future CWA national president. Watts had set about re-building the local and along with Gannon presented a united front to C&P on the wage re-opener.

As negotiations dragged on, both unions joined to hold a series of meetings at Turner’s Arena. These were informational meetings that workers attended before or after their shifts and didn’t pull workers off the job.

This time around Washington workers were growing impatient for a raise and there were job actions in other states around contracts, including a strike in the Detroit, Michigan area.

Installers Settle

Both unions rejected “final” offers by C&P in October. Watts broke the united front with Gannon in November as his members pressed him to accept the C&P offer and he agreed to settle.

The agreement provided $2 to $6 per week increases depending on classification and seniority.

Watts said the agreement was the best he could do under the circumstances where his members didn’t want to strike and the majority favored accepting the increases.

But he said the agreement “was entirely unsatisfactory in view of the increase of the cost of living since the last wage increase in May 1947,” as quoted in The Washington Star.

Watts also called the agreement a “shocking discrimination against low wage earners” and that the company “passed up an opportunity to enter into an era of good employee relations by its stubborn determination to have its own way.”

Gannon, however, held firm in her rejection of the October offer.

On February 1, 1949 Gannon reached an agreement. The contract still contained increases from $2 to $4 per week, but far more workers were covered by the higher numbers.

Only 719 workers had been included in the $4 increase offered by the company in October. The February settlement gave the vast majority of operators $4 along with some of the clerks. The wage increases were retroactive to January 16th.

One Union Again

Beginning of 8-day ‘continuous meeting’ -1946

A mass meeting of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union.

The executive board of CWA recommended affiliation with the CIO. The next step was to conduct a nationwide referendum that passed 71,312 for affiliation and 34,419 for remaining independent.

The results of the two-month canvass were announced May 7th by Bierne.

Washington’s Traffic Clerk Division 50 put its bitter feeling aside and voted in favor of affiliation by a margin of 601 in favor and 435 against while Division 36 made up of the installers, accounting and sales representatives voted 533 in favor and 819 against.

The CIO immediately issued a charter to the CWA, but the hard work of merging the TWOC and the CWA was just beginning.

The details of the merger were worked out prior to the CWA convention scheduled for June 13-17, 1949 in Chicago.

At the convention, TWOC delegates were seated and constitutional changes to combine the two unions were approved. Beirne was elected president and other officers included two women vice presidents.

Gannon nominated Frances Smith of Michigan, the former NFTW executive board member who was not at the convention, as the first woman vice president of CWA. However, Smith, who had two children and was reluctant to move to Washington, D.C., instructed the Detroit delegates to decline the nomination for personal reasons. It was later learned she was already ill and she died of cancer in 1951.

CWA-CIO now had 228,000 members after picking up 54,000 from TWOC. This was close to the numbers of affiliated members that the old NFTW had. There were still a number of unaffiliated telephone unions and a number of unorganized units that the union would focus on in the coming years.


D.C. union president on the picket line: 1947

Mary Gannon, 2nd from right, walks the picket line during the 1947 national strike.

As Division 50 prepared for the second wage re-opener of their 3-year agreement, Gannon began to step back from day to day leadership of the union, went on leave, and relinquished the presidency to long-time compatriot Eleanor Jane Palmer in late 1949.

Gannon had fought for 15 years to uplift telephone operators and to build a union that could take on the AT&T monopoly. There is always more work to do, but Gannon had accomplished her goals—too many improvements for telephone operators to list and building a strong local and national union capable of taking on the Bell system.

The Washington Star published an article March 22, 1950 announcing that she was leaving the union and C&P Telephone altogether. Excerpts from the article:

“Mrs. Mary Gannon, for 15 years militant leader of the Washington telephone operators’ union has resigned to devote more time to being a mother—and possibly to launch a political career.

“The energetic, 38-year-old union leader made the decision on the eve of her scheduled return from a four-month leave, her first vacation in five years.

“It was a decision that also entailed quitting her job as supervisory time clerk with the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.

“’It all has been very difficult,’ Mrs. Gannon said, ‘I was torn between two children, for I feel like the union was my child, too. But in the end I felt that I must give more attention to Tommy.’

“Tommy is her two-year-old son, born in May, 1947, at the close of the 6-week national telephone strike. Mrs. Gannon put in her usual long office hours during most of the strike. As in many other strikes—she led about 20 demonstrations of various types–Mrs. Gannon frequently appeared at the picket lines to cheer the strikers.

“Mrs. Gannon said she became interested in unionism ‘by accident’ in the early 1930s when a company-sponsored employee group was active. She stepped up when the nucleus of the present union was born in 1935.

Nationwide phone strike begins: 1947

Mary Gannon (left) passes picket signs to Eleanor Palmer during the 1947 national strike.

“Since then she has been spokesman for 2,500 operators and clerical workers, now identified as Division 50 , Communications Workers of America. Other union officials credit her with obtaining a long list of gains for traffic department workers, both here and nationally.”

Another tribute was given by her successor, Eleanor Jane Palmer.

Palmer described her as a “very dynamic woman, who commanded both respect and a following. She had the people working right with her, and we had so much regard for her that you might call it blind faith. I think if she said, ‘jump,’ we’d jump and then ask later.”

Another tribute to her leadership was a moniker bestowed on the union by the local radio and newspaper journalists. The term girl is rightly an insult today demeaning women, but back in the 1940s it was in common usage. C&P Telephone referred to operators as “Hello girls.” The news reporters called them “Gannon’s girls.”

Author’s Notes

I worked briefly at an AT&T office in Washington, D.C. as a clerk-typist during the summer of 1971 in between semesters at the University of Maryland.

The atmosphere gave me a taste of the oppressive conditions facing the Washington Telephone Traffic Union.

Everyone was seated at their desks at 9:00 a.m. and as the second hand on the clock we all faced reached 12, everyone started typing. There was no talking to co-workers permitted and the length of bathroom breaks were monitored. When it came time for lunch, typewriters ceased about five seconds before time to go and everyone was back at their seats and waited for the second hand to reach 12 before everyone resumed typing again.

I think when evaluating Gannon and the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, there probably aren’t enough accolades for what they accomplished—rising above their male compatriots to make improvements for workers in a rigidly male-dominated society.

Cafeteria Local 471 leader Oliver Palmer: 1958 ca.

Oliver Palmer circa 1958.

There are only two other local Washington, D.C. union leaders I would put in the same category as Gannon during that period—Oliver Palmer who led the Cafeteria Workers Union to organize hundreds of low-wage workers, steered the union, through a long, bitter 1948 strike that involved red-baiting and union busting, uplifted several thousand workers to obtaining living wages, health care, pension and other benefits and continued to head the union into the 1960s.

The other is Margaret Gilmore of the United Public Workers at the Bureau of Engraving who led hundreds of Black workers during her tenure heading the union in the late 1940s and early 1950s to take on the power of a white supremacist, right-leaning federal bureaucracy–and winning.

I think the power and unity of Gannon’s union can be seen in the debate over the Taft-Hartley Bill in 1947 over ending the “closed shop” – a union membership requirement.

Margaret Gilmore, leader of UPWA Local 3 at Bureau of Engraving: 1951 ca.

Margaret Gilmore circa 1950.

Alfred Friendly wrote in the Washington Post about the debate and said,

‘There is a final practical argument [against legislating an open shop]. You can legislate indefinitely against the closed shop, it is said and still be unable to achieve the desired goal. This is because in many cases, the individual employees will simply decline to work alongside a non-union man and no laws can force them to work.”

“Mary Gannon’s telephone girls in Washington, for example, have no closed shop contract, but when a switchboard operator is employed who refuses to join the union, a remarkable state in inaction sets in on the part of the rest of the hello-girls.”

I think the only criticisms that can be made of the union are twofold.

Gannon and the union could have been more assertive on the rights of Black people. It wasn’t as if there were no other union voices speaking up at that time, including nearly all the local unions of the CIO and the AFL cooks, laborers and a few others.

Further, there was a great opportunity for the WTTU to advocate for their own Black members by championing their promotion from other jobs within C&P to telephone operator as a solution to the “imported operator” issue that led to at least two work stoppages in 1944. The “imported operator” issue arose during World War II while C&P was under pressure by the FEPC and a local civil rights committee to hire Black operators.

The union’s legacy is thereby tarnished by their failure to advocate uplifting their own Black union members.

The other criticism is one raised in Venus Green’s Race on the Line. Gannon never brought up the issue of how to mitigate technological advancements that would decimate the union by eliminating the telephone operator job over time.

Gannon did press and win greater termination pay for those laid off. However, the issue of retraining as direct-dial replaced operators was never raised in contract negotiations with C&P by Gannon’s union.

The fact remains though, that when it comes to training for other jobs, there were only a few clerical jobs that were equal in pay to operator. And it would have been near impossible to train women for installers jobs at that time due to cultural resistance and the conservative local union that represented them in Washington, D.C.

But it is fair to say that the failure to take this issue on would haunt the Communications Workers of America in the coming years. In Gannon’s defense it must be pointed out that no one in the NFTW or the CWA raised the issue during those years.

Taking these two issues into account, if union leaders and rank and file members can apply the lessons of the WTTU to their own unions today, their unions will be greatly strengthened.

CWA Division 50 would become CWA Local 2300, which continues to exist representing workers at NASA, Verizon, B’Nai B’Rith, and the National Center for Social Studies.

First nationwide phone strike in 21 years: 1968 # 2

CWA president Joseph Beirne (2nd in line) joins pickets in front of C&P Telephone during the 1968 national strike.

True pattern bargaining between CWA and AT&T didn’t emerge until the 1958 and 1959 contract bargaining and the next national strike didn’t occur until 1968 when fully company-paid health insurance was obtained.

This post is hurt by two things. The first is that I was unable to review the records of the National Federation of Telephone Workers held at the Tamiment Library in New York because of the pandemic– which would surely shed more light on Gannon and the local union.

The second involves Mary Gannon’s early life and what happened to her after she left the union. My efforts to contact family members and find other records came up short.

Hopefully another researcher can fill in the blanks and widen and deepen the understanding of this remarkable woman and union.

Sources include:

Race on the Line by Venus Green, Communications Workers of America: The Story of a Union by Thomas R. Brooks, The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Afro American, CWA History by Communications Workers of America, 1953 Report by the Committee on Government Contract Compliance, 1988 Proceedings of the 50th Annual Convention of the Communications Workers of America, New York Amsterdam News, and The Other Women’s Movement by Dorothy Cobble.

Want to See More Images?

Washington Telephone Traffic Union images

D.C. Communications Workers of America images

Telephone Traffic Union Contract with C&P

1948 contract and 1950 wage re-opener between CWA Division 50 and C&P Telephone

1953 contract between CWA and C&P Telephone

Want to Check Out the NFTW’s The Telephone Worker?

1942 02 Vol. 1 No. 3

1942 07 Special Edition

1942 08 Vol. 1 No. 8

1942 12 Vol. 1 No. 9

1943 11 Vol. 2 No. 5

1944 08 Vol. 3 No. 2

1945 01 Vol. 3 No. 7

1945 02 Vol. 3 No. 8

1945 04 Vol. 3 No. 10

1945 05 Vol. 3 No. 11

1945 06 Vol. 3 No. 12

1945 07 Vol. 4 No. 1

1945 08 Vol. 4 No. 2

1945 09 Vol. 4 No. 3

Want to Read More About the 1940s?

Against the cold wind: The 1948 cafeteria workers strike

Strike wave at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Transit: 1945

A labor and D.C. civil rights leader remembered: Marie Richardson

Police raid 1948 fundraiser by Progressive Party supporters

The fight against Capital Transit’s Jim Crow hiring: 1941-55

The D.C. women streetcar operators of World War II








Origins of the civil rights sit in–U.S. Capitol: 1934

26 Feb
Howard students take direct action at the Capitol: 1934

Howard University students protest Jim Crow at the Capitol-1934.

By Craig Simpson

In the first organized, sustained sit-in demonstration against Jim Crow in the Washington, D.C. area and perhaps in the nation, a series of interracial groups took seats and demanded service at the public U.S. Capitol restaurants in 1934. They were buttressed by a group of 30 African American Howard University students who were barred, and their leaders were later arrested when they sought to enter the public House and Senate restaurants.

The impetus to the campaign began January 23, 1934 when Morris Lewis, secretary to the only African American U.S. Representative Oscar DePriest (R-Il.), was denied service along with his son at the House of Representatives public restaurant at the U.S. Capitol.


At that time there were five restaurants within the Capitol complex. The House of Representatives operated a public restaurant (sometimes called the café or the grill) where Lewis was denied service. Across the hall was the House restaurant set up for members and their guests. A third restaurant was a small room adjacent to the kitchen in the basement where African American workers on Capitol Hill ate.

The restaurants were under the direct supervision of the Accounts Committee chaired by Rep. Lindsay Warren (D-N.C.).

The Senate also operated two restaurants—one for members and guests located within the Capitol building and another public restaurant or café located in the Senate Office Building.

Last African American congressman from Reconstruction era: 1901

After Rep. George White left office in 1901, there is not another African American in Congress until Oscar DePriest in 1929.

After the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalizing “separate but equal” in 1896, Jim Crow laws and practices began sweeping the country, and Washington, D.C. was no exception.

In a 1934 interview with the Afro American, John H. Paynter of 51st Street NE recalled the times before Jim Crow was introduced into the Capitol,

In the late 1880s and early 90s an era which takes its place as the Golden Age of least restrictive privilege for the colored citizen of the District; it was not unusual for our ladies and gentlemen to lunch at the House restaurant with no evidence of discourtesy.

The last African American representative of the post-Civil War era was George Henry White (R-N.C.), who left office in 1901. No other African American would be elected to Congress until DePriest, who took office in 1929.

Call for Jim Crow

Sulloway outrages white supremacists: 1902

Rep. Cyrus Sulloway regularly dined with an African American in 1902.

The calls for Jim Crow in the Capitol restaurants began quickly after White’s departure.

The Louisiana newspaper The Rice Belt Journal in 1902 lamented that

Congressman [Cyrus] Sulloway [R-N.H.], the giant of the house, who hails from New Hampshire, almost daily has as his guest in the house restaurant his negro messenger, and the two, sitting at one table, break bread together and discuss the questions of the day. 

In 1903 the Indiana paper, the Daily Ardomreite, decried President Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican policies regarding African Americans.

They [African Americans] are making more conspicuous appearances than ever at public places usually given over to the whites. At the capitol, in both the senate and the house…restaurants, negroes have been served along with the whites, though not at the same table.

Rep. J. O’H. Patterson: Wanted Jim Crow House restaurant: 1907

Rep. James Patterson is astonished in 1907 at mixed dining in the Capitol.

Rep. James O’Hanlon Patterson (D-S.C.) challenged the admission of African Americans to the House restaurant in 1907 when he spied a black clergyman from Boston dining with white women.

The Washington Post reports:

Mr. Patterson entered the restaurant at the lunch hour, when the place was crowded. Seated at one of the tables was a very dark-skinned colored man and a couple of white women of apparent refinement and respectability.

The latter were chatting with the colored brother in the most friendly fashion, and apparently treating him as an equal. Mr. Patterson states that he was amazed at the sight. 

The Post quotes Patterson himself:

My first impulse was to go over and interview that Boston clergyman, as it was a practical demonstration of the social equality of the races that grated on me and I was mad clear through.

However I refrained, by an effort, from making an unseemly exhibition of myself and sought the manager of the restaurant for an explanation.

To my astonishment, he told me that the portion of the restaurant set aside for the general public was free to anybody who wished to be served, regardless of color and that he was powerless to prevent such an exhibition of social equality as that which so enraged me.

Patterson failed in his attempt to impose Jim Crow at that time.

William Vernon: Object of Jim Crow attempt at U.S. Capitol: 1909

Register of the Treasury William Vernon.

The next widely publicized move against admitting African Americans to the House public restaurant occurred May 13, 1909 when the African American Register of the Treasury William Tecumseh Vernon and a companion entered and sat at a table near future Vice President and current Rep. John Nance Garner (D.-Tx.) and Rep. Martin Dies Sr. (D.-Tx.).

According to the New York Daily Tribune,

Mr. Garner and his companion had given their order for food, when Mr. Vernon and his friend entered. At another table the three other Southern members were preparing to eat. The entrance of the register was greeted with protests, and when he had seated himself Mr. Garner announced that his order would have to be cancelled if negroes were allowed in the restaurant.

He was followed by his colleagues, and they immediately went to the proprietor, to whom they expressed themselves in unmeasured terms. He declared that he was powerless to interfere and advised that the Speaker be consulted.

Mr. Garner heard from L. White Busbey, the Speaker’s secretary, that the restaurant was a public one, and that if Mr. Garner and his friends desired privacy they should go to the dining room set apart for member of Congress.

This information served to cool the anger of the Southerners, although there are still mutterings about a boycott on the restaurant.

Garner wants Jim Crow U.S. Capitol restaurant: 1909

Rep. John Garner protests Vernon’s presence in the dining room-1909

However, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912 and quickly set the standard for Jim Crow in Washington, D.C. when he segregated the federal government with separate dining areas, bathrooms, workspaces and directed other forms of discrimination.

By the first session of the new Congress in April 1913, Democrats held a comfortable majority in the House and a slim majority in the Senate. Southern Democrats of the “Solid South” played a disproportionately large role and, among other issues, turned their attention to the administration of the Capitol building.

W. Tyler reported on a Democratic caucus meeting in September 1913 for the Chicago Defender:

…it was voted to dismiss all the Negro employees at the Capitol, and give their places to white men. This is to include the barbers and waiters, who are employed at the Capitol building and in the Senate and House Office Building, as well as the messengers and laborers.

The white supremacists did not carry through on all their plans, but the stage was set for Jim Crow within the law-making building of the nation’s capital.

Segregation comes to the Capitol restaurants

Jim Crow was formally extended to the Senate lunchroom in the Capitol building in 1917. Archibald Grimke, a founder of the NAACP and the Washington, D.C. branch president, protested, but he was told it was the new policy of the superintendent appointed by Wilson.

Rep. Aswell establishes Jim Crow in House restaurant: 1921

Rep. James Aswell’s letter triggers Jim Crow in House restaurant-1921

In December 1921, Rep. James B. Aswell (D-La.) wrote a letter to the chairman of the Accounts Committee, Clifford Ireland (R-Il.), that had recently been given oversight of the House restaurant, protesting the seating of African Americans.

The New York Times reported that Aswell observed “four negroes eating in the restaurant the last few days” and demanded to know under whose authority they were admitted. The letter said in part:

Is this to be the practice of your committee under the present administration? Gentlemen of the House should have this information now so they may know whether to keep their families, friends and themselves away.

The Afro-American wrote,

Colored people here paid little attention to Aswell’s letter.

Any attempt on the part of the Republican administration to prevent their entering a government institution supported out of their taxes will, it is said, only forge another weapon to be used against the party in the next election.

Aswell was given assurances that henceforth “the restaurant would be restricted to whites-only,” according to the Times.

Despite the Afro’s bluster, Jim Crow had come to the U.S. Capitol

Oscar DePriest

DePriest attempts to end Jim Crow at House restaurant: 1934

Rep. Oscar DePriest circa 1930.

DePriest was born in Alabama to former slaves who were freed during the Civil War. In the period after federal troops were withdrawn from Alabama in 1874, DePriest’s parents stayed in Alabama as white supremacists consolidated their rule. However, continuing violence against African Americans, including on the DePriests’ doorstep, caused them to flee in 1878.

DePriest went to Salina Normal School in Kansas where he studied bookkeeping and teaching. Moving to Chicago, he made a fortune in construction, real estate and the stock market.

He was elected in 1914 as Chicago’s first black alderman and built an African American political machine under the patronage of Republican Mayor William Thompson.

DePriest was an advocate of opening trade unions to African Americans and assisted an ultimately unsuccessful effort in the early 1920s to recruit African Americans working in Chicago’s meatpacking plants into the local union.

Thompson selected him to fill a vacancy on the ballot for Congress in 1928 and he was elected the first African American U.S. representative outside the South and the first in the 20th Century.

DePriest was a conservative Republican but survived Roosevelt’s landslide election in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression that elected a heavily Democratic Congress. DePriest’s political machine was able to overcome a Democratic edge in party registration within his district and retain black Republican votes that were shifting to the Democratic column elsewhere.

He is credited with speaking out forcefully against Jim Crow during speeches in the South, but was not a believer in the direct action that was then being put into practice by communists and other radicals and being adopted locally by the liberal New Negro Alliance.

He earned the ire of Chicago communists and other progressive forces in the African American community over his refusal to introduce a resolution in Congress regarding the “Scottsboro Boys,” evicting unemployed workers from his real estate holdings, voting against the World War I veterans bonus bill, opposing higher taxes on the wealthy, and for a speech saying he was “not interested in social equality.”

The communists disrupted his speaking events and in turn he opposed them at every opportunity.

During his tenure in Congress he introduced civil rights bills, but had little to show for it except the requirement that the Civilian Conservation Corps ban discrimination based on “race, color, or creed.” However the CCC was initially set-up as Jim Crow in the South and by 1935 this was extended across the nation.

During his five years on the Hill, up until the point where his aide was refused service, he had made no moves to end Jim Crow within the Capitol.

At the time of that incident he was weighing his options in an intra-party Republican fight in Chicago between supporting incumbent committeeman William E. King and ambitious second ward alderman William L. Dawson. A second fight was brewing with both King and Roscoe Simmons challenging incumbent state senator Adelbert Roberts.

DePriest needed to calculate his political moves carefully to maximize his ability to turn out Republican votes against an expected strong Democratic challenge in the fall.

New restaurant management

In the ensuing years after Jim Crow was introduced into the Capitol restaurants, it was enforced sporadically until Warren hired Patrick Henry Johnson to manage the House of Representatives’ restaurants in 1933.

Johnson was a former state senator from Patego, N.C.—Warren’s home state—and had no previous restaurant experience when he was brought in.

While under the tutelage of the former manager Frank Verdi, he reportedly said “n_____s steal and I am going to watch them,” according to the Afro American.

When Johnson took over, he removed African Americans from cashier and other key positions and put them back to work as waiters or busboys, placing white men in their positions.

Johnson next issued his order to bar all African Americans from the public café and the restaurant, effective Tuesday, January 23, 1934.

Lewis reacts

Aide Morris Lewis and Rep. Oscar DePriest: 1929

Morris Lewis (left) with DePriest in 1929.

Lewis gave a statement to a congressional hearing later where he said:

On Tuesday, January 23, 1934, about noon, as I frequently have done for the past four or five years, accompanied by my son, I went to the Coffee Shop of the public restaurant of the House of Representatives.

We took seats as usual. Almost immediately the cashier approached me and touched me on the shoulder, with the announcement that, “This restaurant is reserved for white people and colored people will not be served.”

Lewis summoned the manager and demanded an explanation. Johnson told reporters afterward:

They demanded to know who was responsible for the order not to serve them. I told them the House Accounts Committee. Then they said they were American citizens and refused to be insulted like that.

Lewis said he sought Warren in his office but was told he was on the floor of the House. Lewis then sent a note calling for Warren but was told he wasn’t on the floor. He returned to Warren’s office and after 30 minutes was led into an anteroom where Warren’s secretary told him the congressman could not be seen.

Lewis then returned to DePriest’s office. Before Lewis could tell DePriest about the events, a reporter for the Afro American arrived and asked DePriest if he knew about the new order barring African Americans.

DePriest enraged

The Afro American described DePriest’s reaction:

DePriest became enraged immediately. Bouncing to his feet from behind his large desk, the Congressman turned to his secretary Morris Lewis to see if he had received such notice.

The Afro reported the conversation between the two as follows:

Lewis: Why I went in there to eat this morning and the cashier tapped me on the back and said that the coffee shop was reserved for white.

DePriest: You mean to tell me that they wouldn’t let you eat in there?

Lewis: They certainly wouldn’t.

Wilkinson part of sit-in at House restaurant: 1934

Frederick Wilkinson-1934.

DePriest turned to Frederick Wilkinson, the Howard University registrar who was seated in the office, and said, “Come on Fred, you and Mr. Weaver [Afro American reporter Frederick Weaver], we’ll eat in there, or find out why.”

Through the hallways from his office, on the Capitol subway and through the halls of Congress on his way to the coffee shop, DePriest stopped everyone he could and told them about the discrimination.

Upon arriving at the coffee shop, the group found it closed for the day. However the restaurant for members was open and the three went in, took seats and placed an order for bean soup. They were served without incident—testing whether the ban extended to the members’ restaurant and perhaps unwittingly launching the first sit-in of many over the next two months protesting racial discrimination in the Capitol building.

After inquiring of the waiter as to who the manager of the coffee shop was, DePriest called Johnson over. According to the Afro, the conversation went as follows:

DePriest: Who gave you orders to keep colored people from eating across the hall in the public coffee shop? I know you didn’t make any such rules.

Johnson: Those were Mr. Warren’s orders.

DePriest: That’s all I want to know. That’s all, you may go back.

When the group finished their soup, they headed for Warren’s office, but according to the secretary he wasn’t there.

DePriest, parting ways with Wilkinson, headed for the office of Speaker of the House Thomas Rainey (D-Il.). According to the Afro Rainey feigned ignorance saying, “Why I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“I’ll draft a resolution tonight and introduce it in the morning,” DePriest responded, according to the Afro.

DePriest headed back to his office, again telling everyone he saw about the affront.

The Associated Press reported DePriest’s words as he talked to someone in the hall:

I didn’t know anything about it until a few minutes ago. If the Democrats are going to act that way toward the Negroes, we might as well have a showdown now.

It seems funny to me that a man with money to pay for is food whether he be Jew, Gentile or Negro should be refused food in a public restaurant.

That is a public restaurant and everybody ought to have a right to eat there. I am going to insist on a square deal for Jews, Gentiles and Negroes.

I am going to see to it that Negroes are going to eat there, or we can close it. I’m going to put it to a vote on that resolution, which I am having drafted right now.

Warren holds firm to Jim Crow

Rep. Warren, chief architect of Jim Crow at House restaurant: 1934

Rep. Lindsay Warren (left)–1934.

With reporters swirling around the Capitol, Warren was bombarded for comment and issued a statement on the event.

In refusing to serve two Negroes today in the House restaurant, Manager P. H. Johnson of the restaurant was acting on my orders and instructions. The restaurant has been operated by the Committee of Accounts since 1921.

It has never served Negro employees or visitors, nor will it so long as I have anything to do with it.

Warren said that as a member of Congress, De Priest had a right to eat there, but as for others…

…if we let one Negro employee eat in the restaurant, we’ll have to let all of them. It always has been the rule to feed only white people in the restaurant.

The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Associated Press and the African American press, among others, spread the story across the nation.

DePriest’s resolution

Atlanta paper highlights DePriest Jim Crow resolution: 1934

Atlanta World calls it a ‘showdown for rights.”

The Afro American reported that DePriest offered a resolution the following day that read:

Resolved, that the committee on accounts of the House of Representatives be and it is hereby instructed to rescind any and all rules, instructions or orders of said committee whereby any citizen is discriminated against on account of race, color or creed in the public restaurant, grill room or other public facilities under the supervision of the House of Representatives.

The Afro trumpeted that the resolution might be the “Waterloo” for Jim Crow and a headline blazed “Action may lead to far-reaching fight.”

However, the Afro had reported the resolution prematurely. That was only a draft of what DePriest intended to introduce before he was told the Speaker of the House wanted to talk to him.

Rainey stalls Jim Crow House restaurant vote: 1934

Speaker of the House Thomas Rainey.

After a telephone call with Speaker Rainey, DePriest agreed to hold off open debate and was given the privilege of inserting his remarks in the Congressional Record for the day at a later date, according to the Afro.

The Associated Press reported Rainey had a brief conversation where he told DePriest, “Don’t you do anything about that matter until I see you.”

After their undisclosed conversation at the meeting between the two of them, DePriest offered a different resolution.

Instead of the planned bar on discrimination resolution, DePriest offered one alleging that the Accounts Committee received jurisdiction over the House restaurants in a special resolution adopted during the 67th Congress in 1921, and that as such that authority had expired at the end of that session without any renewing resolution.

DePriest’s resolution asked that an investigation be undertaken by a committee of five appointed by the Speaker of the House to determine whether the Accounts Committee exceeded its authority when it ordered discrimination against African Americans.

After hearing about DePriest’s resolution Warren responded by telling the Associated Press:

There has been a place in the basement of the Capitol building where colored people have been served since the restaurant was first established. That’s where they will continue to eat.

DePriest explained to an Afro reporter why he backpedaled on his promise to hold a floor debate on banning Jim Crow:

It is going to be a party fight and I think I owe Mr. [Bertrand] Snell, the [minority] leader, the courtesy of awaiting his return before starting the row on the floor. I have nothing against Mr. Rainey or any other leaders but this fellow Warren.

You might think it is a simple matter to get the highest legislative body in the land to take a stand against discrimination against any class of citizens. But that is not true. These men know that they have not got a legal leg to stand on, yet many of them secretly are in favor of discrimination and so are their constituencies. They don’t want to be put on the spot…All except the dyed-in-the-wool race haters, realize that morally and legally their attitude on such an issue is slimy.

DePriest had fallen into a trap, but wouldn’t find out until later.

Rainey, seeking to contain a national debate over Jim Crow when so many of his party supported it, sent the resolution to the Rules Committee, where he intended it would simply die without debate or action.

DePriest again challenged the seating policy on January 25th when he and Lewis went this time to the House public restaurant Lewis had been barred from two days earlier.

The New York Amsterdam News, an African American newspaper, reported that the appearance caused a “mild sensation” but the two were served uneventfully.

DePriest criticized

DePriest got criticized from all sides.

The Cleveland Gazette questioned why DePriest ignored the situation earlier, blasting him because he “waits until there is a Southern Democratic Congress to make a stir about it, something that should have been done long ago—when both Houses of the Congress were Republican.”

DePriest also came under fire from some African Americans for not pressing for a ban on discrimination and refraining from an open debate. Feeling the pressure, he released a statement on January 27th:

I understand the impression has gone out that I am not going to insist upon bringing my resolution to the floor for debate and vote. The rules of the House on an unprivileged resolution require that it go to the Committee on Rules for hearings.

That committee can give it a hearing and report it out favorably or unfavorably, or it can pigeon-hole the resolution.

If the committee refuses to act on my resolution I shall draft a petition to take it from the committee and bring it to the floor for action. This cannot be done until after the resolution has been in the hands of the committee without action for thirty days.

I have no intention of letting up in this fight without securing either approval or disapproval of the attitude of the Committee on Accounts on tis matter of race discrimination in the public restaurants and other appurtenances of the House of Representatives.

A sample House of Representatives restaurant menu: 1933

A 1933 menu from the House restaurant.

Lewis told the Associated Negro Press (ANP) that he and DePriest had not dined at the House public restaurant:

It is reported in the white press that I ate at the House restaurant last Thursday. I have not dined at the House restaurant since I was refused last Tuesday, January 23 1934 and I do not intend to again eat there until the bar against my racial group is removed.

But in the same article the ANP carried an account of the incident that said,

The two sat along the wall near the center of the room and necks were craned from all sides as they took their seats.

The Associated Press had also reported on the second dining with a slightly different take. It is unlikely that black and white reporters could have both had a case of mistaken identity on high profile, easily recognizable figures like DePriest and Lewis.

Instead, it can be inferred that DePriest had abandoned direct action and deferred to Speaker Rainey on how to handle the issue and was doing damage control. He was plainly worried that the direct action would offend his congressional colleagues and cost him support for his resolution.

In its January 28th edition, the Afro American ran a headline “Rep. Rainey hopes to end Jim Crow,” a further indication of the trust that was being placed in the Congressional leadership and the process. But both the Afro and DePriest would ultimately have to face the reality of the American legislative process.

DePriest continued to react defensively to criticism. He told the ANP:

Of course, I have no intention of turning back. Counter attacks will be set up against me Already the daily press has been filled with nasty little reports designed to throw the people off the track and to cause my motives to be questioned.

I have received word from my own district that I plotted for my secretary to be insulted so that I might have a good issue to use back home. How silly! Up until last Tuesday Mr. Lewis had been taking his meals regularly in the Capitol Coffee Shop. It was not until Tuesday that the Jim Crow rule was invoked against him. The issue was brought to me.

Congressional Support for DePriest

Rep. Cochran says Jim Crow okay: 1934

Rep. John Cochran: “I don’t care about colored people eating in the public coffee shop.”

The situation was relatively quiet in February while DePriest waited out the 30 days the Rules Committee had to consider his resolution before he could petition members of Congress to bring it to the floor in the event the committee chose not to act on it.

Republicans generally pledged support for DePriest and some liberal Democrats did the same.

Rep. John J. Cochran (D-Mo.), a member of the Accounts Committee, said Warren never brought the matter to the committee.

I don’t care about colored people eating in the public coffee shop. We have a private place in which to eat and take our personal friends and I don’t want to be involved in the matter. That is Warren’s responsibility and he will have to wiggle out of it the best he can.

Acting Minority Leader Rep. Joseph W. Martin (R-Ma.) believed many representatives would support DePriest:

Undoubtedly a majority of the Republicans will support him when the resolution comes up. The Republicans don’t believe in discrimination. They will support him in the Rules Committee.

Rep. James M Beck (R.-Pa.) said he was prepared to take to the House floor to defend DePriest and “the rights of colored people.”

Fuel to the fire

Byrd expulsion from Senate restaurant sparks sit-ins: 1934

Mabel Byrd circa 1928.

A firestorm broke out again on February 21st when it was reported that a party of three women and one man, including African American Mabel Byrd, had been barred from the Senate restaurant.

The group from Chicago included Cook County commissioner Amelia Seers, Sarah Paul Paige and Trevor Bowen, along with Byrd. The group had been attending hearings on the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill.

When the party entered, a waitress told them, “If that woman is colored, she can’t eat in here.”

Seers told the Associated Press that after a “dignified” argument with the “individual” in charge, they were refused permission to eat and were evicted by Senate Office Building police officers.

According to Seers, a police officer grabbed Byrd’s elbow so forcefully it caused her to pass out as he expelled her from the restaurant.

The Atlanta Daily World reported that Byrd was dragged unconscious through the corridors and down the stairs to the police headquarters within the Capitol before being placed under a doctor’s care.

Copeland denies Senate restaurant is Jim Crow: 1934

Senator Royal Copeland in 1936.

Senator Royal S. Copeland (D.-N.Y.), chair of the Senate Rules Committee that oversaw the restaurant, stated that the Byrd party was not barred because of race but because the restaurant was full and there were no tables available, according to the Afro.

Byrd adamantly denied Copeland’s version saying, “There were plenty of tables available,” according to the Afro.

Copeland further denied that the restaurant barred African Americans. However, Copeland then ordered the restaurant to reserve a table for African Americans—setting up another version of Jim Crow, according to the New York Amsterdam News and other African American news outlets.

It was the first of the changing official stories.

The Washington Tribune reported Chester Jurney, sergeant-at-arms at the Capitol, contradicted Copeland and said,

If Miss Byrd had investigated the matter quietly and in a ladylike manner, she would have found that the particular waitress who had refused to serve her was in the wrong. Instead of doing that, she immediately flew into a tantrum and disrupted the lunch hour quiet of the restaurant with screams and cursings.

Sears hotly denied Jurney’s account, “absolutely untrue!”

Sears went on to explain that a plainclothes officer supported the waitress’s order to bar Byrd. The Atlanta Daily World quotes Sears:

In the meantime, uniformed men came and seized Miss Byrd. She did not curse, but rightfully told them not to touch her inasmuch as she had committed no crime and created no disturbance, any more than anyone else in the party of four.

Byrd after her removal from Senate restaurant: 1934

Mabel Byrd: 1934

Byrd was the first African American admitted to the University of Oregon, later transferring to the University of Washington. There she was not permitted to board on campus with other students because of her race and had to stay off-campus with a professor. She earned a degree in liberal arts.

She became involved with the civil rights movement of the time, working with the YWCA and NAACP, which included working with W.E.B. DuBois. After working at Fisk University on segregation issues, she was hired to insure equal conditions and employment opportunities for African Americans under the National Recovery Administration. She had been recently appointed to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Consumer Advisory Board.

Her standing in the African American community and with liberals made little difference.

Two days after Byrd was expelled and Copeland made his initial remarks that there was no ban on African Americans, a reporter for the Afro American went into the Senate public restaurant and was served without a problem—the first of many people other than DePriest and Lewis to knowingly challenge Capitol segregation.

Another unidentified group of three people—one white woman, who was reportedly a writer for a communist newspaper, and two African Americans—entered the Senate restaurant and were served without incident, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Later Copeland would admit the waitress had in fact barred the Byrd party and rescinded his order for a separate table. He continued to deny, however, that the Senate public restaurant barred African Americans and reminded an Afro reporter that someone from his newspaper had been served subsequent to the Byrd incident.

For those seeking to bar African Americans on the Senate side, the problem was a little more complicated—there was no separate restaurant to serve African Americans like on the House side.

However, as events unfolded over the next few weeks, it became clear that orders were given to the restaurant to discourage, delay and make excuses as to why African Americans couldn’t be seated, instead of outright barring and giving race as the reason.

Sit-ins begin in earnest

Dorothy Detzer, executive secretary of Women’s Int. League: 1939

Dorothy Detzer testifying before Congress in 1939.

Dorothy Detzer and Dorothy Cook, secretary and assistant secretary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, began coordinating a series of small interracial groups of people to demand service at the Capitol restaurants.

The plan was to bring one African American each day into the restaurants in the company of a group of white people and force the end of Jim Crow or gain publicity that would aid in its demise.

Most were familiar to each other, having worked together on anti-lynching legislation and other liberal causes or attended meetings of the NAACP Interracial Committee in the city.

A group led by Cook attempted to meet with Sen. Copeland on Friday, March 9th over the Dorothy Byrd expulsion, but Copeland was unavailable.

The interracial group proceeded to the House Restaurant, where they seated themselves and ate a light lunch without interference from the management.

“It was about four o’clock in the afternoon and there were a very few dining there at the time,” said Cook. According to the Afro, red roses were given to the women of the party.

The following week, on March 13th another group returned to the Capitol and went to the House Restaurant and they were served without incident.

Theresa Russell among peace delegates at the White House: 1932

Theresa Hirshl Russell (second from left)–1932.

The group included Charles Edward Russell, of the local NAACP Interracial Committee; Theresa Hirshl Russell, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Charles Russell’s wife; Harland Glazier, secretary of the socialist party in D.C.; and Ralph Bunche, professor of political science at Howard University.

Part of the group, along with others who joined them (Margaret Jones, member of the Interracial Council; Dorothy Alden former World Peaceways, Dorothy Cook, Harlan Glazier; Dr. Howand Beale, former professor of Bowdoin College and the Rev. R. W. Brooks of the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church) met Copeland in his office.

Copeland “expressed himself as strongly opposed to any form of segregation or discrimination in the Capitol cafes. He reiterated his previous statement that the Mable Byrd incident was unfortunate, and that the head waitress was absolutely wrong in her refusal to serve her,” according to the Afro.

But these small, quick victories were only temporary.

The next day the House restaurant refused service to a mixed group that included John F. Whitfield, pastor of the Christian Colored Church, and Leonard. C. Farrar, secretary of the National Forum Association, and three white persons: Charles Edward Russell, Harlan E. Glazier and Robert Shestick of the Citizens Party, according to the United Press International.

‘Yes, we don’t serve colored’

Dr. Wesley joins direct action aimed at Jim Crow: 1934

Dr. Charles Wesley circa 1941.

On March 15th Dr. Charles H. Wesley, an African American professor of history at Howard University, was refused service in yet another interracial group.

Wesley was told, “We don’t serve colored people here,” according to the Afro.

Wesley went to restaurant at noon Thursday with three white friends: Dr. Howard K. Beale, historian on the staff of the University of Chicago and research historian at the Library of Congress; Rev. Russell J. Clinchy, pastor of the Fourteenth Street Congregational Church in the city; and Katharine Wilfrey, a social worker.

Wesley told the Afro that the party took a table and then the following occurred:

When the waiter came to my table he told me the manager wanted to know my nationality and that he had told him to ask me. The waiter offered to serve me at his table, but I declined, because I feared he might lose his job.

Wesley said the manager then came over to the table:

Johnson: What nationality are you?

Wesley: I am an American citizen.

Johnson: But I mean what race?

Wesley: According to your definition, I am colored.

Johnson: Well then, you can’t be served here.

Wesley: You are excluding me then on the basis of race, because I am colored?

Johnson: Yes, we don’t serve colored.

Beale: Dr. Wesley is our guest. He did not come here of his own accord. We invited him. Do you mean to say our guests cannot be served here? Dr. Wesley is a master of arts of Yale, and a doctor of philosophy of Harvard. We were at Harvard together, and he is now my guest. I want him to be served.

Johnson: We’ll serve you three (indicating the three whites), but not him (pointing at Wesley).

Beale: Why?

Johnson: It is against the rules.

Wesley: Who made the rules?

Johnson: The committee, of which Congressman Warren of North Carolina is chairman.

The party stayed at the table for an hour and drafted a resolution signed by three white members of the party protesting the group’s treatment and the policy. They attempted to deliver it to Warren, who was having dinner in the private House members’ restaurant, but they were barred. Instead, they left their protest at Warren’s office.

“For Members Only”

‘Race problems roots in capital’ – 1942

D.C. a blueprint for Jim Crow across the country?

Sometime during the day of March 16th, Johnson put up a cardboard sign outside the public restaurant at the House that read, “For Members Only.”

The Post reported it was the first time ever that the public had been formally barred from the restaurant. Even to the Washington Post reporter this was thinly disguised discrimination.

Johnson told an African American man in the presence of a Post reporter that he would not be admitted to the restaurant. When the man asked why? Johnson responded, “Because you are a Negro.”

Weaver, a reporter for the Afro, questioned Johnson about his admitting obvious members of the public to the restaurant who were white:

Johnson replied, “Any white person who wants to can eat in there and we don’t intend to let no n______s eat in there if that’s what you want to know.”

The Afro reported:

Johnson stood by the door and told white people passing by who looked at the sign, “That’s all right, you may walk right in.”

Some would respond, “But the sign says….”

“Yes, but that doesn’t apply to you,” Johnson would reply.

When asked by the Afro reporter why he would post signs and then allow persons other than members to enter, Johnson responded:

“That rule is enforced at our discretion, but we don’t intend to let no n_______s eat in there if that’s what you want to know, and I hope, God damn it, you don’t like it; it would suit me fine.”

A waiter, hearing the commotion, asked what was going on and when told said:

“Come on in here. I will serve you and I wish he would fire me for doing it.”

‘Because I’m not a n________r”

After his order was taken and the reporter served a bowl of soup by waiter Harold Covington, Johnson came in with police and, according to the Afro said,

Waiter fired for serving African American at Capitol: 1934

Harold Covington, the waiter who served Weaver. 

Johnson: Didn’t you see that sign on the outside?

Weaver: Yes, but didn’t you tell me that it was public for everyone except n______s?

Johnson: I certainly did, and why did you come in here?

Weaver: Because I am not a n_______r.

Police officer: All right, let’s go. You’re just looking for trouble. This man is manager of this place and if he don’t want you in here you can’t come in, that’s all. Let’s go.

Outside Weaver met Rev. P. D. Perryman, an African American, and related the incident.

Johnson turned Perryman away as several police officers strode up explaining that African Americans were barred.

As Perryman walked away, Johnson called him back for a “clarification,” further explaining that if his Senator or Congressman accompanied him, he would be admitted.

Second Group tries to eat

Ryan takes oath as education director at BIA: 1930

Dr. W. Carson Ryan (center)–1930.

On Friday, March 16th a second group tried to eat in both the House restaurant and the Senate restaurant.

Dorothy Alden, recently of World Peaceways, and Dr. W. Carson Ryan, Director of Education at the United States Indian Service, were to meet James Herring, an African American professor of art at Howard University, but Herring didn’t show up.

Afro American reporter Florence Collins volunteered to take Herring’s place and the group headed for the House café. There they ignored the “For Members Only” sign, entering the restaurant “amid frowns, curious stares and a tense excitement,” according to Collins.

Collins reported that Johnson angrily approached and began an exchange:

Johnson: Is that woman colored?

Ryan: She is a United States citizen.

Johnson: But, is she colored?

Ryan: The lady is a friend of ours, who is within her rights. We just left the anti-lynching hearing and came here to get some lunch.

Johnson: I said, “Is that person colored?”

Alden: Well, what if she is?

Johnson: Now, you people know that I cannot serve colored persons here I think you are acting pretty rotten putting me in this position. I have been courteous to you folks all the way, and I think it is a shame the way you are acting.

Alden: Well, what are we doing wrong? We are entirely within our rights as American citizens. What authority have you to refuse to serve us?

Johnson: I take my order from Congressman Warren. That is all that I can do. I have strict orders not to serve colored people. Now you people know what is going on.

Alden: Know what?

Johnson: You know the publicity that this place has been getting. Haven’t you seen it in the daily papers? You have been coming here all this week embarrassing me with these actions. You know our policy.

Johnson walked away, but reporters had gathered outside the restaurant entrance and they began quizzing the party. After the interviews, the group tried to find Warren but he was not in his office. He was paged on the floor but the House page said he could not be located.

The group, minus Ryan but picking up Dorothy Detzer and Dorothy Cook of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, headed for the Senate side.

The party waited to be seated, but when seats opened up the manager beckoned an all-white group.

Detzer then led Collins to two vacant seats at a long table that was partially occupied by white diners.

A waiter told the two they could not be served and Detzer asked for the manager.

Peace activist Dorothy Detzer takes on Jim Crow: 1934

Dorothy Detzer in 1934.

E. Meaney, the manager of the Senate restaurant, told her if she sat at a separate table with the reporter she would be served. The exchange continued:

Meaney: You have no right to do this. You should have some respect and consideration for other white people in here. You have no business sitting here with these people, with your er, er, friend.

Detzer: I have been coming here for nine years and I have never been refused before.

Meaney: I cannot refuse to serve you.

Detzer: Then serve me.

Meaney: You mean serve you —alone?

Detzer: Bring me my order, bring it here to me now.

Meaney stared for a few seconds.

Meaney: Ah, come now, you know you wouldn’t have me do that.

Detzer: Are you refusing to serve me?

Meaney: Oh, you know that isn’t right. Don’t have me do that. Take another table with the rest of your party and you will all get served.”

Meaney walked away shortly afterward and Detzer told Collins, “Sit tight, they can’t harm you. We’ll sit it out.”

After more time, a table for four opened up and the group was seated together. All were served.

The Senate policy toward African Americans had been clarified—no outright refusal, but no service, if at all possible, either.

The Washington Post reported a separate incident where two unidentified women, one black and one white, were also refused service within the Capitol on March 16th .

Waiter fired

Noted psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark: 1945 ca.

Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark circa 1945.

Harold Covington, a junior at Howard, was fired from his waiter’s job March 16th for serving the Afro American reporter Frederick Weaver—who was also a student at Howard University—during the incident over Johnson’s use of the n-word.

Word spread quickly to the Howard University campus and Kenneth Clark, a junior at the time and editor of the campus newspaper The Hilltop, wrote an editorial blasting segregation at the Capitol and inspiring students to stage a protest.

Clark and his wife Mamie would go on to do pioneering work as psychologists among African American children. Their research showed the debilitating effects of Jim Crow on African American children and provided the scientific evidence for ending the so-called “separate but equal” education with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954.

Clark was only a young student in 1934 and his editorial marked the beginning of his long career as a civil rights researcher, practitioner and activist.

Howard students confront Jim Crow

Gilbert Banfield—student who protested U.S. Capitol Jim Crow: 1934

Gilbert Banfield, a Howard student who protested Jim Crow at the Capitol.

Clark, Weaver, Covington and several other students rallied other underclassmen to participate. They made signs and arranged for cabs to take the group to the Capitol the next day.

The all-male group of students dressed in their best clothes and headed for what must have been very unfamiliar territory to them.

They arrived at the Capitol about 1:00 p.m. and marched through the halls to the public House restaurant.

A dozen Capitol police officers formed a line in front of the doorway to the café and refused to let any of the group enter, giving no reason for the blockade

“We want to eat!” shouted the students. Restaurant manager Johnson shouted back, “Well you cannot eat, so get out!”

When the students began congregating in the hall, the police ordered them to move and when they didn’t move fast enough, began shoving them toward the street entrance. “We didn’t do anything, all we want to do is eat,” said one of the students.

William E. Blake—student who protested U.S. Capitol Jim Crow: 1934

William E. Blake, Howard student who protested Jim Crow at the Capitol.

The first few students who went through the revolving door jammed it shut so the remaining students couldn’t be expelled. However, police quickly cleared the door and the rest of the students were forced out.

After talking among themselves, they engaged the police in a conversation and asked to be permitted to enter the building.

Police agreed on the condition that no disturbance was raised and no corridors blocked.

After marching to the Senate cafeteria and finding it closed—determined later to be on the orders of the sergeant-at-arms–the group decided to send a delegation composed of Clark, Weaver, Covington and O. Phillips Snowden to confront Johnson, the white manager of the House restaurant.

Police blocked the group from approaching the House restaurant and particularly singled out Covington.

At this point Harry Parker, a long-time African American doorman for the Ways and Means Committee, grabbed for Covington’s arm and said to him, “Why don’t you boys go along about business and not clutter up the hallways?”

Covington took a swing at him and Parker retaliated, with the two exchanging blows.

Afro journalist Fred Weaver, center, at Capitol protest: 1934

L-R, William E. Jones, Frederick Weaver and Henry Allen Boyd Jr. leave the Capitol after the demonstration.

Police quickly separated them and arrested Covington on charges of disorderly conduct and assault.

After the arrest, the group went to the First Precinct police station and were told Covington wasn’t there. After going to police headquarters, they were referred back to the First Precinct.

While they were waiting on the outside of the First Precinct for a bondsman to arrive, a plainclothes officer arrested Dudley Clark, Kenneth Clark, Weaver and Snowden and charged them with blocking the sidewalk.

However when Captain W. E. Holmes was informed of the charges, he dropped them and had the records of the arrests destroyed.

Kenneth Clark: student who protested U.S. Capitol Jim Crow: 1934

Kenneth Clark in 1934.

Reflecting back years later, Clark remembered that when Holmes learned that the group had been protesting racial discrimination he shockingly said, “Let these young men go. Take their names off the books. They should be praised, not arrested.”

The students then returned to campus.

The mainstream press played up the disturbance, with UPI writing,

A group of students was pushed bodily along the corridor and outside the Capitol by the police. Several demonstrators struck at the police. A series of wrestling matches followed but gradually the entire group was dispersed.

The New York Times headline read, “Students Rush Congress Restaurant in Vain Effort to test Rule Barring Race.”

The Washington Star headline was “SUSPENSION ASKED IN DEMONSTRATION, Suggested for 30 Howard Students for House Restaurant Disorder.”

The Baltimore Sun’s banner read “30 Negro Students Routed from House Demonstration; Howard University Group Hustled Out by Police After “Members Only” Sign is Ignored—One Arrested for Punching Capitol Employe.”

Reaction to demonstrations

DePriest refused to aid any of the direct action demonstrators saying that protest “would do no good and only cause trouble,” according to the Washington Post.

In another statement to the Atlanta Daily World, DePriest said,

There is no use getting excited about this situation. I am proceeding in an orderly way and I am confident that the House will back me in my efforts to stop this wholly un-American conduct on the part of Mr. Warren and restaurant attachés.

Ulysses Lee—student who protested U.S. Capitol Jim Crow: 1934

Ulysses Lee, one of the so-called Howard “radicals.”

DePriest would apologize to his colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives during a March 28th speech later in the month:

I am very sorry that those boys came down here from that university the other day as they did. If they had consulted me I would have told them to stay away from here…they are just like the uncontrolled youth of any college or school. There are very few colleges which do not have some radicals in them.

But the Afro published an editorial March 24th with the headline “Keep Up the Agitation Against Capitol J.C. [Jim Crow].

The newspaper praised Theresa Russell when Warren’s secretary told her that the policy was not to serve black people “and that’s the end of it.” Ms. Russell replied, “It is not the end, it is only the beginning.”

O. Phillip Snowden—student who protested U.S. Capitol Jim Crow: 1934

O. Phillip Snowden, another of the so-called Howard “radicals.”

The Afro did not call out DePriest by name for calling the students “radicals” but ran an editorial March 31st called “Thirty radicals.” It read in part:

If radicals is the worst name that can be found for these students, Howard University should consider that a compliment.

The radicals have always been the beacon lights of history. They came from the high, they came from the low. Look at the Declaration of Independence, and you will see an illustrious roll of radicals on that immortal scroll.

I apprehend that if there is anything at all in Darwinian theory of the origin of the species, then the first monkey who slid down the trunk of a tree was the first radical; and why? Because he upset the established and ordained order of things.

The conservative monkeys looked at him and shrieked at him from the tree tops. The tail hold that was good enough for their fathers was good enough for them, and the conservative monkeys called him a radical, a communist, an anarchist and a fool, but the radical monkey lifted up his face in hope to heaven, stood erect and walked, and in the lapse of the ages the radical became a man and the conservative has remained a monkey.

Should be kicked out of Howard

Rep. Thomas L Blanton (D-Tx.) said the students should be kicked out of Howard University along with President Mordecai Johnson.

We saw a bunch of them [communists] right here in this Capitol last Saturday, when 20 or 25 colored students from Howard University marched on this Capitol in a body insisting on violating the rules and regulations, attacked our good friend Harry, who though a colored man, has the respect, high esteem and warm friendship of every man who has been in Congress for the past 20 years and exemplified the teachings of Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University, who has preached communism on several occasions.

Rep. Warren said the demonstration by Howard University students was the “supreme outrage,” and that he was particularly shocked by the “obscene language used by the students,” according to the Washington Star. Warren went on to say that the restaurant was making a profit over the past year, but had lost money in the 10 days since demonstrations began.

Kenneth Romney, sergeant at arms of the House called for suspension of the 30 students saying they had “disgraced” the institution and should be punished.

Charges against students

No fee for attorney who takes student protest case: 1934

Atty. Perry Howard charged no free.

Covington was scheduled for trial on his assault and disorderly charges on March 19th, but Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hart requested additional time to study the case.

There were nearly 20 witnesses, including students, Capitol police, the restaurant manager and Parker.

On March 29th, the day before the trial was scheduled , Hart dismissed the case against Covington, citing a lack of evidence.

Covington’s attorney Perry W. Howard refused payment for his services saying:

You young students were fighting against something that many old people are afraid to speak against. I feel you were right and as long as young people of my race are chastised for doing the right, I am always ready to fight for them; I am glad to have been of service to you.

Howard said he was prepared to prove that Covington did not actually strike Parker, but struck at him when Parker advanced upon him.

The students’ version of events was vindicated over the exaggerated stories printed in the mainstream press.

Howard wasn’t the only one in Washington, D.C. to offer the students services for free.

Four African American taxi associations volunteered their services to transport the students back and forth to Capitol Hill and bail bondsman J. Walter Stewart bailed out Covington on a $400 bond without charge.

Expel the students?

DePriest, Scott and Johnson meet: 1930 ca.

President of Howard Mordecai Johnson, Rep. DePriest and Howard treasurer Emmet Scott circa 1930.

However, Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, considered expelling the students. He feared a call by southern congressmen to cut the school’s substantial federal appropriations.

The matter was sent to the school disciplinary committee composed of a number of professors at the school.

Johnson addressed the committee and made it clear that the leaders should not get their diplomas and that all should receive some type of suspension. Each student testified and then was dismissed from the room.

The more conservative elements wanted to take action against the students. Part-time Afro reporter Frederick Weaver was particularly singled out and charged with duping the other students into staging the protest. Clark was also singled out for his editorial.

Bunche--Give protesting students a medal of honor: 1934

Ralph Bunche circa 1946.

But the chair of the committee, Ralph Bunche, said that a medal of honor should be given rather than punishment. Bunche, an influential political science professor who would get a Nobel Prize 25 years later, threatened to resign if the students were punished.

A second factor they considered was the issue of the University’s professors who took part in the protests organized by Cook. Bunche, the chair of the disciplinary committee, had participated in a March 13th “dine-in,” at the Capitol, albeit without incident. If the students were punished, what should happen to the professors?

In a battle as old as the debate between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois over the “Atlanta compromise,” the progressive elements within the faculty committee won out and in the end the university took no action.

Protests dampened

Charles Russell, NAACP founder and muckraking journalist: 1935 ca.

NAACP founder Charles Edward Russell circa 1935.

DePriest’s condemnation of the protests and Howard’s threat against the students effectively ended the series of direct action sit-ins, but protest on other levels continued.

Following the students’ confrontation at the Capitol, the Civic National Forum sponsored a meeting at the Twelfth Street Christian Church on March 18th where Russell, an NAACP founder, told the crowd:

You are not barred from the restaurant because you are colored or your skin is dark. You are suffering because of the sins of my ancestors in holding you as slaves.

Russell was making the point that under House restaurant manager Johnson’s rules, diplomats from African countries, tourists from Japan or China, and the darkest skin people visiting from the Mediterranean countries of Spain, Greece, Italy or Turkey would all be served, but not African Americans.

Russell continued:

I do solemnly urge that you do not drop this fight against this great evil. Our great trouble is that we start things and then drop them.

NAACP boycott of D.C. Safeway stores: 1941

Rev. R. W. Brooks (2nd from right) at a D.C. Safeway boycott in 1941.

Glazier, the local Socialist Party leader, said

If Congress puts its stamp of approval on segregation under the dome of the Capitol, it will become a national policy and you will see the results of it everywhere.

Never has any situation within my lifetime been as dreadful as segregation sponsored by the national government.

Other speakers included Rev. Brooks, Alden, Theresa Russell, Detzer, Farrar and pastor of the church Rev. J. F. Whitefield.

DePriest petitions for resolution

After 30 days had elapsed without the House Rules Committee taking action on his resolution for an investigation into Jim Crow at the House Restaurant, DePriest filed a petition to discharge the resolution for consideration on the House floor.

DePriest needed 145 signatures to accomplish this. He took the House floor on March 21st with a 45-minute speech that borrowed time from other representatives.

Some excerpts:

If we allow this challenge to go without correcting it, it will set an example where people will say Congress itself approves of segregation. Congress itself approves of denying one-tenth of our population equal rights and opportunity: why should not the rest of the American people do likewise.

No ‘social equality’ for Rep. Terrell: 1934

Rep. Terrell ‘Neither eats nor sleeps” with African Americans.

DePriest read into the record a letter he received from Rep. George R. Terrell (D-Tx.), which read in part,

I note the contents of the resolution and desire to state that I was raised among Negroes in the south and they have always been my personal friends. I work with them on my farm and pay them the same price that I pay white men for the same work. I treat them well and enjoy their confidence….but I’m not in favor of social equality between the races.

I neither eat nor sleep with the Negroes and no law can make me do so.

I think this explains my position clearly.

In his remarks, DePriest responded:

Nobody asked the gentleman to sleep with him. That was not in my mind at all. I do not know why he thought of it. I am very careful about who I sleep with.

I am also careful about whom I eat with; and I want to say to you gentlemen that the restaurant down here is a place where one pays for what one gets. If I go in there, sit down to a table, I pay for what I get, and I am not courting social equality with you…Social equality is something that goes about by an exchange of visits from home to home and not appearing in the same public dining room.

I dropped into Knoxville one night, and the Chattanooga paper in southern Tennessee published a statement that I was coming to talk about social equality.

I said, “When the Negroes came to this country originally they were all black; they are not now, because somebody has had a good deal of social equality; social equality not sought by colored women; social equality forced upon them because of the adverse economic situation down there.”

In his closing remarks, DePriest implored his fellow representatives to sign the petition:

Again. I ask every member of this House who believes in a square deal, Democrats and Republicans alike, to sign this petition. I do not care where you live, you ought to be willing to give me and people I represent the same rights and privileges under the dome of the Capitol that you ask for yourselves and your constituents.

Rep. Warren: ‘mob of toughs and hoodlums from Howard University’--1934

Rep. Warren calls Howard protesters “hoodlums and toughs.”

Rep. Lindsay Warren took to the House floor March 23rd to defend his actions in regard to the implementing of Jim Crow at the House public restaurant.

He claimed that he was only carrying on the practices of his predecessor as chair of the House Accounts committee and that African Americans were being treated equally because they had a restaurant in the basement where service was a little faster and prices a little cheaper since it was located next to the kitchen.

Then he talked about the demonstrations:

One day last week a lot of Communists came down to see us. Another day they described themselves as Socialists; another day a demonstration was made by those claiming to be representatives of the International Labor Defense.

Last Saturday, the supreme outrage occurred when a mob of toughs and hoodlums from Howard University came right down and almost precipitated a riot.

Filth, vulgarity and profanity rang out through the corridors down there. The police told me that never in their lives had they ever taken such insults.

Three splendid ladies pushed their way out of the restaurant into that mob, came to my office and told me that they would never put their foot in there again on account of the vile and horrible language that had been used in their presence.

However, at the end of Warren’s 20-minute speech the remaining 10 representatives necessary to bring the issue to the House floor affixed their signatures to DePriest’s petition, insuring a vote on his resolution by the House scheduled for April 9th.

Forty-eight northern Democrats and five members of the Farmer-Labor Party were among the 145 signing DePriest’s petition.

Communists join the fray

The communists had composed one of the interracial groups testing the Senate restaurant and they and their allies had done some lobbying on the Capitol restaurant issue while attending to other issues, but had played a marginal role in the Capitol restaurant Jim Crow fight.

The local Communist Party focus during those weeks was on the third Bonus March in the city, the campaign to free the “Scottsboro Boys,” the anti-lynching bill being taken up on Capitol Hill, and the activities of the local Unemployed Council.

However, they were now ready to jump into the fray with both feet.

The communists organized a meeting April 5th that drew together sponsors including Gertrude Thorpe, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights; Maurice Gates, National Student League; Antoinette Lyles; Rev. R. C. Collins; Lorita Boston; Peter Warner, Young Communist League; L. Williams, International Labor Defense; and Harold Spencer, Communist Party.

Supporting the meeting were Cook of the WILPF, Rev. Whitefield, and Farrar.

The meeting formed the United Conference to Fight Discrimination (UCFD) and proposed to hold demonstrations and confront those upholding Jim Crow at the Capitol.

Delay on resolution vote

DePriest was forced to ask for a delay of the vote on his resolution because it came at the same time as the Illinois primary elections that he was heavily involved in.

Days before the primary, DePriest backed upstart alderman William Dawson against incumbent Committeeman William King. King was also running against incumbent state senator Adelbert Roberts. DePriest backed a third candidate, Robert Simmons, for that post.

Despite DePriest taking time away from Congress to mobilize his machine and campaign for his endorsed candidates, both Dawson and Simmons lost—making DePriest the enemy of the victors King and Roberts. DePriest’s odds in the fall general election had taken a turn for the worse.

In the interim period before the vote was re-scheduled, the Rules Committee reported out the resolution favorably. That simply meant that the report of the Rules Committee would be taken up before DePriest’s petition on the same resolution.

It appeared that DePriest’s resolution would finally come to a vote sometime around May 2nd.

‘It was Barzini all along’

Speaker Rainey avoids lets clock run out: 1934

Speaker Rainey-Restaurants serve the same food, so no discrimination.

From the beginning, DePriest had placed his faith in Speaker Rainey and thought that Rep. Warren was the culprit.

However, like The Godfather book and movie, Warren wouldn’t have been able to withstand the onslaught unless he had backing.

Russell had written Rainey a letter on behalf of the Interracial Committee of the NAACP in March protesting the Jim Crow restaurants within the Capitol and asking for Rainey to end the practice.

Rainey wrote back on April 10th:

I am in receipt of your circular letter, written as chairman of the Inter-Racial Committee, protesting against “unjust and unconstitutional discrimination” against colored Americans in the public restaurant controlled by Congress.

On the House side of the Capitol Building, we have a restaurant in which colored citizens are served and a much larger restaurant in which white citizens are served, the reason for the difference in size being that there are more whites to be served than there are colored people.

Both restaurants are under the dome of the Capitol. In both restaurants the same food is served coming from the same kitchen.

In the colored restaurant, the prices are a little cheaper for the reason that the restaurant is nearer the kitchen.

Both restaurants have tiled walls, tiled floors and tiled hallways on the outside.

Is it the position of you and your organization that the restaurant where white people are now served should be turned over to the colored people and colored people served there, and white people to be served in the restaurant where colored people are now served?

This would be quite impossible on account of size. Or is it your position that both races be permitted to mingle in the same restaurant?

At the present time, whites are not admitted to the colored restaurant and colored people are not admitted to the white restaurant.

It does not appear to me that there are any racial distinctions. They all have the same service and are well served.

Is it your position that prices should be raised in the colored restaurant and that they be required to pay the same prices as the white people pay?

Very truly yours, Henry T. Rainey

Three months earlier Rainey had “never heard of such a thing.” It seems now he knew a great deal.

It was becoming clearer to all, except perhaps DePriest, that the “investigation” to be voted on would be a sham. Even with a favorable vote on the resolution, Rainey would appoint the majority of the investigating committee. It was Rainey who likely offered the “investigation” resolution to DePriest during their meeting in January as a substitute for DePriest’s straightforward draft resolution prohibiting discrimination, thereby avoiding a vote on the underlying issue.

‘No respectable Negro will take part’

The Communist Party and allied groups called a demonstration at the Capitol April 27th, which DePriest immediately denounced.

The Baltimore Sun reported DePriest saying:

I know nothing whatsoever about this demonstration, but obviously it is being fostered by communists and red agitators. I trust that no respectable Negro will take part, and I denounce the idea as a deliberate move by communists to make capital out of the restaurant situation.

No friend of mine will take part, and I want no law-abiding citizen to be misled into believing that he will help me by joining the movement.

The cause I am interested in will be further advanced by the course I am following rather than by the brute force the Reds are trying to provoke.

The flyer for the protest was mildly worded and called for no confrontation, instead urging people to

Come and picket in front of the Capitol—Stop Jim-Crowism in Government restaurants.

DePriest’s declared opposition undoubtedly affected turnout and fewer than a dozen people arrived for the picket line, which quickly dispersed after finding that Rainey was not in the Capitol, according to the Star.

DePriest’s resolution voted on

Rainey called forth DePriest’s resolution for a vote May 2nd. Under the rules adopted, there would be no debate.

The Speaker called for a voice vote in which the “nays” sounded louder than the “yeas.” A division of the house was then called for and 237 stood for yes and 114 stood for no.

Rep. Louis T. McFadden (R-Pa.) then called for a roll call vote. As each senator’s name was called, the “No’s” would be called out loudly and answered equally as loudly by a “Yes.” Rainey had to use his gavel a number of times to restore order. The roll call vote ended with the same total as the division of the house.

Rep. Beck to defend African American rights: 1934

Rep. Beck opposes Jim Crow on House floor.

After the vote, James M Beck (R-Pa.) remarked:

It may be premature at this time to anticipate what that committee will report, but it will, I believe, find it difficult to justify the exclusion from a public restaurant, maintained by the government of the United States, of any class of citizen because of their color or race….to which nearly one-tenth of all the people of the United States belong, is unfair and invidious. 

As the House restaurant is now managed, a man or woman, whether a citizen or an alien, can freely enter. An alien from Japan, China, New Zealand, Patagonia, or an Eskimo from the frozen regions of the Arctic Circle can come into the restaurant and no one will say him nay.

Only the Negro citizen is excluded, and this notwithstanding the fact for this benefit and to prevent discrimination against him in the most important of all rights, that of suffrage, the 15th amendment to the constitution was ratified by states, which forbade any such discrimination either by the United States or by any state ‘on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Rep. Green says shut restaurant down: 1934

Rep. Robert Green proposed to close the restaurant and sell the assets.

But the opponents weren’t dead. Rep. John J. Cochran (D-Mo.), who had earlier said, “I don’t care” about African Americans eating in the restaurant, offered a resolution that “No Negro shall be permitted to eat in the house restaurant unless accompanied by a member of Congress.”

Rep. Robert A. Green (D-Fl.) had another solution and introduced a resolution that proposed the House shut down the restaurant and auction off its fixtures.

Cochran gave several reasons for voting against the DePriest resolution and then said:

Another reason that I opposed the resolution is that in my opinion it was introduced for political reasons, the author desiring to further his political interest in the recent primary in Chicago.

As a member of the Committee on Accounts I can say the restaurant has been conducted under the same rules as it was conducted when the Republican Party was in power…

DePriest’s resolution had passed but now even he was somewhat circumspect and told the Afro:

So far it has been an overwhelming victory, but the fight has just begun. I will not be satisfied until my constituents are accorded the same rights and privileges as those of white representatives.

Rainey appointed the three Democrats and named John E. Miller (D-Ark.), Francis Walter (D-Pa.) and Compton I. White (D-Id.). Only White had favored DePriest’s resolution. Rainey permitted DePriest to recommend the two minority party members.

McFadden calls for end to Jim Crow at House restaurant: 1934

Rep. McFadden (l) was isolated with his anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler views.

It is unclear if DePriest chose P. H. Moynihan (R-Il.) and Louis T. McFadden (R-Pa.)—the two minority party members of the committee. But whether he or Rainey ended up making the call, the choices of Moynihan and McFadden certainly didn’t help DePriest’s cause.

Moynihan was a freshmen congressman with no influence among Democrats or Republicans.

McFadden had been ostracized by the Republican Party over his attempt to impeach President Herbert Hoover, rampant anti-Semitic comments and reported speeches supporting Adolph Hitler.

‘Ally of southern lynchers’

On May 5th a five-person delegation met with Speaker Rainey in his office where they called him “a chauvinist, a communist-hater and an ally of southern lynchers,” according to the Afro.

Capitol police were out in extra strength to guard against any disturbance or direct action by the radicals.

Members of the delegation were E. A Taylor, chair of the delegation from the UCFD; Gertrude Thorpe, leader of the UCFD; Harold Spenser, Thomas Brown and E. Matthews, all of the Washington Unemployed Council.

During the meeting when Rainey said “Colored people get all rights guaranteed them under the Constitution,” Thorpe asked him whether he was “just ignorant or a liar?”

Rainey dismissed the group saying,

You are just a bunch of communists. Colored persons are not permitted to eat in other restaurants throughout the country, why pick on this one?

One delegate responded,

Mr. Rainey, the excluding of colored persons from the House restaurant is a violation of the Constitution of this country. What action will you take against it?

“None,” said Rainey

Rainey was then told,

Colored and white workers are beginning to see through your hypocrisy and are organizing to force your administration to stop discrimination against colored people.

Committee Hearing

The select committee conducting the investigation held a hearing June 7th where DePriest’s secretary Morris Lewis described how he had eaten in the restaurant for five years before he was barred.

Lewis continued,

To stop this effort of colored people to gain service in the restaurant a sign was placed on the ‘Public restaurant’ reading ‘for members only.’ This turned out to be the grossest kind of subterfuge as all persons other than colored people, regardless of membership in the House, are freely admitted and served.

Lewis ended his testimony requesting that the order barring African Americans be rescinded.

Warren testified that the Accounts Committee passed resolutions vesting in him the power to run the restaurant without consulting them.

When questioned whether the race policy had been consistently applied, he reversed his earlier claims that African Americans had always been barred and said it was “more or less permissive” that the African American secretaries or other employees of representatives could eat in the House restaurant.

Underhill says, ‘colored people prefer segregation.’ – 1934

Former Rep. Underhill says, ‘colored people prefer segregation.’

He went on to describe the “colored” restaurant in the basement and when questioned again about whether colored are permitted in the white restaurant, Warren again admitted, “It has been permissive.”

Former chair of the Accounts Committee Charles Underhill (R-Ma.) testified on the history of the restaurant and the committee before offering his own views that “colored people prefer segregation.”

He testified that the issue of race had never come up in his tenure except when DePriest brought an interracial group into the restaurant and it was suggested to him that this was improper. He testified that it never happened again.

Committee sides with Jim Crow

White joins majority to uphold Jim Crow in the House: 1934

Rep. Compton White changes his vote–upholds Jim Crow.

The following day on June 8, 1934, the majority of the select committee found there was no discrimination against African Americans. White, who had voted for DePriest’s resolution, turned around and voted against ending Jim Crow.

The report was approved on a straight party-line vote with the three Democrats voting for it and the two Republicans voting against it.

Both majority and minority submitted their report to the House of Representatives.

The text of the majority report read:

The committee to whom was referred the subject matter of House Resolution 236, having held hearings and completed the investigation as therein directed, report as follows

The first inquiry direct to be made by the said resolution is. “By what authority the Committee on Accounts controls and manages the conduct of the House Restaurant.”

The authority was vested in the Committee on Accounts by a resolution unanimously adopted by the House of Representative son June 2, 1921, reading as follows:

Resolved, That there should be paid out of the contingent fund of the House such sums as may be necessary to make such alterations and improvements of the rooms occupied by the restaurant of the House of Representatives and to re-equip the restaurant with sanitary fixtures and utensils as may in the judgment of the committee on Accounts be deemed advisable and necessary, and until otherwise ordered by the House the management of the House restaurant and all other matters connected therewith shall be under the direction of the Committee on Accounts.

There have not been any additional orders or directions given by the House.

The second and only other inquiry made is. “By what authority said committee or any member thereof issued and enforced rules or instructions whereby any citizen of the United States is discriminated against on account of race, color, or creed in said House restaurant, grill room or other public appurtenances or facilities connected therewith under the supervision of the House of Representatives.”

Miller defends Jim Crow at the U.S. Capitol: 1934

Rep. John Miller sides with majority, says there is no discrimination.

Since the Committee on Accounts has had control of the restaurant under and by virtue of the resolution hereinbefore set forth, at the first session of each Congress the following resolution has been unanimously passed by the said committee:

“That the chairman by authorized to report out all death resolutions without a meeting of the committee and that the chairman be empowered to use his own discretion to dealing with members in regard to telegraph, telephone, and all other matters of accounts, including the management of the House restaurant and all rules and regulations pertaining to same.”

Under this resolution, the Committee on Accounts has delegated to its chairman the duty of making and enforcing rules for the management of the restaurant The restaurant was established for the use and convenience of Member of the House of Representatives.

It is not a public restaurant nor was it intended by the House that it should be operated as such It now operated as it has been since it was first established, for the use and convenience of the Members of the House and there has been no discrimination in serving the Members of the House or their guests.

Therefore we recommend that the authority to operate and control the restaurant remain vested in the Committee on Accounts and that the committee continue to operate the restaurant for the convenience and use of the Member of the House and their guests.

Moynihan votes to end Jim Crow at House restaurant: 1934

Rep. Patrick Moynihan (right) calls for an end to Jim Crow in the minority report.

The minority report read as follows:

The undersigned members of the Select Committee of the House of Representatives, appointed by the Speaker pursuant to House Resolution No. 236, report—

(1) That the Accounts Committee, by House resolution adopted June 2, 1921, has full control and management of the restaurant of the House of Representatives.”

(2) That in practice the chairman of said committee has been permitted to assume full personal control of the management of said restaurant.

(3) That an important adjunct to said restaurant is that section set apart for the public and designated ‘Public.’”

(4) That in issuing an order, rule, or regulation denying service in said public restaurant to any person on account of race or color said chairman exceeded his authority, in violation of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution”

(5) It is recommended that said discriminatory order rule or regulation be forthwith rescinded.”

DePriests’s attempt to rely on a technical argument that the special resolution giving power to the Accounts Committee over the restaurant expired back in 1921, though correct, was simply ignored.

The majority dodged the issue of Jim Crow by defining all the restaurants as being operated by and for the members of Congress. DePriest and his guests would be served, but no discrimination against the public could occur since the restaurants were private.

Those pushing for opening the House restaurant to all hoped to substitute the minority report for the majority report when the issue came to the House floor. As a privileged motion it was placed on the calendar, but with no specific time that it would come up.

Throughout the six-month campaign, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was silent on the matter.

He made overtures to African Americans such as having African American singers Etta Moton and Lillian Evanti perform at the White House in February and entertaining African American former Harvard University classmates at the White House, but never weighed in publicly on the issue of Jim Crow at the Capitol.

Roosevelt made the political calculation that he was heavily dependent on Rainey for his New Deal agenda. It wouldn’t be until 1941 that he took a major step toward implementing African American rights with his executive order for a Fair Employment Practices Commission.

As time ran out, Speaker Rainey played his last card and let the report die on the calendar as Congress adjourned at 11:05 p.m. June 18th. It was one of Rainey’s last acts (or inactions) for he died two months later before the next session of Congress met.


DePriest blamed the Democrats who appointed a majority of the select committee and African Americans who voted for Democrats during a speech reported on by the Atlanta Daily World in Youngstown, Ohio,

If a Negro votes to sustain a party who always had their foot on his neck. I cannot understand that Negro.

Rev. L. B. Bunn of Michigan hit DePriest at a Baptist youth conference in Washington, D.C. reported on by the Afro,

It would have been far better if Congressman DePriest had not offered this question as a political gesture. He should have left it to us a little longer. It has been put down that colored folks shall not eat in the cafes of the Houses of congress. We have given ourselves a lot of unfavorable publicity in this matter.

Channing Tobias, headed African American YMCA: 1940 ca.

Channing Tobias (left) says unity is key.

Dr. Channing Tobias, senior secretary of the African American branch of the YMCA said at a New York conference of the association,

…when Congressman Oscar DePriest was waging the fight against racial discrimination in the House of Representatives restaurant there was no time then for colored people to be quibbling whether every move made was correct; the struggle to put an end to Jim Crow under the roof of a federal building in the nation’s capital, was too important in its implications for differences; we should have all been behind Mr. DePriest.

Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, writing in the NAACP magazine The Crisis, said,

The Howard students and some of their teachers, staged a demonstration, which was a legitimate and justifiable method of letting the world know what discrimination we suffer. Yet it was futile and will undoubtedly be used to attack the Howard appropriation. It was worth the price.

Kenneth Clark was unrepentant when speaking to the National Student Federation, an association of student governments, conference at Columbia University,

I have no apologies to make for participating in the protest of such an ungodly crime, and if my participation places me in the category of a hoodlum, I am proud to be one. If seeking our rights as American citizens makes us communists, then I am also proud to be among the ranks of communists.

Jim Crow continues on Capitol Hill

Rep. Mitchell drops Jim Crow fight at U.S. Capitol: 1935

Rep. Arthur M. Mitchell

DePriest was defeated by Democrat Arthur M. Mitchell 53%-47% in November 1934. There were a number of reasons for his defeat, including DePriest’s opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal relief programs, his backing the wrong horses in the Republican primary, who in turn worked against him in the general election, corruption allegations made shortly before the election, and his failure to get a vote on the Capitol restaurant issue.

When Mitchell took office in January 1933 he let it be known he had no interest in the House restaurant issue.

He told the Afro his predecessor tried to make an issue out of it,

…and when the smoke had cleared away, conditions were worse. Several colored persons lost their jobs as a result of the fight, and the colored public is still barred.

With DePriest gone, Johnson took down the “Members Only” sign outside the House public restaurant and it formally became public again.

Their shameless hypocrisy knew no bounds.

Even after DePriest’s efforts had failed back in June, some of the waiters had continued to serve African Americans who presented themselves.

With DePriest gone, Johnson had all the waiters and busboys re-apply for their jobs. and replaced five waiters who had served soup to African Americans the previous year with men from North Carolina.

He had been gradually slipping in waiters and bus boys from his home state one at a time in 1934, but when he carried out a mass firing at this juncture, it caused a small stir since some representatives’ favorite waiters had been among those canned.

When asked to comment, Warren said no one was fired “except for inefficiency,” according to the Afro.

In March 1935, several African American women who were part of a “peace mission” from Father Divine’s Los Angeles Temple joined several white women and were turned away at the House restaurant. Mitchell declined to get involved, saying the issue was too small, according to the Afro.

In June of the same year, a bill for 1936 legislative appropriations provided $15,000 for the operation of the Senate restaurant and kitchens. An amendment nicknamed the “DePriest amendment” was placed on the bill to bar the use of funds for the restaurant because of continued discriminatory practices.

However, without Mitchell’s support, the amendment was quickly stripped away by Senator Millard Tydings (D-Md.), chair of the subcommittee on Senate appropriations. The following year a similar appropriation was made in the House without objection.

CIO chief John L. Lewis cracks a rare smile: 1937

CIO chief John L. Lewis testified against Rep. Warren.

In 1938, the issue was raised in the news again when the NAACP and John L. Lewis, head of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, opposed the nomination of Lindsay Warren to be comptroller general of the United States based on his role in the Capitol restaurant segregation.

Part of DePriest’s speech was adapted during the debate over Warren and credited to him as “some white people being so particular about the people they ate with and not so particular about the people they slept with.”

However, Warren was confirmed despite the controversy.

In 1942, Mitchell’s own secretary Christine Ray Hughes took a seat in a new House restaurant open to the public and was served without incident.

Ray Hughes, confidential aide to black congressmen: 1948

Ray Hughes, Rep Mitchell’s confidential secretary, is barred from new House restaurant.

However, Rep. John Rankin (D-Miss.) led a delegation to the office of Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) to protest an African American’s presence in the restaurant.

Thereafter Hughes did not return to the restaurant.

Mitchell was criticized in the Afro American for not speaking out, but their words made no difference.

The Chicago Defender ran an article in 1943 on the problems of African American workers in the federal and downtown areas getting meals and raised the issue of enforcing the 1871 and 1872 laws banning discrimination, but no one filed suit at that time.

The issue bubbled up again on March 8, 1947 when columnist Drew Pearson reported that Thomas S. Thornton, an African American World War II veteran recently hired in the Senate Post Office, was told he couldn’t eat in the Senate Office Building luncheonette.

Senator C. Wayland Brooks (R-Il.), chair of the Rules Committee, followed up by making an announcement that there was “no rule against such use.” While not much different from Copeland’s statement in 1934, this effectively ended Jim Crow in the Senate restaurants.

Jim Crow in the press galleries of the House and Senate ended the same year when Louis Lautier, a reporter for an African American news service was initially denied a press pass. Lautier took his case to the Senate Rules Committee where chairman Brooks, ordered the gallery to admit him. Lautier became the first black reporter in the press galleries since the 1870s.

Following Senate restaurant issue, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.) introduced a resolution in the House to “clarify the matter once and for all” as to whether African Americans were able to eat in the House cafeterias and restaurants. However, the resolution died without much fanfare.

Juanita Terry, first black aide to white representative: 1949

Juanita Terry, aide to Rep. Helen Douglas.

Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-Ca.) took office in 1945 and brought on Juanita Terry in January 1948 as the first African American aide for a white representative. Douglas persuaded the operator of the House public restaurant to desegregate so that Terry could take her meals there sometime in 1950.

However, that success would be fleeting. Douglas lost a high-profile Senate campaign to Richard M. Nixon in November, 1950 after Nixon famously redbaited her as “the pink lady.”

Clarence Mitchell, the long-time NAACP lobbyist on Capitol Hill recalled that during the late 1940s there was “an on-again, off-again” policy on admitting African Americans to the House public restaurant.

He remembers specifically that African Americans were barred in 1950, but said the barrier dropped sometime before the 1953 decision in the Thompson Cafeteria case —during the period when picket lines were set up in front of chain stores and restaurants in the city that were barring African Americans.

Predecessors of the organized sit-in

Direct action campaign to halt Jim Crow streetcars: 1864

Sojourner Truth waged a one-woman campaign against Jim Crow on city streetcars.

The origins of the sit-in in the Washington, D.C. area can be traced back further than the Capitol protests, but they were single persons either taking direct action or seeking to use the subsequent arrest as a basis to file suit to challenge the discrimination.

The earliest in the post-Civil War period was the 1865-66 one-woman campaign on the city’s streetcars by Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) who campaigned to enforce the city’s ban against Jim Crow on the trolleys by using direct action. She would board the cars and sit in the white sections and refuse to move and if a driver of the horse-drawn vehicles passed her up, she would report them to the company.

In 1868, Catharine Brown boarded the whites-only car in Alexandria, Va. bound for Washington, D.C. The rail service was provided by the Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria Railroad Company. She refused to move to the “colored” car and was forcibly ejected. She sued and her case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court where she prevailed, since the railroad’s charter was in the District of Columbia, where Jim Crow cars were prohibited.

Later, African Americans would go into the city’s restaurants after passage of 1872 and 1873 laws banning discrimination in public accommodations, take seats and be denied service, be overcharged or be made to wait lengthy periods of time. The discriminatory actions by the restaurants resulted in lawsuits against the proprietors.

W. H. H. Hart – Refused Jim Crow on Maryland train: 1905

W. H. H. Hart defies Jim Crow rail car and is jailed 3 days.

In 1905, W. H. H. Hart, who would later be a founder of the NAACP, refused to give up his seat on a train bound for Washington, D.C. upon arrival in Maryland and move to a Jim Crow car. Hart was arrested and spent three days in jail. Hart sued that Maryland’s Jim Crow law could not apply to interstate travel. He won his case but was awarded only $1 in damages.

The sit-in refined and expanded

After the Capitol Restaurant campaign, Samuel Wilbert Tucker, a Howard University law graduate, organized a sit-in at the all-white Alexandria public library in 1939.

Tucker had a group of African American men to one-by-one enter the library and ask for a library card. Upon refusal, each man would take a seat at a table in the library—ultimately occupying nearly all the tables.

As expected, police arrived and arrested the group for disorderly conduct. Tucker didn’t intend this to be an ongoing tactic, but as a case to be used to file suit.

Alexandria, Virginia public library sit-in 1939

Arrested at the Alexandria, Va. library for a sit-in in 1939.

The library, fearing the outcome of a court suit, entered into prolonged negotiations over the issue. Tucker became ill and in his absence community leaders settled for construction of an “equal” library for African Americans.

Tucker was outraged and after the new library was built, refused an invitation to apply for a library card, writing back,

I refuse and will always refuse to accept a card to be used at the library to be constructed and operated at Alfred and Wythe Streets in lieu of [a] card to be used at the existing library on Queen Street for which I have made application.

In 1943 the Howard University chapter of the NAACP revived the tactic when they took on a nearby restaurant—and a year later—one downtown.

A student at the school, Ruth Powell, had been carrying on a one-person sit-in on her own at cafes that refused to serve African Americans. She would sit on a stool for hours staring at the waiter or waitress that refused to serve her.

At the same time a Howard Law School student, William Raines, was circulating the idea of occupying stools as a technique for desegregation. There was no law requiring segregation, so Raines reasoned that peacefully waiting for service was no crime and they could not be legally arrested. At the same time, white customers would not be served because the seats were occupied, putting economic pressure on the business.

NCNW Women of the year: 1946

Pauli Murray is one of the “Women of the Year” in 1946.

After a survey of the campus where students gave overwhelming support to the idea of a campaign to desegregate the city, Pauli Murray and three other female students walked to the Little Palace cafeteria on nearby U Street NW.

Murray had earlier staged a sit-in with another woman on an interstate bus in Virginia in 1940, refusing to sit in the “colored” section. The NAACP refused to take up her case, allegedly citing a lower court tossing out a key argument, but others believed it was because she wore trousers and would present a “bad image.”

Murray would go on to graduate first in her class at Howard, but was refused admittance to the law school because of her gender. She termed her experiences at Howard “Jane Crow.” She went on to earn a doctorate of law at Yale and pursued a civil rights career. In the 1970s she changed careers, becoming one of the first women priests in the Episcopal Church.

Murray and two others went inside the U Street restaurant and sat down while one student stayed outside as a lookout for any trouble.

Every five minutes or so another student would arrive, and soon the small restaurant was packed. Panicked, the manager closed the cafeteria instead of serving the group.

The students went outside and picketed the restaurant for two days until the management relented and agreed to serve African Americans.

The following year, students decided to directly challenge Jim Crow in the downtown area. Close to 70 students went to the Thompson’s Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Fifty-five students went inside and sat down while a dozen or so others picketed outside.

After four hours, the restaurant management in Chicago gave the go-ahead to serve the students. The action was a resounding victory.

However, like their predecessors in the Capitol protests, they were quickly quashed by the Howard University administration, which was still fearful of losing federal grant money. Defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory.

Mary Church Terrell 90th Birthday: 1953

Mary Church Terrell’s 90th birthday in 1953.

The tactic would be revived again in 1950 when Mary Church Terrell led the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws.

Terrell and two other African Americans and one white person took a table at Thompson’s Restaurant on 14th Street NW. They were arrested and filed suit to enforce the so-called “lost civil rights laws” of 1872 and 1873.

The group didn’t stop there, but staged boycotts and pickets of chain stores and restaurants over the next three years, desegregating many before the U.S Supreme Court upheld the “lost laws” and outlawed segregation in public accommodations in the District of Columbia.

However, it wasn’t until 1960 that the tactic exploded nationwide, beginning with the Greensboro, N.C. sit-in and spread locally by Howard University students into the Washington, D.C. area at segregated facilities in Arlington, Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland.

Author’s Notes

Activist and reporter Frederick C. Weaver: 1934

Afro American activist reporter Frederick C. Weaver at the Mar. 17, 1934 Jim Crow protest by Howard students.

Were the corruption allegations against DePriest before the election the product of Democratic Party skullduggery? That’s a topic for someone else’s research project.

We are fortunate that the reporters for the Afro American were also activist fighters against Jim Crow. They have given us a glimpse into the actual events and real words used and conversations that took place during this fight.

We are also fortunate that the campaign took place within the U.S. Capitol where there were an abundance of reporters from around the country always on the lookout for a story and so we have multiple sources for the events. Further, the speeches were often in the Congressional Record.

DePriest was somewhat deluded to believe that a Democratic Majority Leader dependent on southern segregationist representatives for his position would be either on his side or fair, so DePriest was wrong to reject direct action.

It is not possible to know whether continued direct action coupled with the legislative approach would have been successful, but it is much more likely that there would have been an up or down vote on the issue of segregation.

Direct action, however, probably could not have been sustained in this fight for much longer in any event.

Dorothy Cook, who was coordinating the interracial groups seeking service in the restaurants, expressed her frustration with finding African Americans willing to be denied service.

“They promise to go, but back out at the last moment. However one can scarcely blame them for it is a very humiliating thing to do.”

The reasons were probably not entirely humiliation. Most of her recruits were professionals who were in fact concerned about respectability and feared the social repercussions of having their names splashed across newspapers in a confrontation that may result in arrest.

But for working class African Americans in 1934 who cared little about social consequences, the U.S. Capitol was a distant and alien place that few black people entered on any regular basis, except those who worked there. As a target, it might as well have been on the North Pole.

Deprived of Howard’s students and professors, there would be few other places to turn for African Americans willing to be refused service.

Cook would also have found it difficult to sustain the protest with her white compatriots as well. The Socialist Party and its allies provided the base of support for the protest. They were not primarily activists, but were instead more focused on speakers, meetings, lobbying efforts and elections.

An alternative was the Communist Party that had ties to both black and white workers, but this was not their campaign and their focus was elsewhere.

Conflicted Howard president halts students’ sit-ins: 1934

Mordecai Johnson circa 1930.

Mordecai Johnson was a complicated figure who was more sympathetic to left-wing thought than might appear from this post.

In his defense, he was under attack for alleged communist sympathies and threatened with removal from his post by the trustees in 1931. In 1933 several congressional representatives again attacked him as a communist and threatened to cut Howard’s subsidy from the federal government.

Johnson placed Howard and its position as the preeminent African American University above the immediate concerns of fighting specific Jim Crow battles. He believed that producing the highest quality professionals trumped activism against Jim Crow—despite his own personal sympathies for the struggle.

NAACP founder and advocate of action W. E. B. Dubois: 1945

W. E. B. Du Bois circa 1945.

DuBois believed Johnson was wrong for this and felt that rising action on the part of African Americans against white supremacy was more important than any funding loss to the school.

Johnson’s actions in tamping down the nascent student activists of 1934 and 1943-44 may have deprived the larger civil rights movement of the impetus it would not receive until the mid 1950s and 1960s.

In the end, the fight against Jim Crow at the Capitol was a bridge too far.

However, the use of direct action won some temporary successes during the battle. The Senate public restaurant was at least nominally integrated and several interracial parties succeeded in getting served at the House public restaurant.

These tactical successes helped lay the seeds for the future sit-in movement of 1960. As such, it was an important step in a very long battle.

[Update February 8, 2019: An interracial group of 50 Civil Rights Congress demonstrators in Washington, D.C. entered a Jim Crow restaurant in Union Station sat down and demanded service on August 5, 1948. At a rally later the same day of about 4,000 on the Washington Monument grounds, Albert Kahn, author and head of the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, praised the temporary desegregation of a the restaurant.

“We were establishing a precedent that we will see followed here,” he said to the crowd’s applause.”

The larger rally had been called after Congress scuttled anti-poll tax legislation and also called for low cost housing, price rollbacks, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act and the draft.]

The author was an activist for 50 years in the Washington, D.C. area.  He is a graduate of the National Labor College, the former secretary-treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and former executive director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400. In addition, worked for the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO and Progressive Maryland. He is also a former bus operator for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and currently resides in North Carolina. He can be contacted at

Sources include:

The Afro American, The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Tribune, The Chicago Defender, The New York Amsterdam News, United Press International, Associated Press, The Crisis, The Congressional Record, The Baltimore Sun, the Associated Negro Press, Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s Northside Center by Markowitz and Rosner; Ghetto: The Invention of a Place the History of an Idea by Mitchell Duneier; Jim Crow’s Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision by Peter Irons; Journal of Negro Education, Winter 1966, Oscar De Priest and the Jim Crow Restaurant in the US House of Representatives by Elliott M. Rudwick; From Megaphones to Microphones: speeches of American women, 1920-60 by Sarkela, Ross and Lowe; Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America by Eric S. Yellen; Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter; The Black Past Remembered and Reclaimed, website:

Appendix A

 Honor Roll

 A partial list of participants in direct action

To end Jim Crow in the U.S. Capitol

Some of the African Americans participants

Rev. R. W. Brooks—pastor of the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church at 11th and R Streets NW and active in the “Scottsboro Boys” campaign, the campaign against police brutality and other civil rights causes in the city.

Dr. Charles Wesley—professor of history at Howard University. Wesley would go on to write 15 books on African American history and serve as president of Wilberfore University and Central State University, both in Ohio.

Ralph Bunche —professor of political science at Howard University went on to gain the first doctorate of political science at Howard later in 1934. He won a Nobel Prize as a negotiator for the United Nations in 1950, continued work for the UN and was named under-Secretary of the United Nations in 1968.

Oscar DePriest—The only African American U.S. representative 1929-35, the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th Century, first African American elected to Congress outside the South.

Morris Lewis—Aide to Rep. Oscar DePriest, the only African American aide working on Capitol Hill 1929-35.

Frederick Wilkinson–Howard University registrar.

John F. Whitfield–Pastor of the Christian Colored Church.

Rev. P. D. Perryman–Baptist minister from New York.

Leonard C. Farrar–Executive secretary of the National Forum Association.

Harold Covington—House restaurant waiter and student at Howard University.

Florence Collins—Reporter for the Afro American.

Frederick Weaver—Reporter for the Afro American and Howard University student.

A. Taylor– United Conference to Fight Discrimination.

Thomas Brown—Washington, D.C. Unemployed Council.

Matthews—Washington, D.C. Unemployed Council.

Some of the white participants:

Charles Edward Russell—a Pulitzer Prize winner; muckraking journalist as famous as contemporaries Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens; one of three white founders of the NAACP, member of its national board and member of the local NAACP Interracial committee; and former Socialist Party member who split with the organization over its opposition to U.S. entry into World War I.

Dorothy Detzer—Executive Secretary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1924-46); and former relief officer for the American Friends Service Committee in Austria and Russia after World War I.

Dorothy Cook —Assistant executive secretary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Harlan E. Glazier—Head of the local chapter of the Socialist Party.

Theresa Hirshl Russell—Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, wife of Charles Russell.

Margaret Jones–Member of the Interracial Council.

Dorothy Alden–Former World Peaceways,

Robert Shestick–Citizens Party.

Dr. Howard K. Beale–Historian on the staff of the University of Chicago and research historian at the Library of Congress.

Rev. Russell J. Clinchy–Pastor of the Sixteenth Street Congregational Church in Washington, D.C.

Katharine Wilfrey–Social worker.

Dr. W. Carson Ryan, Director of education at the United States Office of Indian Affairs, a specialist in education surveys and a leader in educational reform efforts.

Harold Spencer—Washington, D.C. Unemployed Council and the Washington, D.C. Communist Party.

Gertrude Thorpe—United Conference to Fight Discrimination and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights.

African American Howard Students:

Kenneth Clark—A leader of the student demonstrations, Clark and his wife Mamie would go onto do pioneering work as psychologists among African American children. Their research showed the debilitating effects of Jim Crow on African American children and provided the scientific evidence for ending the so-called “separate but equal” education with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954.

Frederick Weaver—Weaver, a great grandson of Frederick Douglas, was also the reporter for the Afro American where he both participated and covered much of the battle. Weaver was one of the targets of the Howard administration and they acted two years later to suspend him when he was a second year law student for writing a critical article for the Washington Tribune about one of the Deans at the school. He went onto become assistant Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia before moving to New York to form his own public relations firm, becoming a close ally of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, but later becoming critical of the congressman.

Harold Covington—Covington was both a student and the waiter that was fired for serving Frederick Weaver in the House restaurant.

O. Phillip Snowden—This Capitol campaign would not be Snowden’s last civil rights fight. In 1943, he and two others sued a Howard Johnson’s in New Jersey when it refused to serve them.

Dudley Clark


Fred Durrah

Henry Allen Boyd, Jr.

O. Thompson

E. Fernandis

William Ford

Irving Barnes

William. D. Jones

T. Jones

R. Elliot

L. Parker

William E. Blake

A . J. Cary

W. Shumate

William H. Bruce

L. Berry

Gilbert Banfield

C. Gittens

W. Campbell

O. Cowan

Ulysses Lee

And at least 10 other Howard students, perhaps a dozen or more persons who sought restaurant service and those who attended the communist’s picket line remain unknown.

Want to see or read more?

Addition images: Capitol Cafes

Want to read more about civil rights struggles during this period in time?

1939 the background of the struggle for a Marion Anderson concert.

1938-41 Campaign against police brutality

The 1930s campaign for the ‘Scottsboro Boys’ in the D.C. Area

A Million & Counting…

15 Feb

[Update January 2019: We are now over four million photo views and have added some additional finding aids. Camera Roll – by date of the event or creation of the image; Photo Album Guide – by subject; and Individual people by last name.]

One million photo views and counting on our Flickr site. We’re frankly surprised at the interest in the history of the struggle for social and economic justice in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Each photo has a short description. Groups of related photos are organized into albums. Each album–sometimes a specific event and sometimes a group of related images–have a longer description that puts the images in context. We also publish this blog for a deep dive look behind selected images.

You can see our photo stream organized by date the image was uploaded or check out individual albums. Check out our in-depth blog posts that are organized by the decade (on right of this page or simply scroll down).

Some of our most popular photo albums are:

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 2D.C. Protests Against Unemployment:

The first nationwide response to the Great Depression occurred March 6, 1930, including a picket line at the White House in Washington, D.C. Looking for more unemployment protests? 1935, 1937, 1940, 1973, 1977.

Harassment at Arlington, Virginia Sit-In: 1960

1960s Civil Rights Protests in the D.C. Area:

District of Columbia public accommodations were largely integrated in the mid 1950s but the surrounding suburbs remained bastions of segregation. Arlington, Rockville, Bowie, Glen Echo, Bethesda, College Park, Silver Spring were but a few of the towns that saw sit-ins, pickets and arrests demanding equality. Read a brief biography of one of these pioneers, Dion Diamond.

Klan Protests Black Minister In Camp Springs MD: 1966The Fight Against the Klan and Nazis in the D.C. area:

The Ku Klux Klan was active throughout the 1960s opposing civil rights and antiwar efforts (one person’s experience). So too was the American Nazi Party. See photos of confrontation in Arlington, Glen Echo, Mt. Ranier, Camp Springs, Frederick and Rising Sun.

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)The Washington, D.C. Area Transit Union:

Interest has been high in the struggle to desegregate Washington’s transit system (background story), women streetcar and bus operators during World War II (background story), and in strikes conducted by member of the Amalgamated Transit Union in 1974 and 1978. As the 100th anniversary of ATU Local 689 approaches, check back in the coming year as we post images from early efforts in 19th century to form a union and strikes in 1916, 1917, 1945, 1951 and 1955.

Increasingly Viewed

Negro Congress Pickets Bilbo: 1946

Civil Rights Struggles before 1960: 

Little known today, they helped lay the groundwork for the mass demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets and other forms of protest that broke down the worst aspects of segregation in our area: 1922 Anti-Lynching Protest (background story), 1933 March for Scottsboro (background story), 1936 Police Brutality Protests (background story), 1940 Gone with the Wind pickets, 1941 Police Brutality Protest (background story), Integration of D.C. Theaters (background story), The Fight for Fair Employment, The Fight Against the Poll Tax, 1946 Protests Against Sen.Bilbo, 1946 Anti-Lynching Protests, the effort to Free Willie McGee and the Martinsville 7, Mary Church Terrell, the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, among others.

U of MD Ignites: 1970 # 1

Anti-Vietnam War Demonstrations:

The movement against the Vietnam War involved hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Check out the first mass marches on D.C in 1965, The march on the Pentagon in 1967, The Counter-Inaugural in 1969 (background story), University of Md protests in 1970 (background story), 1971, 1972, Mayday protests to shut down the government in 1971 – May 1, May 2, May 3, May 4, May 5, a 1972 march on the Pentagon and 1972 rally downtown, the 1973 Counter-Inaugural and the last demonstration against the Vietnam War in D.C. in 1975. See earlier 1941 and 1958 antiwar protests.


We felt there was historical gap between the internet era and the print era in the struggles for social justice.

We started by publishing photos and negatives that had been improperly stored from the 1972-1975 Montgomery Spark, Washington Area Spark and On The Move tabloid newspapers.  We followed up by researching images available from various sources including the Library of Congress, the D.C. Public Library, the National Archives and auctioned photographs. And occasionally we publish longer blog posts that give a more detailed look.

See all the images in albums or in the order they were posted.

Paddy Whalen & the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade

4 Feb
Baltimore Union Leader Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen: 1938 ca.

Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen

By Daniel Hardin

On January 17, 1937, hundreds of striking seamen hiked down U.S. Route 1 from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C. on what became known as the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.

The insurgents within the International Seamen’s Union (ISU) were on the ropes and desperate action was needed to save their rank-and-file caucus.

The strike began in early November in sympathy with West Coast waterfront workers. It was led by a rank-and-file committee within the ISU that challenged the legitimacy of the ISU itself.

However, by Christmas 1936 ships were leaving Baltimore harbor with full crews, and on January 14 other waterfront unions called off their strikes and ordered their members to return to work.

Only one person could have rallied the Baltimore strikers after two months of privation and the desertion of other waterfront unions. That was Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Paddy Whalen

Whalen was born in 1884 and followed his father into the locomotive engineers’ union. Whalen apparently had conflicts with the railroad companies and began a wandering period that ended with him finding work in the engine rooms of merchant ships.

Patrick B. Whalen Mug Shot: 1937 ca.

Undated mug shot of Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Whalen sailed out of New York on one of the merchant ships in the early 1930s, and Charles Rubin, a communist seaman, shipped out with him. According to The Log of Rubin the Sailor, Rubin was fascinated by Whalen’s knowledge of radical labor groups like the Knights of Labor, the Molly McGuires and the Wobblies.

Rubin recruited Whalen into the militant, communist-aligned Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) and later into the Communist Party (CP) itself. Whalen rose quickly as a leader among the seafarers. When the CP broke up the MWIU and sent its activists to work within the International Seamen’s Union, Whalen became a leader in the rank-and-file caucus.

The anti-communist Bella Dodd described Whalen in her book School of Darkness:

Paddy Whalen best represented the picturesque elements among the Communists of that era. He was a little Irishman, the mayor of Hooversville as they named this town of shanties over on the Jersey flats. He had piercing black eyes. He drank too much and ate too little. In his way, he was dedicated to the labor movement, having once been an IWW…

Paddy Whalen came from the Middle West. Once a Catholic, he argued doctrine with priests yet begged help for strikers from men of all faiths. As mayor of a pathetic heap of boxes and tins, he wore with great dignity a hand-me-down black derby and an overcoat which reached his heels.

In late 1934 or early 1935 he moved to Baltimore and quickly became the head of the rank and file caucus within the ISU. Duke Avnet, a left-wing Baltimore labor lawyer, remembered Whalen:

He ran sentences together. He mispronounced words; he committed malapropism. He cussed profusely. His grammar was a classic of mistakes. But his thinking was clear; and he knew the seamen and their problems.

The Strike

The strike on the East Coast began in early November and was briefly supported by nearly the entire waterfront.

Striking Seamen Register for March on DC: 1937

Baltimore ISU headquarters during 1936-7 strike.

When the impeccably dressed Joseph McCurdy, president of the Baltimore Federation of Labor, sided with the ship owners in seeking an injunction, Whalen spoke to a rally and “denounced labor leaders who had ‘ritzy’ lifestyles and insisted on wearing ‘clean shirts,’” according to Vernon Pederson’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57,

Whalen told the crowd, “I have been involved in strikes for years and I have slept in flophouses, under viaducts and in jails—with my comrades. We have no money, and to win this strike every man must expect to suffer the hardships of his fellows.”

At a crucial point in the strike, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) local unions briefly joined in. Thousands of striking workers chased ILA President Joe Ryan back to his car when he tried to speak against the strike.

But, in the days that followed, ILA locals met separately and Ryan’s supporters were able to sway the workers to vote against officially joining the strike.

As the strike crumbled in early 1937, Whalen sought to save the insurgency from an outright defeat and preserve the Baltimore section of the organization that he led.

 Fink Books

The opportunity came as Congress was considering ship owners’ legislation that would establish a single discharge book to be filled out by each ship captain after each voyage.

Baltimore Soviet Marches on Washington: 1934

“Baltimore Soviet” marches on D.C. in 1934

Up to this point, individual discharge papers from each tour had been issued by the ship captains. Union seamen viewed the proposed single discharge book as an attempt by ship owners to blacklist them since one captain who didn’t like a maritime worker could smear them on a single discharge book. The legislation was called the Copeland Safety at Sea Act.

Also pending was a National Labor Relations Board decision on whether the rank and file caucus could challenge the ISU during federally supervised elections to represent the seamen.

It’s not clear who came up with the idea for a march on Washington but it may have been Al Lannon, a national leader of the rank-and-file committee. Lannon had previously led the Baltimore MWIU in the early 1930s and had organized a small march on Washington in 1934 demanding continued disbursement of federal relief funds through the union instead of outside organizations that were feathering their own nests.

As a result of agitation by the MWIU the disbursement of funds through the so-called “Baltimore Soviet,” continued for another year. The “Soviet” provided beds, food, barbers and other services for waterfront workers during the toughest early years of the Great Depression.

 The Midnight March

Whether it was Whalen’s or Lannon’s thoughts that led to the march, Whalen took it up with enthusiasm and the idea captured the imagination of seamen up and down the ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Seamen March in Rain in D.C. Protest #2: 1937

The “Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.”

Elizabeth Fee wrote in The Baltimore Book:

Calling it the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade, Whalen led hundreds of seamen and supporters from other unions along U.S. Route 1 through a day and night of rain and slush to the nation’s capital.

There they were joined by several thousand more demonstrators, and pickets were thrown around the Department of Commerce as well as the Capitol. The seamen visited all the principal department heads in government. One delegation even went to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.

With the momentum of the march, Baltimore’s striking seamen voted to end the 87-day strike, obtaining wage increases for the sailors, according to Jo Ann Argersinger in the Maryland Historical Magazine.

Shortly afterward the NLRB ruled in favor of the caucus meeting the definition of a union under federal law. The rank-and-file committee in turn established itself as the National Maritime Union (NMU) and quickly challenged the ISU, winning representation in 56 of 67 companies where elections were held.

As a result of the new power on the waterfront, the Copeland Safety at Sea Act was amended to permit either single discharge papers or new books to be utilized—effectively preventing ship owners from blacklisting union supporters.

A sweeping victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Seamen’s Solidarity

Seamen Arrested in DC Protesting Nazi Regime: 1936

Striking seamen protesting the Nazi regime are arrested outside German embassy in 1936.

The camaraderie of the sailors at sea proved a great recipe for union members in port.

During the strike, the rank-and-file committee adopted a resolution to “treat all seamen as brothers and on an equality” basis regardless of race or color according to Argersinger. A cook of Chinese descent, who was barred by West Coast waterfront unions from membership, was taken in by Whalen and his union.

Argersinger wrote that Whalen set up a “court of justice” with fines and punishments for crimes ranging from drunkenness to scabbing—the most serious offense. The “Baltimore Soviet” services were replicated with rooms, food service and organized exercise. Differing ethnic groups were encouraged to play instruments and sing their songs for all.

Elisabeth Gilman, a social democrat from Baltimore, said the strike was “the most orderly and best conducted I have ever seen.”

 Fight for Integrated Crews

Striking Seamen Stage Guerilla Theater: 1937 (2)

The Baltimore NMU fought for integration.

When the NMU was officially formed in 1938, its constitution prohibited discrimination. Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? quotes the lawyer Avnet relating an incident where Whalen put teeth into this provision:

The Captain of the vessel phoned and complained that some of the crew members were not satisfactory. There were three Negro members who had been assigned to the deck and engine departments. Previously Negroes had been segregated on the ships to the steward’s department only.

Pat [Whalen] held his ground and refused to withdraw these three crew members. Shortly afterward, the crew itself arrived at the union hall and [the white crew members] announced that they would not sail with Negroes.

Whalen called a general membership meeting for that night to try the white crewmembers for undemocratic conduct. During this meeting several seamen of color spoke against the white crew’s actions, and a number of whites spoke in favor of it. Whalen took the floor and harangued the membership on how racism created a reservoir of strikebreakers and how the enemy ISU had always stood for Jim Crow.

He spoke of trade union democracy where all were equal regardless of race, color or creed, and shook his head and vowed sadly that the new union would be better dead aborning than to follow in the old ways…The men understood him and the membership voted the crew either sail with Negro members or that they should turn in their union books.

Some books were thrown on the table. But the ship sailed with a mixed crew and this policy has since largely prevailed in the port of Baltimore.

 The Broader Fight

Striking Maritime Workers Protest Discharge Papers: 1937

Women were also members of the NMU: Elsa Landstrom, a striker at the Midnight March.

Elizabeth Fee cited a George Meyers account of how Whalen also fought for integration on the Baltimore waterfront:

The National Maritime Union always worked integrated crews, and we’d go into a waterfront bar and order up a bottle. The bartenders would serve the white seamen and refuse to serve the others because, they said, it was against the law.

So Paddy’s guys would pick the bottle up and throw it into the mirror…and that was the way the waterfront was integrated. After that, anyone could be served with no problem.

Whalen didn’t confine the fight against segregation to the waterfront. In one of the largest community based campaigns in the pre-World-War-II period, the CIO sent representatives into community meetings to raise its own demands such as housing for black workers at Bethlehem Steel and other mills, factories and shipyards.

Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? writes:

On one occasion in 1939, Patrick Whalen, head of the Baltimore Industrial Union Council, silenced a hostile white crowd at a public meeting with a passionate defense of public housing for all. The nature of the coalition emerging in the new housing movement is evident in the committee formed in northwestern Baltimore, which included representatives from the NAACP, the NNC, BUL, the CIO and social liberal groupings. Both Lillie Jackson of the NAACP and Albert Blumberg of the Communist Party were among its leaders.

 Whalen as Port Agent

Whalen was the port agent (principal union representative) for NMU in Baltimore from 1937-42 and was known for his brash and confrontational style.

Seamen Return to DC Protesting Scab Certificates: 1939

Baltimore NMU banner at 1939 march on D.C.

In a 1987 interview for the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, African American seaman Neville Sutherland recalled Whalen having a telephone conversation with Governor Harry Nice:

He wanted the governor to give something, and the governor said it can’t be done…You get him on the goddamn phone, this is Patrick Beeway Dubiss [Whalen]. So, when he got out,he told him what he wanted, and the governor said to the guy it can’t be done. He [Whalen] says, Oh, it’s gonna be done, don’t tell me what can’t be done. He [Whalen] said you full of shit, he says…that’s the way he talked [and] he [Whalen] got it.

Whalen would lead his seamen to return to Washington, D.C. at least two more times in 1938 and 1939 to demand strict procedures for issuing sailors’ certificates. As the NMU conducted strikes against particular shipping lines, the ISU or ship owners would try to bring strikebreakers aboard. The protests at the Commerce Department demanded the department halt what the NMU said was a practice of issuing certificates to unqualified scabs while denying qualified union supporters the certificates.

Maritime Union Leader Held on Gun Charges: 1938

Whalen arrested in New Jersey on weapons charges.

During this period, Whalen had his share of enemies. While en route to a meeting of the national union in New York City, Hudson County police stopped the vehicle he was riding in and arrested him and four others for carrying “concealed and dangerous weapons.”

Questions immediately arose about how the police came to know that Whalen was riding in this particular vehicle that held weapons. Speculation turned to Joseph Curran, the NMU president, who was allegedly jealous of other leaders in the union. Neville Sutherland ventured:

Actually, Colonel [Curran] was afraid of Patrick Whalen, see. And Colonel [Curran] was a big rat too, [Inaudible word(s)] Patrick leave here. Patrick Whalen was a very small man, a very, very, very, small man, see; must’ve weighed about 105 pounds, 110 pounds.

And he’d leave from here, and he knew that Patrick Whalen had a gun in the car, see. That Patrick Whalen didn’t take shit from nobody and he called the Jersey police up, and notified them that he was coming and he had it and when he hit the Jersey line, they pulled him up and they got him in the car there.

Charges were later dropped and the incident, if anything, boosted Whalen’s standing among the workers.

Whalen as a Communist

Whalen made no secret of his communist beliefs. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote in What is to be Done? that the communist’s “…ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears…”

Alice Neel Portrait of Paddy Whalen: 1935

Alice Neel portrait of Paddy Whalen holding a copy of the Daily Worker.

Paddy Whalen seemed to somehow embody both. The artist Alice Neel, who painted Whalen in 1935 with a copy of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker and two clenched fists, said of Whalen, “Patty Whalen was the organizer on the waterfront…He was just an ordinary Irishman except for one thing: He was absolutely convinced of communism, and he could convince other longshoremen…”

Whalen hated fascism and during the 1936-7 strike, Whalen organized 50 seamen to travel to Washington, D.C. to picket the German embassy in support of seaman Lawrence Simpson who was charged by the Nazis with subversion.

While drumming up support for the 1936-37 strike, Whalen also went on a recruiting sortie for the Maryland Communist Party to Cumberland, Md. where he met and recruited labor leader George Meyers. Meyers led the unionization of the Celanese Mills, where 10,000 workers were employed. Meyers later became head of the Maryland Industrial Union Council, the state arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Meyers also went on to head the Md.-D.C. Communist Party, was jailed for three years during the McCarthy era, and later headed the CP’s National Labor Commission, demonstrating Whalen’s effectiveness in winning others to his ideas.

 Killed by Nazi Submarine

SS Illinois  - Ship Where Whalen was Killed: 1942

S.S. Illinois

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Nazi regime in Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days later, the Communist Party asked its members to enlist in the war effort. Despite his exemption from the draft as union port agent, Whalen went back to sea in the merchant marine, working in the engine room of the S.S. Illinois.

On June 2, 1942, as the Illinois sailed on a return voyage along the Southern Atlantic route and was about 450 miles southeast of Bermuda, Nazi submarine U-159 sent two torpedoes into its engine room. Whalen died instantly and 31 others also perished. The ship went down with 8,000 tons of manganese ore aboard. Whalen’s body, like those of most seamen on sunken ships, was never recovered. Six survivors were picked up out of the water six days later.

U-159 Shortly Before Sinking: 1943

U-159 shortly before sinking by a VP 32 Mariner.

The workers of Baltimore saw their revenge. On July 28, 1943 a PBM Mariner dropped bombs onto U-159 and sent the Nazi submarine to the bottom of the sea.

A liberty ship was launched from Brunswick, Ga. bearing the name Patrick B. Whalen in March 1945 in his memory and a small service held in Baltimore the same day. However during the Cold War the name of the S.S. Patrick B. Whalen was changed and it was eventually scrapped in Taiwan in 1967.

Writer’s Notes:

Joseph Curran took complete control of the union at a 1947 convention where the left wing of the union lost by a single vote—a casualty of the anti-communist fever orchestrated by Democratic President Harry S. Truman and a Republican Congress. Soon after, 10 years of union democracy was gone and Curran came to symbolize the worst aspects of trade unionism, building a palatial union headquarters in New York. The NMU merged with the rival ISU in 1988.

Striking Seamen Leaders to Meet Commerce Secretary: 1937

Paddy Whalen (1st row, left) and Joseph Curran (1st row holding paper) during 1936-37 strike.

The cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. are only 30 miles apart, but they might as well be 3,000. Only rarely is there cultural spillover between the two. However Whalen’s position in the Maryland Industrial Council of the CIO and his unflinching fight against discrimination inspired the same fight in Washington, D.C. as activists sought to integrate defense industries and the Capital Transit Company.

Whalen is long forgotten, except among a few scholars. Perhaps when someone views the bar scenes in Season 2 of The Wire, they’ll think of Paddy Whalen and the method he used to integrate the waterfront bars of Baltimore.

Sources for this post include the Washington Star, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Baltimore Sun, The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, The Baltimore Book, The Maryland Historical Magazine, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s Portrait Gallery, School of Darkness, A New Deal for All?, The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, among others.

Want to see more images?

1937 Phillips Packinghouse Strike – Promise & Defeat

18 Sep

By Daniel Hardin

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Strikers in front of Phillips Packing Co. Factory F, June 1937

“Down here on the Shore, where in the past the only time whites ever visited a jail in connection with a colored prisoner was to lynch him, a group of white strikers went to a jail and made police turn a colored striker loose.”—William N. Jones, 1937, Baltimore Afro-American newspaper.

A strike by hundreds of workers at the Phillips Packing Company in Cambridge, Maryland in June 1937 brought hope to the struggle for racial and economic justice in an area where African Americans were subjected to worst aspects of Jim Crow and unions were to be crushed mercilessly.

Climate of Racial Intolerance

Jones wasn’t exaggerating. Maryland’s Eastern Shore had been a slave labor, plantation-based economy before the Civil War and Jim Crow afterwards.

At the time of the strike, the brutal lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury in 1931 and George Armwood in Princess Anne in 1933 had just occurred a few years earlier.

The two-year legal battle of Euel Lee, also known as “Orphan Jones,” involved an attempting lynching at Snow Hill and ended with the legal lynching (no African Americans served on his jury) of Lee in 1933.

Matt Williams Barbarically Lynched in Salisbury Md: 1931

Matt Williams Brutal Lynching on Md Eastern Shore in 1931

Lynchings Enforced Economic Oppression

Jim Crow kept workers divided and helped keep wages on the Shore low. When challenged, racist leaders used terror to keep workers divided.

In 1931, a September strike by 800 predominantly African American crab pickets in Crisfield was supported by predominantly white oyster shuckers–showing the potential for unity.

The racist leaders on the Shore got their opportunity to send a message about standing up for higher wages in December. In the official version of the story, Matthew Williams allegedly shot his white employer in Salisbury in a dispute over wages, wounding himself during the altercation. While there was a more plausible explanation that involved the employer’s son doing the shooting, this mattered little.

Williams was dragged from dragged from his hospital bed and brutally lynched in front of the courthouse in front of a crowd of 2,000. Body parts were cut from him as souvenirs. His dead body was later dragged through the street by a rope and his body set afire. What remained of his charred corpse was hung from a lamp pole in an African American section of town as a warning.

Once again, in the official story, Green Davis and his family were slain in Taylorville in 1931 in an alleged dispute over wages. Euel Lee, an African American who worked for Davis was arrested. White International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and companions were beaten outside the courthouse in Snow Hill when a white mob couldn’t get their hands on Lee.

Despite Ades’ efforts in winning a precedent-setting Maryland retrial based on exclusion of African Americans from juries, Lee was hanged in Baltimore October 28, 1933.

CIO Organizer Leif Dahl 1936

Leif Dahl of the CIO Cannery Workers Union

New Unions of CIO United Workers

However, barbaric, racially motivated violence wasn’t the only force in play in the middle of the Great Depression.

New unions that ultimately became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were organizing workers into single industrial unions of all races and sexes–not along the craft lines of most unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), where African Americans and women were often excluded. The new unions were also winning wage gains from employers.

In 1937, a single employer, the Phillips Packing Company that employed over 2,000 workers canning vegetables grown on local farms, dominated Cambridge. The CIO, through the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing & Allied Workers, headed locally by Leif Dahl, had begun to organize the plant covertly and at least one organizer had obtained work at the plant.

The Cannery union was a recent arrival on the shore, but was already well known to workers for its attempts to organize migratory field workers and seafood workers.

Wildcat Strike Begins

On the evening of June 23, 1937, a relatively small number of workers at the can-making factory within the massive Phillips plant struck after the company announced plans to reduce the workforce. The strike quickly spread to the rest of the workforce that was engaged in packing.

Loading Stringbeans for Packinghouse Near Cambridge: 1937

Migratory field workers initially joined the strike

That night, a crowd of 1,000 marched through the streets rallying support and overturning trucks carrying vegetables. The workers were majority African American with a substantial minority of whites. For the first few days of the strike they convinced migratory bean pickers who were destitute and lived in farmer provided shanties to join the strike.

AFL Unions Try Quick Deal

Strikers Rally Cambridge Md: 1937 – Hi-Res

A woman, possibly Anna Neary, speaks to a crowd of strikers.

The next day on June 24, Anna Neary (the only high-ranking female AFL organizer) appeared and the company president Albanus Phillips opened negotiations with her and concluded a quick agreement that included a relatively small 10% wage increase and the recognition of the AFL union.

Many CIO supporters believed that the company had invited the AFL to undercut them and that the wage increase was too small. At a mass meeting, the proposal was voted down.

March on Jail Frees Black Striker

That night, 1,000 predominantly white strikers and their supporters gathered at the jail to demand the release of James “Midnight” McKnight who had been arrested earlier in the day during a confrontation with truck drivers. McKnight was charged with disorderly conduct after a trucker was hit with a rock.

Overturned Truck During 1937 Cambridge Strike – Hi-Res

Overturned vegetable truck at Phillips Plant B

The sheriff, confronted with the likelihood of more violence, released McKnight on the promise of the strikers to refrain from more violence that night. It was probably the only instance of a predominantly white crowd marching on a jail to free (and not lynch) an African American south of the Mason Dixon line since Reconstruction.

The victory, however, was short-lived. On the following day of June 25, John Cephas, an African-American, was killed by a truck loaded with vegetables that swerved and struck him beside a road near the plant. Cephas was an occasional worker at the plant who had come out to support the strikers.

Over the next few days, the strikers tried to rally support, enlisting favorable merchants and closing the stores of those opposed the strike.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Phillips workers apparently signing union cards

Strike Falters

By June 30, the strike was beginning to falter. When police arrested one of the strikers, a crowd of only 200 was mustered at the local police station and held back by a dozen local policemen. The strikers eventually raised enough bail money to get him out. Meetings were attended by less than 300.

The AFL tried to set up a number of different unions—for cannery workers, truck drivers and packing workers—further dividing workers. Neary claimed to the company that she could settle the strike without a vote by workers and would accept the previous offer of a 10% increase.

Phillips rejected Neary’s offer and violence increased. Strikers stoned trucks and guards fired on the strikers, wounding James Powell. Police then arrested Powell.

Strikers also clashed with police who broke up their picket line. One striker, James Roberts, suffered a three-inch gash from a police club. Several more strikers were arrested.

Truck Overturned During Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Strike sign on the pole reads, “We can’t live on $9.80 a week, 40¢ no less.”

Company Union Created

Phillips, through a Merchants Association, set up a company union called the Cambridge Workers Association. He quickly recognized the bogus union and “settled” the strike for the original offer of 10%. A quick trial of Powell, the striker who was shot, resulted in a 12-month jail sentence for Powell.

The strike began to crumble and Phillips re-opened some of the plant. Phillips filed suit against the town for damages as a result of the strike. By July 9, the strike was over. A number of strikers were sentenced to jail by the local courts.

The AFL and CIO settled their differences over the Phillips plant in the aftermath of the strike with the CIO taking jurisdiction over the packing house workers while the AFL accepted truck drivers.

The National Labor Relations Board twice ruled against Phillips’ company union and ordered several strikers reinstated, but the cause was lost. The CIO Cannery union lost a final close vote in 1947 to the company union at a time when the Cannery union was accused of communist leadership.

Gloria Richardson brushes off National Guard: 1963

Gloria Richardson brushes off the National Guard: Cambridge, Md., 1963

Victory in the 1960s

The company-inspired union continued to “represent” the workers and acted as a hiring hall and helped to screen out workers who may try to organize a union that would act more forcefully.

The Phillips Company continued to dominate Cambridge until the mid 1950s when the company began to layoff workers. The company was sold to Consolidate Foods in 1957. The United Packinghouse Workers finally broke into non-union Cambridge when it organized the Coastal Food Plant in the 1960s when local civil rights activists led by Gloria Richardson joined their efforts.

A Third View of Factory F: 2014

Phillips Packing Company Factory F in 2014

Editors Notes:

Looking back at this strike and its ultimate failure is an agonizing exercise in “what ifs?”

The CIO organizing drives of the 1930s provided hope to thousands of workers on the Shore, both black and white. The defeat at the Phillips Packing Co., however, insured that any organizing would not fundamentally challenge Jim Crow.

Today little remains of the packing industry in Cambridge, Maryland. Visiting the site of this great failed strike requires a bit of imagination.

Location of Phillips Packing Factory B: 2014

Phillips Packing Co. Factory B occupied the upper left corner of the intersection of Washington St & these tracks in Cambridge, Md.

In 1965, Factory B and a number of other buildings burned, leaving only a small administrative office that still stands today and is occupied by the Coastal Gunite Construction Company at 16 Washington Street (across the street from a Wawa).

The massive Phillips complex that was composed of several dozen buildings is now reduced to the administrative office and Building F on Dorchester Street (the building next to Packing House Antique Mall and a small vacant building where two smokestacks still stand. Also standing is some of the boiler building and a smokestack across the railroad tracks behind Building F.


For additional images related to the strike, see

For a related article, see “600 Black Women Stand Strong, the 1938 Crab Pickers Strike,”


Shootings by DC Police Spark Fight Against Brutality 1936-41

20 Apr

A campaign from 1936-41 against police brutality in Washington, D.C. was led by the local National Negro Congress, which built a broad-based coalition. They won a sharp decline in the number of police shootings, a police review board, and new political power in an early civil rights struggle in the city.

Marchers Gather to Protest Police Brutality in DC: 1941

DC rally against police brutality Sept. 14, 1941. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Historical Image Collection. All rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Leonard Basey was out with co-workers on the evening of August 30, 1936 enjoying a respite from the work and barracks life in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp located at 26th and M Streets NE in Washington, D.C. The unit was doing the physical labor to build the infrastructure for the National Arboretum.

Basey was part of a group of young enlistees in Company 1360 in camp NA-1-DC, an African American post with white officers.

That night, Basey was walking with five other men from the camp, who were laughing and joking loudly as they walked along M Street toward Bladensburg Road through a predominantly white neighborhood.

Later testifying that he received a phone call from someone disturbed by the noise, police officer Vivian H. Landrum left his home in the neighborhood and approached the youths near 17th and M Streets NE. Landry placed the group under arrest and walked them to a police call box near Bladensburg Road and M Street NE.

When Basey questioned the arrest Landry reportedly responded, “Shut up, and don’t give me too much lip, or I’ll fill you full of lead,” according to a companion’s later testimony reported in the Afro American.

It was then that he “grabbed Basey, who was standing sideways toward him, spun him around and shot him in the abdomen,” said Basey’s companion, according to the same article.

He was just another black man who was the victim of a police murder in Washington, D.C…. or was he?

National Negro Congress

The first national convention of the National Negro Congress (NNC) took place in February of 1936 in Chicago. The NNC was formed to fill the void left by the NAACP’s reliance on a legal and lobbying strategy and would be more of an activist organization, engaging in pickets, protests and direct action to advance the cause of African American rights.

National Negro Congress Leaders at Banquet: 1940

NNC leaders John P. Davis (left) and A. Phillip Randolph (right) in March, 1940.

The NAACP had often placed a greater emphasis on issues of concern to the black elite, while the NNC was based in the black working class and was composed of many local African American union leaders along with a significant section of the black intelligentsia.

The founding Congress contained a relatively small group of activist ministers. Two national board members of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins and Charles Hamilton Houston, also attended. The NAACP as an organization, however, boycotted the group’s formation, although a number of leaders of local chapters attended.

The NNC attracted members with political views across the spectrum, including Democrats, Republicans, socialists and communists. The NNC selected A. Phillip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as its president and John P. Davis as executive secretary. Its headquarters was established in Washington, D.C.

Local Washington NNC

In contrast to the national convention, the Washington, D.C. chapter almost immediately gained wide representation among the black clergy.  Rev. William H. Jernagin, the former president of the National Race Congress, a previous broad-based African American organization, lived in the city and attended the first NNC convention.

Longtime Rights Leader Rev. William H. Jernagin: 1940 ca

Rev. William H. Jernagin circa 1940.

Jernagin was also a local rights activist and after the convention he persuaded the influential Interdenominational Ministers Alliance to affiliate with the local NNC.

These ministers were quickly able to prevail upon the local Elks, NAACP, the New Negro Alliance and other District of Columbia groups to join with the local NNC either directly or in coalition. A minister, Rev. Arthur D. Gray, was elected president of the local NNC.

The D. C. NNC began taking up issues of race discrimination in employment and the issue of police brutality.

In the Spring of 1936, during a meeting held at the Metropolitan Baptist Church to call for freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys,” Davis called for expanding the cause to fight police brutality in the city.

According to Erik Gellman in Death Blow to Jim Crow, William Hastie, a Howard University professor, told the crowd,

It doesn’t matter whether a person is hanged by an unauthorized mob or by an organized mob known as the law.

The city commissioners and the police department didn’t know it yet, but a new force had risen to challenge police violence.

Newspapers Report Self-Defense

The day after Basey was shot, the Washington Post reported

…Landrum fired at the man when Basey and several others rushed the policeman to prevent his arrest of another man who was with them.

DC National Negro Congress President Rev. Arthur D. Gray: 1940 ca

Washington branch NNC president Rev. Arthur D. Gray.

Basey died September 1 at the Casualty Hospital at 3rd and B Streets SE. The Afro American initially reported as part of a headline, “Policeman Fires as Gang Demands his Prisoner.”

But the official story began to unravel as witnesses came forward.

In testimony before a coroner’s jury inquest on September 3, white witnesses testified that Landrum was surrounded and did not draw his gun until after the group reached the call box.

One 11-year-old white youth said “Basey had his arm drawn back as if to strike Landrum when he was shot,” according to the Afro American. But the youth admitted that Landrum and another white man had talked to him the following day about being a witness for the defense.

When Landrum himself testified, he contradicted the white witnesses and admitted that the group did not surround him and he drew his service weapon as soon as the group was arrested.

‘Vision’ Flashed Through Policeman’s Mind

He also testified that the reason none of the youths struck him was because he fired his weapon when “a vision of officer Kennedy at Truxton Circle flashed through my mind.” He was referring to a police slaying by three youths at Logan Circle in 1932.

A later letter to the Washington Post characterized Landrum’s testimony thusly,

The officers’ tale resembled that of the sportsman who arrested for catching black bass out of season, maintained that he had taken the fish in self-defense, since they had jumped out of the water and bitten him.

African American CCC Camp Under Construction: 1934

CCC Camp NA-1-DC under construction in 1934.

Landrum’s testimony and that of other defense witnesses was disputed by the other CCC youths, but also by white CCC camp commander Richmond Bowen, who came on the scene shortly before the shooting. A white gas station attendant also testified he was about 40 feet from the group and heard Landrum tell them, “Shut up unless you want some of it too.”

The first inquest jury, composed of four whites and one black person, deadlocked 4-1 in Landrum’s favor and a mistrial was declared.

A second inquest held September 6 heard 29 witnesses give essentially the same testimony, but at 10 pm returned with an inexplicable verdict exonerating Landrum.

We believe the said V. Harry Landrum discharged his gun when he believed his life was in jeopardy, such a belief being initiated by a mental process and not by any overt act or acts on the part of those under arrest.

Press Ramps Up Outrage

NNC executive secretary John P. Davis and A. S. Pinkett, head of the local NAACP, immediately called for the district attorney to ask a grand jury to indict Landrum for the killing and for a police trial board to be convened to dismiss Landrum from the force.

DC Killer Cop is Free: 1936

‘Killer Cop Free.’ Afro American, Sept. 12, 1936.

But the case really began to take on a life of its own when the Afro American published its story September 12 under the headline “KILLER-COP FREE.”

The Afro printed a dramatic report that,

Lawrence Basey was the fortieth colored person shot to death by Metropolitan police since 1925. Every officer involved has been exonerated. Most of the victims were under 21 years of age.

Adam Lapin of the Washington bureau of the Daily Worker jumped on the story.  The Afro shared their research with Lapin so he could detail the victims’ names, dates of death, ages, and officers involved.

Afro Lists Victims of DC Police Killings: 1936

List of the slain. Afro, Oct. 17, 1936.

The national Communist Party paper published the statistics and an accompanying story where Lapin gave additional details on some of the deaths, writing that all forty cases “are similar, indeed, all the police murders of Negroes in Washington follow the same pattern.”

For one example, Lapin wrote,

On December 9, 1933, Policeman Wallace M. Suthard shot in the abdomen and killed Robert Lewis, a Negro worker who had been placed under arrest suspected of breaking into a home. Suthard claimed that he shot in self-defense because Lewis reached for a gun. No gun was found on the dead man.

A furor directed at Washington’s police erupted. Other newspapers around the country, particularly the African American press, began to run stories about the police shootings.

Officials Refuse to Act

Evidence came out during the inquest that Landrum had a past record of shooting at CCC workers and had beaten another African American some years before without justification.

The NNC held a protest meeting at the YMCA at 1816 12th Street NW attended by several hundred people. The NNC called for Landrum’s immediate suspension and for his indictment on murder charges. The group said that Landrum “requires the attention of a psychiatrist” because the officer believed that black people were inherently violent.

Despite the outcry, District Attorney Leslie C. Garnett refused to bring charges against Landrum before a grand jury, telling Lapin he was “not interested in the case,” according to the Chicago Defender.

A. S. Pinkett, the local NAACP secretary, said in a statement,

Thus we have the picture of a policeman arresting men for being disorderly, when there was no disorder; the shooting to death of one of them by the arresting officer; a meaningless verdict by a coroner’s jury and lastly the refusal by the District Attorney to lay the facts before a grand jury.

YE GODS! And colored persons are expected to have faith in their governmental machinery.

The Chicago Defender reported that a few minutes after interviewing Superintendent of Police Major Ernest W. Brown, Lapin announced that,

Major Brown made it perfectly clear despite his professions of sympathy for the colored people that he is opposed to a Congressional investigation or any kind of investigation of police brutality. He won’t even undertake one himself.

The Afro American published an editorial on October 31 saying,

Citizens ought to keep pounding away at Major Brown’s door in an effort to find out whether the police chief sees any connection between the Afro American’s list of fifty deaths, forty of them colored youths, at the hands of quick-trigger white policemen here in the past ten years, and the fact that nearly half of these killings have occurred during his term of office.

We believe they could make him understand that four years is long enough to ‘get away with murder.’

With the issue still boiling in November, the District of Columbia commissioners refused to release data on police killings to the American Civil Liberties Union, according to Gardner Jackson, a representative of the group.

Unable to contain the broadening protests, authorities finally responded by retiring Landrum on a pension. On November 14, 1936, the police department announced during a conference with brutality opponents that Landrum is “mentally and physically unfit for further duty as an officer,” according to the Afro.

Rev. Ernest. C. Smith: 1940 ca

Rev. E. C. Smith (shown circa 1940) lobbied for a Congressional investigation.

Fight Against Brutality Broadens

The city commissioners and the police superintendent may have thought the issue would go away with Landrum’s retirement, but the local Negro Congress continued to pound away.

The city of Washington, D.C.’s affairs were overseen directly by the U.S. Congress, to an even greater extent than today, and in 1937 the NNC began lobbying for a House subcommittee investigation…

…to determine whether and to what extent the use of unnecessary and unlawful use of force by police officers…have become a menace to life, liberty and the general security within the District of Columbia.

The group also organized an effort to lobby for an African American magistrate in the District. The NNC, NAACP, Elks, Afro American, YMCA, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, Howard University and the Washington Bar Association, along with other groups, lobbied local D.C. officials and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

To ramp up the pressure for a congressional investigation, the alliance named itself the Joint Committee for Civil Rights in the District of Columbia and sponsored a series of weekly radio broadcasts on local station WOL. It was another new tactic in the fight for civil rights in the city.

In an account by the Afro of the second broadcast on March 23, 1937, John P. Davis reminded the listeners of the exoneration of police officer Landrum in Lawrence Basey’s death:

I want you to realize the meaning of such a verdict. A coroner’s jury has held that an officer who has a mental fear for his life has a right to kill another person who has done nothing to cause that fear, who is not armed, and who has submitted peacefully to arrest.

Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: 1947

E. Franklin Frazier (shown in 1947) was among the leaders of the anti-brutality fight in 1937.

In April 1937, a meeting was held under the banner of the Joint Committee at the Metropolitan Baptist Church protesting three more police killings in recent months. At the meeting William C. Hueston, education director for the Elks, called for organized action to “stop this ruthless brutality on the part of the police,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.

Other prominent leaders included John P. Davis, Judge William Hastie, Rev. William Jernigan, Julia West Hamilton, Rev. E. C. Smith, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and John C. Bruce. Similar meetings were soon organized around the city while radio broadcasts on the issue continued.

Howard U Dean of Women Lucy Slowe

Lucy Slowe was among those acting as a judge at the mock police brutality trial.

Put Police on Trial

In May the protest effort culminated with a “public trial” of Washington’s “killer cops” at the John Wesley A. M. E. Zion Church. The trial “provided a complete picture of the lawless police terror which has reigned in Washington for the past ten years,” according to the Chicago Defender.

John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress presided. Judges included Major Campbell Johnson, secretary of the YMCA; Lucy Slowe, dean of women at Howard University; Rev. Robert W. Brooks, pastor of the Lincoln Congregational Temple; the Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood; William C. Hueston, commissioner of education of the Elks; and Dr. Victor Tulane, chemistry professor at Howard University.

Those prosecuting the case included George E. C. Hayes, of Cobb, Howard and Hayes; George A. Parker, dean of the Terrell Law School; and Edward P. Lovett, of Houston and Houston.

Major Campbell Johnson in His Office: 1942

Major Campbell Johnson was another judge in the mock police brutality trial.

“Eyewitnesses to numerous unpunished police murders, citizens who have been beaten by the police and leaders of civic associations and newspaper men who have investigated police brutality gave evidence,” according to the Chicago Defender.

Hundreds had attended each of the previous meetings and even more turned out for the trial, which included a number of whites in attendance and testifying as witnesses.

“This event demonstrated the new-style tactics of the NNC: with the theatrics in front of a large public audience, the mock trial showed how the District ought to protect citizenship rights through democratic governance,” Gellman wrote in “Death Blow to Jim Crow.”

No Victory Yet

But since many in Congress overseeing District affairs had few African American constituents, there was little interest on Capitol Hill in investigating police brutality in the city.

The White House put out trial balloons for the vacant judge position for two men: Hobart Newman, a young white attorney, and William L. Houston, founder of the firm Houston & Houston, whose son Charles was leading the NAACP legal defense effort.

However, local white officials nixed Houston’s nomination and the Roosevelt administration put forward Newman’s name for the position.

The brutality continued through the winter of 1937-38.  Incidents included the beating of a Howard University student by police and the assault by police on a black man and his wife when the man did not move his parked car fast enough. Police shot a twenty-year old African American man to death when he fled a traffic accident.

Police Shoot WWI Vet in Home: 1938

Afro American March 19, 1938 photo of Leroy Keys and the house where he was slain.

New Killing Sparks New Protests

On March 8, 1938 a distraught and delusional African American World War I veteran was making noise at his sister’s house at 2470 Ontario Road NW. When police arrived Leroy Keys began shouting at them, apparently believing they were German troops.

Keys threw small household objects through the window towards the police. Two police officers opened fire and shot him dead, despite the pleas of his sister that he needed help.

Rights groups demanded charges against the two police officers, calling the shootings “wanton and unwarranted,” and said police should have used tear gas or water to subdue the clearly disturbed man, according to the Afro American.

Two coroner’s juries deadlocked and a grand jury refused to indict.

The Afro wrote, “We think Hitler is a tyrant and a brute, a ruffian and a cur. We detest him for the way he is crushing the Jew [but] don’t forget that there is a man right here at home who has his heel on our neck.”

Thirty-six organizations joined the Keys campaign, including the United Federal Workers, which called it an “urbanized form of lynching.” Invited in to the coalition, the local Communist Party (CP) began holding open-air meetings around the city.

Martin Chancey, local CP secretary, told a gathering at 10th & U Streets NW that

We don’t hear of lynchings in Washington in the same manner as in Georgia or Alabama, but lynchings are perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect human life and property–the members of the District police force.

Chancey went on to demand suspension of the two officers involved in Keys’ death according to the Afro.

As the campaign picked up steam, another African American was shot by a police officer, this time over a bag of food.

Shot in the Back

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 26, officer John Sobolewski saw Wallace McKnight walking north on 15th Street near Massachusetts Avenue NW carrying a package under his arm.

According to Sobolewski’s testimony, he stopped McKnight and questioned him. During the interrogation, McKnight ran away, according to Sobolewski, and he [Sobolewski] opened fire.

McKnight was shot in the back, the bullet passing through his liver, and he died the next day. The package contained a chicken, a pound of butter, a dozen oranges, two pounds of bacon, a dozen bananas, several dozens eggs and some other fruit.  McKnight worked at a restaurant on the 1700 block of K Street NW not far from where he was shot.

The Rev. Robert W. Brooks observed, “Because of the record of the police department for the last eleven years, McKnight not knowing what officer John Sobolewski might do, took [his] chances on running away,” according to the Afro.

Coroner’s Jury Orders Cop Held

Police Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen tried to head off the gathering storm on June 27 by suspending Sobolewski and ordering an investigation of the McKnight shooting and a re-opening of the Keys death matter.

He also ordered a daily roll call reading of police rules on the use of revolvers. It stated: “Members of the force shall not use their revolvers except in the most urgent cases and then only in such a manner as will not jeopardize the lives of innocent people.”

The shifting public opinion also had an effect this time at the coroner’s jury. Police Lieutenant Arthur C. Belt, commanding officer of the Third Precinct on the night of the shooting, tried to save Sobolewski by telling the jury, “I would have done the same thing under the circumstances.” But his statement only added fuel to the fire.

A packed hearing room erupted in outrage at Belt’s statement and the coroner’s jury deliberated only 10 minutes before ordering Sobolewski held for grand jury action.

Edward Felder Urges Police Chief’s Firing During Brutality Protests: 1938

Edward Felder speaking to crowd of 2,000 at 9th & Rhode Island Ave. NW on July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Communists Organize March

With only a little over a week’s planning, the local Communist Party organized a march on July 8th beginning at 10th & U Streets NW, led by a car carrying Mollie McKnight, the widow of the slain Wallace McKnight. The local NNC, the New Negro Alliance and other coalition partners endorsed the march, but it was the communists who led the event.

The crowd heard Communist Party speakers including Martin Chancey, Tansell Butler and Calvin Cousins. Police were present and seized signs calling for chief Brown’s ouster, but the crowd made up for this strong arm tactic with their later chants.

Kids Swarm Widow’s Car During Police Brutality Protest: 1938

Children gather on the auto that carried the widow Mollie McKnight during the police brutality demonstration July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Over 2,000 people, of whom about 20% were white, marched and chanted “Major Brown Must Go,” “Police Brutality Must Stop,” “Everybody Join the Parade,” and “Stop Legal Lynching.”

Estimates of those who lined the streets ranged from 10,000 to 15,000. They watched marchers carrying signs like, “You May Be Next,” “Stop Police Murders,” “Compensation for Police Victims” and “Washington is not Scottsboro.”

The march ended at Rhode Island Avenue and 9th Street NW. A second rally was held there and speakers including Edward Felder of the Young Communist League urged the firing of Major Brown.

Resolutions adopted at the rally included calls for the suspension and trials of six police officers, appointing representatives of African Americans, civil organizations and labor to the panel of D.C. Commissioners, an impartial investigation into police killings, and compensation to victims’ families.

National marches for civil rights had been held previously in the city in 1922 over lynching and 1933 over the “Scottsboro Boys.”  However, this marked the first mass action in the streets of a significant size over a local African American issue in Washington since the 1919 picketing over the Moen’s school child abuse case.

First White Officer Indicted

In mid-July, the grand jury indicted Sobolewski for manslaughter. The Afro American reported it was the first time in D.C. history that a white policeman was charged in the death of a black person.

The National Negro Congress followed up the Communist Party-led march and demands by organizing a conference of over 100 organizations at the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church on July 31.

Negro Congress Leader Doxey Wilkerson at Town Hall Radio: 1942

Doxey Wilkerson (2nd from left).

The meeting was presided over by Rev. Arthur Gray in preparation for a mass meeting to be held the next day. Among the principal NNC speakers were Doxey Wilkerson of Howard University, former judge James A. Cobb, and former judge William C. Hueston.

Alphaeus Hunton, a Howard University professor, outlined eight proposed demands to be adopted at the mass meeting. They included removal of Major Brown; denial of pension rights to former officer Vivian Landrum, who had killed Leonard Basey two years earlier; suspension and trial for officers involved in shootings and recent brutality; public hearings on police brutality; and compensation for victims.

Ministers Rally 1,200

The next day, 1,200 rallied at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church under the auspices of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, where the pastor C. T. Murray presided.

John P. Davis, national secretary of the National Negro Congress, as quoted in the Washington Post, spoke of the “terror of urban lynching” which led to an “intolerable state of affairs” as “unwarranted beatings and needless killings were perpetrated by the police.”

NAACP Counsel Charles H. Houston Speaks: 1940 ca.

Charles Hamilton Houston.

Charles Hamilton Houston, counsel to the NAACP, blamed the lack of voting rights of citizens in the District and pledged legal services to help fight police brutality.

The National Negro Congress also announced a petition drive to seek 50,000 signatures to President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress.  A collection of $170 was taken up by Rev. William Jernagin from the ministerial alliance to be divided equally between Mollie McKnight and the NNC.

The petition campaign brought new allies into the fight.  The Washington Insurance Underwriters Association pledged 5,000 signatures to be collected through its 55 agents. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American League for Peace and Democracy, and the United Federal Employees also established committees to seek signatures.

The coalition organized “flying squadrons” that went house to house seeking signatures. Both black and white ministers conducted Sunday sermons across the city to popularize the cause.

Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter after two hours of deliberation by an all-white jury in September. In addition, Sobolewski was also brought before a re-constituted police trial board in September where he was again exonerated. The two officers who shot Leroy Keys were also cleared of charges by a police trial board.

However, despite the coroner’s jury verdicts, the grand jury failure to act, an acquittal at trial, and the police trial board whitewashes, change was in the air in Washington.

A Year Free of Police Killings

On June 26, 1939, one year after McKnight was killed, the NNC held a meeting at the Second Baptist Church at 3rd & I Streets NW attended by 1,500 people and hailed “a year free of police killings.”

National Negro Congress leader John P. Davis: 1940 ca.

John Preston Davis.

The meeting was presided over by local NNC president Rev. Arthur Gray.  Police superintendent Major Ernest W. Brown also spoke, trying to assure the group that he took the issue seriously. Other speakers included John P. Davis, Rev. J. L. S. Holloman of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, and Eugene Davidson of the New Negro Alliance.

The Washington Tribune saluted the work and said the “job could not have been done had it not been for the tireless energy and leadership the National Negro Congress gave to other organizations in this fight against police crimes on the Negro people of Washington.”

Rev. Gray, the D.C. NNC president, said after the campaign that the new trial board for police officers made a difference, according to Gellman’s book. The board obtained some suspensions and indictments against several police officers and Gray said, “The number of incidents has markedly decreased.”

A. Phillip Randolph Speaks at 1940 Negro Congress Convention

A. Phillip Randolph speaking at the 1940 National Negro Congress convention.

NNC Weakened

During 1939-40, the NNC was weakened by a campaign by U.S. Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX) to smear the group as a communist organization.  Then, in 1940, the president of the NNC, A. Phillip Randolph, refused to stand for re-election at the group’s Washington, D.C. national convention after delegates approved a resolution condemning the “imperialist war” in Europe and another calling for closer ties to the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The NNC’s broad political umbrella was broken. Randolph was president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters and his departure left the NNC without its most prominent leader. The Dies attack and Randolph’s withdrawal caused a number of organizations, clergy and others to drift away.

Even with its weakened state at the national level, the organization continued to wage an effective campaign in the city to desegregate defense-related employment throughout most of World War II. Further, despite the friction at the national level, the Washington, D.C. NNC continued relatively strong relationships with both the NAACP and the clergy at the local level.

Renewed Brutality in Washington

However, as time passed the initial success achieved during the 1938 police brutality campaign began to fade.

Protests spread to the Capitol Police force after the shooting and wounding of 10-year-old Fred Walker Jr. in the Senate Office Building on June 24, 1940. Sergeant Vernon Deus was quickly suspended while rights leaders demanded his dismissal and prosecution.

A month later the NNC, along with the Elks, several churches, the NAACP and the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, held a series of protest meetings against police brutality in the 4th police precinct in the city.

Over 100 people attended a mass meeting at the Zion Baptist Church at 333 F Street SW on July 18. Leaders, including pastor A. Joseph Edwards, condemned police for intimidation of African Americans in the precinct against attending the rally.

At another rally at the Mount Lebanon Church at 814 25th Street NW on July 29, Dr. C. Herbert Marshall, local NAACP president, urged African Americans to “stick together” to achieve the rally’s purpose, to “stop the cops from beating Negroes,” according to the Washington Post.

The broad coalition against brutality, now re-named the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality, took up the issue of a laundry workers’ strike at the Arcane-Sunshine Company, where police intervened on the side of strike breakers and beat pickets with their clubs.

On April 30, police officer Francis E. Davis arrested Robert Gray for disorderly conduct near 13th & Q Streets NW. According to Davis, Gray struck him and ran from the scene and when Davis caught up to him a scuffle ensued. Davis then shot Gray twice in the abdomen and Gray later died.

A coroner’s jury quickly cleared Davis, but the NNC demanded that the case be presented to a grand jury.

Three More Killed by Police

Three more African American men were shot to death by police officers in early August.  Police sergeant John Leach came upon an apparent robbery in an alley near the 1300 block of Ninth Street NW. Leach testified that Clarence Whitby struck him and fled, then Leach fired two shots, one striking Whitby and killing him.

Just days later, police officer Donald R. Webber came upon two men in an alley near 14th and Florida Avenue NW, standing beside an automobile.  Webber testified later that when he demanded a driver’s license from the two brothers they told him, “We don’t have to show you our driver’s permit,” according to the Washington Post.

During his testimony before a coroner’s jury, Webber testified he shot Jasper and Edward Cobb August 4 after he tried to place Jasper under arrest for being drunk and the two resisted. There were no other witnesses to the shooting, although Edward Cobb said before he died that he intervened in the arrest when Webber began beating his brother.

Longtime NNC nemesis police chief Maj. Ernest W. Brown was forced to retire just days after the three killings. Brown’s retirement was only tangentially related to the police brutality issue and was mainly due to Congressional concern over District crime rates and an internal police spying scandal.

But Brown’s departure also marked an opportunity for the anti-brutality coalition when Edward J. Kelly was named chief from among several internal candidates. Kelly had enemies within the department and needed broad political support to succeed as its head.

Stephen Gill Spottswood: 1940 ca

Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood.

More than 1,500 jammed the John Wesley A.M.E.Z. Church August 17 for the funeral of the Cobb brothers. Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood, pastor of the church declared, “this is not a funeral service, it is a mass meeting, protesting this occurrence,” according to the Afro American.

Spottswood continued, “They are but symbols, these two men, typical of what might happen to any of us, to you or to me. We must cooperate in decisive action to demonstrate our interest in the freedom of black men and women in the nation’s capital.”

Even as outrage against the killings was building during the month of August, coroners’ juries exonerated all the police officers in the three deaths.

Protests Escalate Again

In September, the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality in Washington called for mass protest.

Crowd Listens to Speakers at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Over 1,100 rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

At the Metropolitan Baptist Church on the 1200 block of R Street NW, a crowd estimated by the Afro American at 2,000 (the FBI estimated 1,100) gathered on September 7th to hear a wide array of speakers denounce police violence.

Doxey Wilkerson, an NNC leader and Howard University professor, presided at the meeting and called the police the enforcers of a system where black people “were segregated in living conditions and public affairs and also discrimination in employment,” according to Gellman.

Wilkerson added, “Police brutality used to be considered a local problem, today it must be viewed in terms of world significance. Police brutality and racial discrimination are part and parcel of this evil we are fighting on an international front,” the Afro American reported.

Hugh Miller, white leader of the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, said “the problems of the Negro were also the problems of the white” and urged the group to fight “Hitler’s theory” of “racial superiority” demonstrated by the killings, according to Gellman’s account.

John P. Davis, the national NNC leader, demanded permanent reforms in the department, shouting, “Don’t take no for an answer,” according to Gellman.

DC Police Chief Kelly Speaks at Anti-Brutality Rally: 1941

DC police chief Kelly speaks at anti-brutality rally on Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Wilkerson then introduced the new police chief Major Kelly, who addressed the crowd. “As long as I am head of the police department, I will not tolerate violence against any citizen or against any police officer,” he declared, according to the Afro American.

Kelly evaded calls for grand jury action against the officers involved in the three killings by saying he was not in charge at the time and urging the crowd to lobby the district attorney, but agreed with adding civilians to the police review board

Kelly also supported hiring additional African American officers, promoting an African American to captain and ending the police practice of holding people without specific charges.

It was a remarkable achievement for the group to have the police chief at the meeting and respond favorably to specific demands.

Following Kelly, a quartet from the United Cafeteria Workers Local 471 sang spirituals.

J. Finley Wilson, leader of the Elks, led off the second half of the rally saying that government protection of African American soldiers and civilians was necessary before the Elks would “battle and defend America and make it safe for the black and white under the ‘Stars and Stripes,” according to Gellman’s account.

Other speakers included Rev. L. Collins, Curtis Mitchell, Rev. E. C. Smith, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Jack Zucker, representing the Washington Industrial Council.

The rally ended with a call for marches through the streets of Washington the following week that would converge for a single rally against police brutality.

Four Marches Through the City

Protesting DC Police Brutality in Washington: 1941

One of four simultaneous marches marking each victim, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

A week later on September 14, four marches from different points in the city got underway involving an estimated 2,000 total participants. Each march was dedicated to one of the four recent victims.

Signs carried by protestors included, “Old Jim Crow Has Got to Go,” “Protect Our Civil Rights” and “Police Brutality is a Disgrace to the Nation’s Capital.” A hearse and an undertaker’s automobile carried signs in memory of persons shot in recent months by the police.

The treks converged at 10th and U Streets NW for a rally where about 500 remained to hear a number of speakers including Alphaeus Hunton, professor at Howard University, who reiterated the six demands put forth at the rally that were developed at the previous week’s meeting.

Demands included holding police officer Webber for grand jury action in the Cobb brothers shooting, internal police action to curb brutality, a citizens trial board to replace the current police board, appointment of 50 African American police officers, charges to be placed immediately against anyone arrested, and compensation to be granted dependents of those killed by the police.

Rev. Frank Alstork of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance argued for a peaceful solution but warned, “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” according to the Washington Post.

CIO Union Speaks Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Craig Vincent of the CIO speaks at anti-police brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Dorothy Strange of the National Negro Congress and the police brutality committee urged the crowd to sign and circulate a petition to be sent to the District government and the police department with the six demands.

Other speakers were Henry Thomas of the CIO United Construction Workers, Craig Vincent of the local CIO Industrial Council and Frank Donner, chair of the case committee of the brutality group.

In closing the rally, Doxey Wilkerson led chants of “Police Brutality has got to go” with the loudest for “Old Jim Crow has got to go,” according to the Afro American.


The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and  the subsequent German declaration of war.

The local NNC was weakened shortly afterwards when the National Negro Congress moved its headquarters to New York. In addition, Alphaeus Hunton, a key organizer behind the scenes, also moved to New York City. In 1943 Doxey Wilkerson, another local NNC leader, quit his post at Howard University to take a position with the Maryland Communist Party.

Rally Against DC Police Brutality on U Street: 1941

Crowd begins gather at 10th & U St. NW for anti-brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. DC Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

Other NNC organizers entered the armed services. The local NNC continued the fight for integration of war-related industries.  Mass protest activities continued up to the march demanding hiring of African American operators at Capital Transit in May 1943.

While large-scale actions faltered after this point, the local NNC continued to press for rights throughout the war and resumed larger protest activities after GIs began returning after the war ended in 1945.

The police brutality campaign marked a new chapter in the African American struggle for rights in the city. Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP summed up the police brutality campaign by writing,

The persistent and forceful campaign, which the Washington Council [of the National Negro Congress] and allied organizations have waged against police brutality in Washington, has been one of the most significant battles for civil rights and personal freedom and security ever conducted in the District of Columbia.

While this campaign achieved some limited reforms and curbed some of the more egregious police brutality, the lasting contribution may have been to bring new forms of mass protest to the local Washington, D.C. civil rights struggle, much as the Scottsboro campaign had done on a national scale just a few years previously.

This post was updated April 21, 2013 to reflect that officer Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of Wallace McKnight.

Author’s notes:

The five-year campaign against police brutality united the disparate elements among African Americans into a single unified local coalition that lasted for a significant span of time.

The effort produced both institutional reforms and an overall reduction in brutality.  Just as importantly, the campaign moved the local civil rights struggle beyond mass meetings in churches and small picket lines into mass marches in the streets. The campaign also used creative tactics from investigative reporting to utilization of radio broadcasts.

The mock trial of police practices involved every strata of the local African American community and attracted significant support from whites as well. Building off the “Scottsboro Boys” campaign, the NNC used a petition campaign to involve those unable or reluctant to join the protest activities.

The Dies Committee designated the National Negro Congress, which led the campaign, as a communist dominated organization in 1941.  Again, in the late 1940s, it was called a communist front group by the Truman administration.

The truth was significantly different. The Washington, D.C. NNC was a truly broad based organization that worked well with other rights organizations in the city.  In addressing its broad character, Thelma Dale, a youth leader and NNC member in Washington, D.C. said in a 2003 interview with Erik Gellman,

Sunday Worker on Sale at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

A woman sells the Communist Party’s Sunday Worker at an anti-brutality rally  Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

“In Washington in the fight against police brutality, were we going to put a circle around a Communist? Martin Chancey…the head of the Communist Party in Washington, D.C. functioned fully openly. So, who were we to turn them away? We didn’t.”

For activists today, the issue of how to work independently and in coalition with others who hold different viewpoints is just as complex as it was during this era. While conditions faced are vastly different, the same questions arise.

The 1938 police brutality campaign perhaps illustrates how divergent groups can work separately, but also function together around a common goal.

During the campaign organizations independently organized around the brutality issue in the communities, but also worked within the coalition together to strengthen the broad campaign and present a united front. Those on the left did so even when they thought the demands put forward by the coalition were limited and the tactics passive.  Likewise, participants who opposed left-wing political views and sometimes their militant tactics welcomed their help in building a campaign around the brutality issue.

In this instance, it produced an ongoing movement that began to break down the worst aspects of Jim Crow in the city.

Sources for this article include Erik Gellman’s book Death Blow to Jim CrowThe Chicago Defender, The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Atlanta Daily World, The Washington Herald, The Washington Star and The Crisis. 

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at

Related Posts:

“Scottsboro Boys” – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights
The Fight Against Jim Crow at Capital Transit
A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson

DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by 1939 Marian Anderson Concert

14 Mar
Marian Anderson Sings at the Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 6

Marian Anderson arrives in Washington, D.C. for her 1939 concert. Photo: Scurlock Studio.

By Craig Simpson
3rd in a series

The Lincoln Memorial became the symbolic focal point for civil rights in 1939 when over 75,000 people attended a Marian Anderson concert there after she was barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s (DAR) Constitution Hall and from the all-white public Central High School in Washington, D.C.

Most versions of the story focus on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt dropping her membership in the DAR and President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes arranging for the concert to be held on federal parkland. But the struggle to desegregate theaters in Washington was much more complex. It began long before Anderson’s 1939 concert and did not end in victory until long afterwards.

This was a struggle led primarily by the African American elite in the city and at times was a microcosm of the tensions inherent between the struggle to uplift all and the quest for individual achievement.

Segregation in the city

Segregation in public accommodations in the District of Columbia had actually been prohibited since Frederick Douglass’s son, Lewis H. Douglas, successfully introduced a bill into the District of Columbia Legislative Council in 1872.

But while that law was not repealed, it was removed from the published city code in the early part of the 20th Century, when many gains achieved during the Civil War and Reconstruction were reversed.

Laws were passed mandating segregation in public schools and parks, but attempts at mandating Jim Crow on streetcars, housing and other areas were defeated. However, even without segregation laws, businesses were imposing the practice throughout the city by the 1920s and courts upheld this discrimination as the right of individuals or businesses.

Many theaters for the performing arts in Washington required Jim Crow seating arrangements, often relegating African Americans to the upper balcony. Some barred admission to African Americans altogether or staged separate performances for blacks and whites. A very few venues barred African American performers altogether. A minority of theaters, mostly those oriented toward African American audiences, permitted mixed seating.

No Jim Crow for Civil War Vets: 1922

Civil War vets have the only integrated seating at the 1922 Lincoln Memorial dedication.

Lincoln Memorial Dedication

The African American elite in the city looked forward to the dedication of the “great emancipator” Abraham Lincoln’s memorial on May 30, 1922.  President Warren Harding took office as a Republican the year before and there was great expectation that he would reverse the policies of his Democratic predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, who had introduced segregation into the federal government and fired hundreds of black workers.

They believed that the President might announce new civil rights initiatives at the ceremony. But when they arrived on a blazing hot day to their reserved seats in Section 5, the invited African Americans discovered they had been roped off from the rest of the guests in Jim Crow seating by Lt. Col. Clarence O Sherrill, Director of Public Buildings and Parks in the city.

Shelby Davidson, president of the Washington, D. C. NAACP wrote afterward,

Platform seats reserved for white were in chairs and within distance of the speakers that might be called reasonable, considering the crowd, while back of those seats were those reserved for colored roped off from those occupied by the white and placed about a block away from the Memorial in the grass and weeds with rough hewn benches with no backs or supports.

The Harding administration did not invite any activists to address the crowd and instead asked Booker T. Washington protégé Dr. Robert Russa Moton, principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to speak on behalf of African Americans, and required Moton to submit his speech for approval in advance.

Dr. Moton Speaks at Lincoln Memorial Dedication: 1922

Dr. Robert Russa Moton speaks during Lincoln Memorial dedication in 1922.

After a brief exercise by an integrated group of Civil War veterans, Moton spoke perhaps more forcefully than Harding expected. Moton departed from his prepared speech, according to published reports, pointedly saying, “among 30,000 persons convicted of disloyalty during the last [Civil] war, not a single one was colored.”

Moton went on to call on the country to fulfill

the task imposed upon it by the martyred dead: that here it highly resolves that the humblest citizen of whatever color or creed, shall enjoy that equal opportunity and unhampered freedom…

But Harding ‘s own speech downplayed issues of race discrimination and did not mention the Dyer anti-lynching bill pending in Congress. He praised the South and credited Lincoln not for the Emancipation Proclamation but for saving the union.

The African American press castigated the ceremony after the event with one headline summing it up, “Opened But Not Dedicated Stands Memorial to Lincoln.”

Refuse to Perform

The fight against Jim Crow performing arts theaters and concert halls in the District of Columbia began in the 1920s and was waged in the city by the NAACP and other African American rights groups for more than a dozen years before the Anderson concert.

National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune: 1930 ca

Mary McLeod Bethune circa 1930.

One of the first organized actions occurred on May 5, 1925, when more than 200 African American artists refused to take the stage at the newly opened Washington Auditorium at 19th & E Streets, NW, in a protest over segregated seating.

The “All American Music Festival,” sponsored by the International Council of Women, had given written assurances to Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women, that there would be no Jim Crow seating at the event.

However when singers from the Richmond Treble Clef, the Howard University Glee Club, the Hampton Institute Choir and the Howard University Choral Society arrived at the hall, they found all black people in the audience seated on the left side of the hall and in the balcony.

The groups walked out of the hall and refused to perform. African American members of the audience followed the singers and left the theater.

Roland Hayes

Singer Roland Hayes circa 1925

Seating at Roland Hayes Concerts

The fight over Jim Crow continued at tenor Roland Hayes’s concerts.

Hayes first achieved fame in Europe when career avenues were shut to African Americans in the United States. In the 1920s he returned to the U.S. and took the country by storm.  He was the most famous African American of his time.

A 1925 Atlanta, Georgia concert ignited a firestorm of criticism of Hayes when he performed before a Jim Crow audience in the city.  He was scheduled for a concert on January 5, 1926 at the Washington Auditorium and the District’s African American rights organizations swung into action.

The NAACP, Equal Rights League, National Race Congress and ministers throughout the city began bombarding the hall and the promoter with telephone calls, telegrams and letters protesting the planned Jim Crow seating.  The local NAACP’s head of the “Ladies Service Group,” Beatrice Francis, coordinated the campaign.

Hayes, unsure of how to proceed, called promoter Katie Wilson-Greene who agreed to arrange to mix the tickets.  Hayes performed without incident. The next night, however, protests failed to change Jim Crow seating at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore.  Hayes delayed taking the stage for 32 minutes before relenting and performing before a segregated audience.

Roland Hayes Blasted for Jim Crow Performance: 1926

Afro covers Hayes on front page January 9, 1926

Hayes Blasted by Activists

In a debate that continues today over the role of prominent African Americans in the civil rights struggle, there was fierce criticism and impassioned defense of Hayes within the African American community as he continued to perform before Jim Crow audiences.

“From a popular hero, acclaimed because of his European and American success, Mr. Hayes became overnight an outcast, who betrayed his race for gold,” the Afro American wrote in 1925.

Dr. Kelly Miller, a Howard University professor, responded in his weekly Afro column, “He [Hayes] will serve his race to better advantage if we permit him to function before the world as an artist, and not as a professional Negro agitator.”

Hayes was confronted with the issue again in another Washington concert in 1928. Hayes sang before a segregated audience where African Americans were relegated to the back rows of the balcony at Poli’s Theater.

Neval Thomas, president of the local NAACP, said, “Mr. Hayes could make it far easier for us in the campaign we are conducting if he would end his policy of silence.” Thomas added, “Upon Mr. Hayes’ last appearance in Washington, we urged him to condemn the Jim Crow seating arrangement and his only reply was that, ‘I make my speech from the stage,’” according to the Afro.

Hayes continued to have defenders with one reader of the Afro writing, “I could agree with you [the Afro] in blaming a Garvey or DuBois or Trotter for tolerating race conditions in Washington, but surely not a Hayes or Marian Anderson.”

NAACP criticism of Hayes became more muted when Hayes agreed to perform a number of benefit concerts for the organization, including an April, 1930 event at the Belasco Theater in Washington.

Constitution Hall Desegregated

The DAR opened Constitution Hall in 1929, and the Wilson-Greene Agency booked Hayes for a concert on January 31, 1931. African American leaders again sought assurances that the audience would not be segregated. This time Wilson-Greene, which was responsible for ticket sales, agreed to sell tickets to African Americans in any area of the hall.

Howard University Professor Kelly Miller

Howard University professor Kelly Miller defended Hayes. Photo undated.

Accounts of what occurred that evening differ. Immediately after the event, The Afro American reported that the concert went off without incident and that there was no Jim Crow seating. The paper also reported that there were few black people in the audience.

Fred Hand, the hall manager who ultimately initiated Jim Crow policies, ten years later related that Hayes refused to sing until a large group of African Americans seated together were dispersed in the crowd, although he said Hayes relented and performed.

Following the Hayes concert, the Hampton Choir performed on March 21 at Constitution Hall. After the concert, the Washington Daily News blasted the DAR for its treatment of African Americans:

The DAR management ruled that only two blocks of seats, those on the corners of the surrounding tiers, might be sold to colored people…hundreds of colored people were turned away.  The turnout of Washington’s regular concertgoers was small…consequently the Hall was two-thirds empty. The seats assigned to colored people were packed; beside them were empty blocks.

The DAR didn’t take long to respond. They began including a “white artists only” clause beginning with all contracts starting on March 23, 1932.

Marian Anderson Rises in Fame

Meanwhile Marian Anderson’s career began to blossom. Anderson started as a young girl singing at neighborhood events for small amounts of money that began to grow larger over time. She was active at her church in the junior and, later, the adult choir in her youth. She gained attention in both church and other venues where she was often a featured singer.

The Philadelphia black community banded together and paid for private music lessons when she was refused admittance to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy.

She continued her studies in New York, where she booked to favorable reviews at several concert halls, including Carnegie in 1928. However, the opportunities for an African American singer were limited and like Hayes, she went to Europe where she became a star.

Anderson returned to the U.S. and the contralto began giving concerts, including one at New York’s Town Hall in 1935 that received highly favorable reviews. She was soon a star in the states and continued to give concerts in Europe and the U.S. throughout the late 1930s.

Singer Todd Duncan in undated photo

Singer Todd Duncan in an undated photo.

Desegregation Attempts Continue

The fight to desegregate Washington’s theaters continued into the 1930s. This time, however, high-profile African American performers would lead the effort.

Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the two leads of “Porgy and Bess,” announced their refusal to perform at the whites-only National Theater unless the theater admitted a fully integrated audience.

Howard University Professor Dr. Ralph Bunche: 1934 ca

Dr. Ralph Bunche circa 1934.

They were threatened with being fired from the show and fined by the actor’s union, but they held their ground and the rest of the cast backed them. Ralph Bunche, chair of Howard’s Department of Political Science Department and a leader of the Howard Teachers Union (HTU), rallied other labor groups and met with management, threatening to picket the theater.

The theater finally offered a compromise: blacks could sit in designated sections. The cast rejected this and held firm that they would not perform if there were any restrictions. The National Theater management gave in and the performance opened on March 16, 1936 with African Americans present in every section. The victory was short-lived, however, as the theater immediately went back to its whites-only seating.

Howard University Approaches DAR’s Hall

The same year, Howard University treasurer V. D. Johnson approached Hand about booking Anderson at Constitution Hall, perhaps thinking that the controversy then being generated by the dispute over “Porgy and Bess” would win the day for an acclaimed singer like Anderson.

Hand simply reminded Johnson of the “whites only” clause. Johnson let the matter drop and Anderson was booked in Washington at the public African American Armstrong High School in 1936 and 1937 and at the larger Rialto Theater in 1938, appearing in all cases before mixed audiences.

In 1939, with Anderson’s popularity outgrowing these theaters, Charles Cohen, chair of Howard University’s concert series that arranged Anderson’s performances in Washington, applied to the largest venue in the city—the DAR’s Constitution Hall. Three days later Hand wrote back that April 9 was already booked, and reminded Cohen of the whites-only performers clause.

Marian Anderson 1933

Marian Anderson 1933.

Eleanor Roosevelt Refuses to Help

This time officials at Howard balked at the refusal. The hall often booked more than one performer on a Sunday and there was no other suitable venue available.  In early February of 1939, Johnson reached out to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to rebuke the DAR. However, Roosevelt initially refused to do so.

Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok and Howard’s University’s Cohen scrambled to find another venue. They singled out the District of Columbia public whites-only Central High School’s large auditorium as being most suitable.

But on February 3, Superintendent Frank Ballou wrote back, “In the opinion of the school officers, it is not possible under the law for the Community Center Department to grant your request for the use of Central High School auditorium to present Miss Marian Anderson.”

Howard officials were ready to take the fight to the next level and turned to Walter White, executive secretary the NAACP and to Doxey Wilkerson, professor of Education at Howard, who was also one of the leaders of the HTU and of the local National Negro Congress.

Wilkerson presented the appeal to use Central High School at the February 15th meeting of the Board of Education.  The Board upheld Ballou’s decision to deny the use of the school.

Howard University Professor Doxey Wilkerson: 1940 ca.

Doxey Wilkerson circa 1940.

Protests Ignite

The American Federation of Teachers reacted first at a February 18th meeting at the YWCA, where they condemned the school board’s refusal to permit Anderson to sing and began circulating petitions.

The following day, Feb 19, Charles Edward Russell, chair of the citywide Inter-Racial Committee, convened a meeting that formed the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) composed of several dozen organizations, church leaders and individual activists in the city.

Among the groups were the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Washington Industrial Council-CIO, American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress. Some predominantly white citizens’ associations also joined.

By February 20th the group was picketing the board of education, the first time that the school system had been picketed since the Moen’s case drew thousands of African Americans into mass meetings and picketing in March of 1919.

The MACC collected signatures on petitions and planned a mass meeting February 26th and a mass protest March 1st at the next board of education meeting. MACC elected Charles Hamilton Houston as chairman, John Lovell, Jr. as secretary, and Bertha Blair as vice chair.

First Mass Protest

Fliers called upon Washingtonians to rise,

Marian Anderson is a Negro. Thus, even as in Naziland, superb art is here crucified upon the altar of racial bigotry. Shall we permit the DAR and the Board of Education to impose this unwholesome policy upon our community? Shall the people of Washington dictate, or be dictated to?”

Over 1,500 people crowded into the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church at 1701 11th Street, NW to hear Doxey Wilkerson,

We must note that … if it is legal to present a white artist in Armstrong Hall, for a considerable fee, as was done recently, before a mixed audience, then it is equally legal to present a colored artist in the auditorium of a white school before a similar audience.

The growing protest movement also caused Roosevelt to reconsider her earlier refusal to condemn the DAR. She sent a telegram to the rally saying, “I regret extremely that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marian Anderson, a great artist.” Unknown to the meeting, Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR the same day.

Roosevelt Announces Resignation

The next day, Roosevelt announced in her weekly newspaper column and at a press conference that she had resigned from a major organization to which she had “belonged since coming to Washington.” The Anderson situation turned quickly from one covered in the local newspapers and the African American press to one also covered by the white press across the nation.

DC School Board Member Col. West A. Hamilton: 1940 ca.

Col. West A. Hamilton circa 1940

Hundreds of Washington residents descended on the Franklin School on March 1st to protest the school board’s decision. Telegrams began pouring in to the school board from around the country and 3,000 signatures were presented at the board meeting.

Charles H. Houston, speaking for the NAACP, called the school board’s decision a “travesty on democracy.” Sidney Katz of the local CIO spoke for the Anderson committee, comparing her treatment to “the treatment of Jewish artists in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.”

Col. West A. Hamilton, one of two African American members of the school board, made a motion to permit Anderson to sing at Central, but failed to get a second. The board voted to defer a decision to a committee meeting the following day.

Board Sets Impossible Conditions

Fearing the consequences of an outright refusal, the school committee voted to permit Anderson to use the school on a basis that did not set a “precedent” and

only on the positive and definite assurance and agreement…that the Board of Education will not in the future again be asked to depart from the principle of a dual system of schools and schools facilities.

The full board upheld the committee decision on a 6-2 vote on March 3rd.

Charles Hamilton Houston & the Capital Transit Fight (Photo 3)

Charles Hamilton Houston circa 1940.

Houston was stunned by the decision, “I had expected Friday a real hearing by the Committee, and had obtained thru the Committee (MACC) new signatures on the petition, a file of newspaper comments, letters and telegrams of endorsement [and] resolutions.”

All rights leaders were appalled. They could accept the no-precedent language, but not a restriction on whether anyone could ever apply again. After considering their options, Cohen wrote that he would accept the auditorium, but not the conditions.

Superintendent Ballou withdrew the offer March 17, writing, “The responsibility for making the Central High School auditorium unavailable for the concert of Miss Marian Anderson on April 9 must be assumed by you and your associates of Howard University.”

MACC leaders vehemently denounced the board and scheduled another mass meeting. Houston summed it up best when he said after the school board decision, “I wanted Marian Anderson to sing in Central, but not at the cost of my dignity and self-respect.”

Scramble for a venue

While the fight with the school board was playing out, efforts were made to find other solutions.

Hurok surreptitiously discovered that April 8th and 10th were available at Constitution Hall and applied for those dates, but Hand responded on February 15th that, “the hall is not available for a concert by Miss Anderson.”

Options were growing narrower, since the Rialto Theater was closed for repairs and the National and Belasco theaters would not give definitive answers.

It is not clear who came up with the idea to stage the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The director of music at Howard, Lulu Childers, had said in exasperation in early January that Anderson would “Sing here—even if we have to build a tent for her.“

Hurok announced publicly in late February that Anderson would keep the April 9th concert date and sing “out in the open air in the park immediately in front of Constitution Hall. She will sing for the people of Washington and there will be no charge.”  NAACP Executive Director White, however, opposed holding the concert at that location, believing it would show weakness.

Venue discussions were taking place among Howard officials, Hurok, Houston and White in early March and they included ideas about outdoor concerts.  According to one account, White favored Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, early in the strategy sessions.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 5

Marian Anderson and Oscar Chapman 1939.

Lincoln Memorial

But by March 13th, White drafted a resolution adopted by the NAACP directors calling for Anderson to give her concert at the Lincoln Memorial. White approached Oscar Chapman, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, about the use of the Lincoln Memorial.

Chapman was a fervent New Deal Democrat who had previously worked on anti-lynching legislation. He had been active in a number of progressive causes and was even accused of being a communist in 1938 by Rep. Noah Mason (R-IL) because of his support for the loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War.

Chapman recalled in a 1972 interview that White approached him saying, “Oscar, wouldn’t it be a ten strike if we could have her sing at the feet of Lincoln, at the Lincoln Memorial?”

Chapman immediately agreed and contacted Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. Chapman recalled appealing to Ickes’ vanity saying,

We’ll build a platform on that low level of steps so cameras down here can take pictures of Lincoln right straight through from the platform we build for you and Marian Anderson who will be sitting there. And when she’s singing, they’ll be taking pictures; we can get the picture of Lincoln, you, and Marian Anderson all the time.

Chapman added after his recollection, “Well that pleased him.” Ickes quickly agreed to use the Memorial and contacted President Franklin Roosevelt who also gave his assent. With only days to prepare, Marian Anderson had a place to sing in Washington, D.C.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 2

Marian Anderson and the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial 1939.

The Marian Anderson Concert

While the parks department began site preparation, the NAACP began organizing buses to come to the concert. Nobody really knew how many people would turn out for the event and Anderson had never performed outdoors before.

Sunday, April 9 was a cold, blustery day and rain threatened throughout the day. Nevertheless, more than 75,000 people—black and white– showed up to hear Anderson, with no segregated areas. Millions more listened to the radio broadcast by NBC.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 3

April 9, 1939 crowd at the Marian Anderson concert

The DAR’s refusal of a concert hall to an African American performer turned into the largest affirmation of civil rights at that time. It marked an unofficial dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans. The battle for civil rights was far from over, but the concert also signaled a turning point in the fight against Jim Crow.

Anderson, who avoided political statements and claimed to know little about the battle over her concert venue in Washington, did her part that day. In a slight twist of words, she gave a new civil rights meaning to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” when she sang, “to thee we sing” instead of “of thee we sing.”

Battle Far from Over

While the concert marked a turning point, the long battle to desegregate theaters went on in Washington, D.C.

Picket at the National Theater: 1947 ca.

A picket at the National Theater circa 1947.

The fight continued at the National Theater, where picketing began in 1946 over the lessee’s refusal to admit black patrons.  The theater even employed a “spotter” in an attempt to bar anyone trying to “pass” as white.

President Harry Truman crossed the picket line in 1947 to see a performance of “Blossom Time,” but that only inflamed the protests led by the Committee for Racial Democracy chaired by Leon Ransom.  Later that year, the Actor’s Equity Association ultimately voted to ban performances until the theater desegregated.

Marcus Hyman, who held the lease, converted the theater to a movie house rather than desegregate and the landmark theater didn’t open its doors to African Americans until his lease expired and it was reconverted to a theater in 1952.

Desegregate Lisner Auditorium Pickets: 1946 # 1

Pickets at the opening of Lisner Auditorium in 1946. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Ingrid Berman Spat on At Lisner

The Lisner Auditorium opened at George Washington University in 1946, excluding African Americans.  Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, the star of the play “Joan of Lorraine,” said at a press conference the day before the show opened, “If I’d known black people weren’t allowed in, I’d have never set foot in this town.”

Bergman reported that pro-segregationists waited outside her dressing room and spit on her and called her an “n_____-lover.”

The Washington chapter of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare set up a picket line opening night October 29 demanding that African Americans be admitted. The cast of the production signed a petition denouncing the “deplorable and un-American practice of segregation.” A veterans group and other students at the school joined them in subsequent days.

In response to the outcry against segregation, the university voted to admit African Americans as patrons of university sponsored events in 1947. However, privately-sponsored events at Lisner continued to be segregated until 1954.

Protest Signs, Campaign to integrate Uline Arena, (1948-49)

Picket signs plastered on Uline Arena circa 1948.

The Warner Theater desegregated in 1953. Other battles, including picket lines at the Uline Arena and at movie theaters throughout the city, were waged continuously in the post World War II period.

Concert venues and theaters in the city accelerated desegregation in the wake of the 1953 Supreme Court decision reinstating Washington’s “lost laws” prohibiting segregation in facilities open to the public, and the Court’s 1954 Bolling vs. Sharpe decision outlawing segregated schools in the District.

Marian Anderson in D.C. after 1939.

Anderson was invited to appear at DAR Constitution Hall for a World War II relief benefit in January, 1943. Her representatives demanded that the audience be mixed and that the ban on black artists be lifted. The DAR agreed to a mixed audience, but refused to drop their “whites-only” performers clause, except on a case-by-case basis. Anderson ultimately sang, citing the need for wartime unity.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial: 1952 # 2

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in 1952.

She reprised her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 20, 1952 in a remembrance service for Harold Ickes. Over 10,000 came out to the event.

She performed again at DAR Constitution Hall in 1953—the same year the organization finally dropped its “whites only” performers clause—and appeared several other times at the hall in subsequent years.

Perhaps in triumph as she gazed out on the 250,000 gathered, she sang at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—again at the Lincoln Memorial.


Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert was in many ways the symbolic beginning of the end of Jim Crow.  Though taking the form of a concert, it marked the first mass rally for civil rights, using the emblematic Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 1

Marian Anderson concert April 9, 1939.

Most accounts miss the symbolic dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans that took place with the 1939 Anderson concert. It stood in stark contrast to the segregation at the official dedication held in 1922.

The same accounts usually give most of the credit to President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Ickes for Anderson’s historic concert, but in 1939 local NAACP secretary John Lovell Jr. saw it a little differently when he wrote in The Crisis,

The spirit they [D.C. African Americans] showed this year was beyond the recollection of the oldest old-timer. They flooded the newspapers with letters, bitterly and skillfully written. They got their friends from outside to shower Congressmen with petitions. They hung from the rafters when the Board of Education met.

They demanded a picket line against the DAR national Convention and shouted for the opportunity of being the first to ride in the Black Marias [police paddy wagons], if the Black Marias were to materialize.

The national press put the credit for the furor upon Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary Ickes; but it was the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee which first notified Mrs. Roosevelt and which got her first response.

The 75,000 who heard Miss Anderson on Easter Sunday were a tribute to the fighting Negroes in the District of Columbia as much as to democracy and the preservation of art.

(Note: This post was updated March 14, 2016 to clarify that while there were not explicit laws requiring segregation of public facilities such as theaters, housing and restaurants; the courts upheld the “right” of individuals and businesses to impose Jim Crow. Further, restrictive covenants requiring houses to be sold only to whites were upheld by the courts)

Watch and listen to Marian Anderson’s rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the 1939 concert:

This is the third part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The March that Wasn’t & a Renewed Focus on Washington

Read Part I, “Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington
Read Part II, “‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights”

Author’s Notes:

Central High School was the old name for what is now known as Cardozo High School.

Sources include The Washington Post, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Afro American, Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta World, New York Amsterdam News, Washington Daily News, Washington Star, Allan Keller’s “Marian Anderson: A Singers Journal,” Victoria Garrett Jones, “Marian Anderson: A Voice Uplifted,” The Crisis, and Howard Kaplan’s “Marian Anderson.”

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at

Police Break Up Unemployed Protest at White House: 1930

26 Feb

Police at the White House broke up a protest by the unemployed on March 6, 1930. The demonstration was part of the first nationwide protest response to the Great Depression that had begun the previous fall.

Protests were held in Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, Seattle, Las Angeles and San Francisco among other cities. Demonstrations were also held on the same day in cities around the world.

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 1

Pickets arrive at the White House, March 6, 1930. Photo courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress.

The clash began when District of Columbia local Communist Party leader William “Bert” Lawrence stopped and began to speak to the crowd, police in street clothes attacked him. Uniformed police then assaulted the picketers and bystanders with tear gas and black jacks. Some the protestors fought back against the police.

Some reports said President Herbert Hoover watched the demonstration from the White House windows along with a delegation from the District of Columbia Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), while other reports had his wife watching along with the DAR.

The District of Columbia Communist Party and allied groups began preparations in the city for weeks before and police responded by arresting 10 people on April 30 for holding soapbox style speeches on the street corners near the Communist Party headquarters at 1337 7th Street NW. Similar meetings and police harassment took place at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union statue at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Unemployment Rally in DC: 1930

Meeting at 1337 7th St. NW prior to picketing, March 6, 1930. From the Library of Congress

The communists and along with others held a rally the night before at the Communist Party headquarters where speeches were given and signs were made for the next day’s demonstration. The main themes were demands for good jobs, against police brutality, Jim Crow schools in the District and lynching.

Among the organizers were Lawrence, Solomon Harper of the International Labor Defense and Edith Briscoe of the Young Communist League.

Briscoe was among those arrested at the White House picket line after she jumped on the back of a police officer he was getting ready to strike an African American demonstrator. Lawrence was detained and charged with speaking in a public place without permission.

Harper was arrested for disorderly conduct, but was acquitted. He still faced charges from an outdoor speech he gave the night before condemning the lynching of sixty-year-old Laura Wood at Barber Junction in North Carolina.

Tear Gas Quells Reds: Washington Post 1930

Jobless pickets are the lead story for the Washington Post, March 7, 1930.

Public demonstrations of this type were fairly infrequent at that time and public protests involving blacks and whites even more infrequent.

The picket in front of the White House was held with blacks and whites locking arms while picketing. Press reports estimated that several thousand nearby office workers came out to watch. The newspapers also indicate that 13 picketers were arrested with an unknown number of injured, but only one that required hospital treatment.

The demonstrations made front-page news and were the lead stories in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun and helped put the Communist Party at the forefront of the fight against unemployment and racial discrimination in the District for the next decade.

To see still photos of the March 6, 1930 demonstration, go to the Washington Area Spark Flickr site.

The photos in the short video are courtesy of the Library of Congress. The video clips were originally from Sherman Grinberg, but are believed to be in the public domain. The clips were misidentified as part of the the 1932 bonus march in a Newsreel production. The Library of Congress has mis-dated some of the photos to a period earlier than they actually were taken.

Note: This post was updated February 28.

‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights

19 Feb
4000 March in Washington to Free ‘Scottsboro Boys’ – 1933

4,000 march on Washington on May 8, 1933 to “Free the Scottsboro Boys.” ©Bettman/Corbis.

By Craig Simpson
2nd of a series

During the height of the Great Depression, on May 8, 1933, a crowd of 4,000 people marched more than six miles through steady rain in Washington, D.C. demanding freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys” and other prisoners.

More than ten years had passed since the last predominantly African American mass march in the nation’s capital centered on a call for anti-lynching legislation and basic civil rights.

The “Scottsboro Boys” were nine African American youths accused of the rape of two white women in Alabama. Eight of them were convicted and sentenced to death. A mistrial was declared for the ninth, 13-year-old Roy Wright, after the jury deadlocked on the death penalty.

‘Scottsboro Boys’ with Attorney Leibowitz: 1933

‘Scottsboro Boys’ with Attorney Leibowitz: 1933

An all-white crowd packed the courtroom during the trials while thousands more gathered outside. When the first verdicts were announced, a band began playing, “It’s going to be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

The case inspired unprecedented activism in black communities across the country and cast a worldwide spotlight on treatment of African Americans in the United States.

The tactics used in the fight to free those accused also set off a years-long,  acrimonious public debate between the Communist Party (CP) with its legal arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD), and the NAACP.

Communist Party Takes Control of Case

During the initial trial a local lawyer, hired with the assistance of a ministers’ group allied with the NAACP, did a poor job of representing the Scottsboro defendants. The ILD attorneys then took control of the case with the support of the youths and their mothers.

Eight of the defendants had been sentenced to death on April 11, 1931 and were scheduled for execution on July 10th. The CP acted quickly to organize protests across the country, characterizing the trial as a “legal lynching.”

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 2

Solomon Harper shown at a 1930 picket line at the White House. National Photo Company, courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress

In Washington, D.C. meetings and rallies were held, including one on May 29, 1931, led by ILD District of Columbia leader Solomon Harper at Fisherman Hall (320 F Street, SW).

Harper outlined the holes in the prosecution’s case, pointing out, for example, that three trial witnesses had placed the defendants in different locations.   Harper also  addressed those criticizing communist involvement by calling for a united front to aid the youths. Ada Wright, mother of two of the defendants, also spoke and appealed to the crowd for aid in freeing the youths. Wright’s 17-year-old son, Andy, was scheduled for execution in six weeks.  Her other son Roy, 13, was still in jail, awaiting sentencing.

Letters and telegrams poured in to the county, the courts, the attorney general, the governor, Congress and the President to free the young men.  Nationwide direct action—including civil disobedience—was employed on an extraordinary scale in the quest for the young men’s freedom.

Communist parties in other countries also led marches and rallies to demand release of the youths, including a July 1931 rally of 150,000 German workers who heard Wright speak and plea to save her sons.

In addition to the mass pressure, the ILD challenged the initial guilty verdict in the courts on three broad grounds: that the trial had taken place under mob intimidation, that the defense was incompetent and had deprived the young men of a fair trial, and that African Americans had been excluded from the jury pool.

NAACP Leader DuBois in Washington: 1932

W.E.B. DuBois, shown at an Alpha Phi Alpha dinner, blasted communist tactics of mass action. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy of National Museum of American HIstory.

NAACP Blasts Tactics

The NAACP was initially reluctant to take on an appeal. However, once the communists brought public attention to the youths, they fought bitterly to regain control of the case, even offering the services of famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow at one point.

W. E. B DuBois, editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, blasted the ILD in a 1931 article, “If the Communists want these lads murdered, then their antics of threatening judges and yelling for mass action. . . is calculated to insure this.”

The NAACP also didn’t believe any significant legal principles were involved in the case. NAACP executive secretary Walter White wrote in a letter to field secretary William Pickens, “It is equally true that there is no broad legal principle to be established in the cases. The principle involved in them was established by us in the Arkansas Cases…ruling that a trial in a court dominated by mob influence is not due process of law.”

However, events proved the NAACP leadership wrong.

Case Goes to Supreme Court

The communists directly challenged every institution involved in the case—local officials, state officials, judges and the federal government—denouncing them as tools of the ruling class.

The CP engaged in high profile civil disobedience when they staged a banned demonstration at the Supreme Court on November 11, 1932–the day the Court was due to deliver its first decision in the case. A captain of the Capitol police, Stephen Gnash, refused to issue a permit because the protest “might be interpreted as an attempt to coerce the Supreme Court.”

The ILD held the demonstration anyway and police broke it up with clubs and tear gas, but not before the pickets threw a few counter-punches at the police.  Reports of the clash were met with horror by more conservative elements in the African American community.

7 'Scottsboro Boys' Win: 1932

Protestors are arrested at the Supreme Court prior to the ruling reversing the Scottsboro verdicts, November. 1932.

Precedent Set by Court

But in a precedent-setting ruling, the Supreme Court found that the defense provided the Scottsboro youths was incompetent and ordered a new trial. Justice Felix Frankfurter said at the time that the ruling was “the first application of the limitations of the [fourteenth] amendment to a state criminal trial.”

The Court also rejected the mob intimidation legal theory with the majority writing, “It does not sufficiently appear that the defendants were seriously threatened with, or that they were actually in danger of mob violence. . .” This was another blow to the NAACP and White, who had earlier written this was the sole basis for overturning the convictions.

The Alabama prosecutors then split the defendants into different groups for retrial,  where eight of the youths were again found guilty.

March on White House and Capitol

The CP continued its campaign to free the youths, their efforts climaxing in the 1933 march on Washington.

The night before the march, several thousand African Americans mixed with several hundred white supporters at the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church located at 3rd and I Streets, NW. There they heard Ruby Bates, one of the accusers of the youths who had recanted her testimony during the second trial, say,

They were framed-up at the Scottsboro trial, not only by the boys and girls on the freight train, of which I was one, but by the bosses of the southern counties.

Scottsboro March Rates Four Photo in Afro American: 1933

Afro American publishes four photos of the 1933 march on Washington.

The next day the lengthy march began at Florida and New York Ave NE and wound through the city before heading toward the White House and then on to the Capitol, where it was to disband near the House office buildings. Ruby Bates and Janie Patterson, the mother of defendant Haywood Patterson, led the group.

Marchers also called for freeing labor leader Tom Mooney, a Maryland African American named Euel Lee who was also facing the death penalty, and Angelo Herndon, a black communist labor organizer charged with insurrection in Georgia.

Roosevelt Refusal Angers Demonstrators

The demonstrators were angered when President Franklin Roosevelt refused to see a delegation. Instead the White House appointments secretary received representatives who presented a petition with 145,000 signatures. The crowd paused their march and gathered outside the White House where they sang The Internationale and shouted, “Free the Scottsboro Boys.”

Delegation Demands Justice Depart Action on Lynching: 1940

William D. Patterson, 2nd from left, shown in 1940. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy National Museum of American History.

They then marched to the Capitol where a delegation led by William D. Patterson (no relation to defendant), a leader of the ILD, met briefly with Speaker of the House Henry Rainey and Vice President John Garner. They presented more petitions demanding freedom for the Scottsboro Boys and for the passage of an anti-lynching law.

Rep. Oscar De Priest (R-IL), the only African American in Congress at the time, continued the debate over tactics. He rebuked Patterson, telling him the case “cannot be settled by your parading in the capital: it is a case for the state and your presence in Washington fails to help the cause.” DePriest, who also opposed higher taxes on the wealthy and federal relief programs, was defeated in an election the following year.

Louise Thompson Patterson - late 1920s, CRC Worker, Former Wife of Wallace Thurman

Louise Thompson said the 1933 Scottsboro march was only the beginning and predicted a million would return. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.

The march concluded with a rally at Seaton Park near the Capitol where the throng heard a dozen speakers, including Louise Thompson. She told the crowd this was “only the beginning” and that “another time will come when 500,000, even a million marchers” will descend on Washington.

Mothers Return to D.C.

On the morning of Mother’s Day, May 13, 1934, four of the mothers and Ruby Bates returned to Washington and spoke at churches throughout the city.  In the afternoon, they were refused an audience with the President or any of his representatives. That evening several hundred people rallied in support of the Scottsboro defendants at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, 901 Rhode Island Avenue, NW.

'Scottsboro Boys' Mothers: 1934

Four of the Scottsboro mothers and Ruby Bates at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, DC in May 1934. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy of National Museum of American History.

Janie Patterson, whose son had three times been sentenced to die in the electric chair, told the crowd, “The President wouldn’t see me and he is supposed to be my President too.” Viola Montgomery, mother of defendant Olen Montgomery, stated, “If a colored woman had been attacked by white men, nothing would have been done.”

Ida Norris, mother of Clarence Norris, praised the ILD, “If it hadn’t been for them, our boys would have been electrocuted or lynched long ago. If you are ever going to vote, vote nothing but the Communist ticket.”

The group went back to the White House the following day and was received by the President’s representatives.

Court Rules Jury Exclusion Illegal

The case came back before the Supreme Court as Norris vs. Alabama on February 15, 1935. The Court overturned the guilty verdict again in another precedent-setting decision, finding that Alabama’s exclusion of blacks from the jury rolls violated the “equal protection” clause of the Constitution.

“Scottsboro Boys Must Not Die,” DC Mass Meeting: 1934

Flyer for a 1934 Washington, D.C. protest meeting on the ‘Scottsboro Boys.’ Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By this time, the ILD had made its own mistakes in handling the case, including two ILD members being caught trying to bribe the principal accuser of the youths.  In addition, the NAACP was under pressure by its members to end its fight with the communists.

A joint legal defense committee, supported by both groups, the ACLU and others, was finally formed in 1935 to take charge of the case. With the legal defense under a unified banner, the CP and ILD continued to organize mass pressure.

Partial Victory

Patterson’s fourth trial, in January, 1936, resulted in another rape conviction, but this time he was sentenced to 75 years—the first time in Alabama that a black man had avoided the death penalty after a conviction for the rape of a white woman.

In July, 1937, prosecutors dropped charges against Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams and Roy Wright after they had spent six years in prison. Wright, 13 at the time of the events, had been imprisoned all that time, even though he was never tried again after the first mistrial.

During an altercation, a deputy shot and wounded Ozie Powell in 1936 while he was being transported to a prison. Powell eventually pled guilty to assaulting the deputy and the rape charges were dropped as part of the plea deal. Powell was released in 1946.

The other three were convicted of rape. Clarence Norris, Andrew Wright and Charlie Weems were eventually paroled in the 1940s, and Patterson escaped in 1948. Wright was sent back to prison for a parole violation and wasn’t released until 1950.

New Rights, New Tactics

The debate over tactics would continue for decades, but the Scottsboro campaign established that direct action could produce change.  The defendants weren’t all acquitted, but they were all saved from the death penalty. Two new important precedents were set: the right to competent defense counsel and a prohibition against excluding African Americans from juries.

145,000 Protest Scottsboro to Roosevelt: 1933

The May 10, 1933 New York Amsterdam News headlines the Scottsboro mass protest.

Equally important was the communists’ use of mass protest and civil disobedience alongside a strident legal defense. Charles Hamilton Houston, who served as the first NAACP special counsel from 1935-40, summarized the Scottsboro case and put the Communist Party/ILD approach in perspective when he wrote in 1935:

By its uncompromising resistance to Southern prejudice the ILD has set a new standard for agitation for equality. Through its activity in the Scottsboro case the ILD has made it impossible for the Negro bourgeoisie in the future to be as complacent and supine before racial injustices as it was prior to Scottsboro. It has introduced the Negro to the possibilities and tactics of mass pressure.

Years later, Houston reflected that Scottsboro marked “an historic departure” and that African Americans

were made to feel that even without the ordinary weapons of democracy…[they] still had the force…with which they themselves could bring to bear pressures and affect the result of the trial…

Nobody who ever sent a telegram of protest to any of the Scottsboro judges…ever inside himself accepted the fact that he was willingly from then on going to tolerate the system and the oppression to which he hitherto had been unresistingly subject.

This is the second part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The 1939 Marian Anderson Concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Read Part I, Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington

Read Part III, DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by Marian Anderson Concert

Author’s notes:

In 1976, Norris, the last living defendant at that time, was pardoned with the support of the NAACP and civil rights groups across the country. The Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center was opened in the town in 2010, acknowledging the history of the youths’ ordeal.

This year, two bills were introduced into the Alabama legislature that would finally clear all the defendants.  A resolution would find the Scottsboro youths “victims of a series of gross injustices” and declare them exonerated. The other legislation would grant the state parole board the power to grant posthumous pardons, a legal prerequisite before pardons to the now deceased defendants could be issued. Though 82 years late, observers predict that both bills will pass.

The quotes by Charles Hamilton Houston are excerpted from Genna McNeil’s, “Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights.” Quotes by the Scottsboro mothers, Ruby Bates and Louise Thompson are from articles from The Afro American. Quotes from Walter White and W.E.B. DuBois came from “Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial” by James A. Miller. Other sources include: The Crisis, The Afro American, The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Chicago Defender and The Amsterdam News.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at

600 Black Women Stand Strong: The 1938 Crab Pickers Strike

5 Dec
A Face of the CIO Union in Crisfield, MD: 1938

Pauline Schofield with CIO button, Crisfield, MD, May 1938. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Working people in Crisfield, Maryland, were in desperate straits on the first of April in 1938.

The Great Depression hadn’t lifted yet, and 300 garment workers, mostly women, had been thrown out of work two weeks earlier when two factories had closed. One town official estimated that 90% of the Crisfield workforce was unemployed at that time.

Then, on top of everything else, on April 4th the town’s packing companies cut the amount paid to hundreds of crab pickers from 35 cents per gallon to 25 cents per gallon. The packers might have figured that the pickers would just be thankful to have a job.

Instead, two days later, 600 predominantly African American women crab pickers walked out on a five-week strike. They demanded that the rates be restored to 35 cents and that the packing companies recognize the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) as their union.

They defied mob intimidation and long weeks of privation, but won their strike—and a union.

Climate of Racial Fear

The town had a mixed history of race relations. It had experienced brutal racial violence, but also cooperation at times among black and white workers against the packinghouses.

Crisfield, previously named Somers Cove, had a population of about 6,000 in 1938, over one-quarter of whom were African American. The town, located near the southernmost portion of Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, was heavily dependent on the seafood industry.  It billed itself the “Seafood Capital of the World.”

The town took its name from John W. Crisfield, one of the largest slave holders in the state during the 1860s and a pro-slavery congressman during the Civil War. He was defeated in 1863 by abolitionist John Cresswell in what is widely believed to be vote fraud conducted by federal troops in the state. Crisfield secured the financing that brought the Eastern Shore Railroad to the town in 1867 and the town’s name was changed to honor him.

Lynching occurred all too frequently on the Eastern Shore up into the 1930s. One had occurred in Crisfield 30 years before and there were several others in surrounding towns in more recent years.

In 1907, James Reed allegedly shot and killed Crisfield police chief John H. Daugherty.  Reed was captured while fleeing the town by boat. He was beaten to death and hung from a telegraph pole and his body was later buried in a marsh. Unsatisfied, white rioters dug up Reed’s body, cut it up, shot it with bullets and then threw it into a bonfire.  Following this, the mob ran through the black community pulling people from their homes and beating them.

Thirty miles away in Salisbury in 1931, Matt Williams suffered a similar barbaric death administered by a mob. Again in 1931, a gang of whites in Snow Hill, 35 miles from Crisfield, beat white International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and a male and female companion when they couldn’t find their African American target Euel Lee.

Twenty miles away in Princess Anne in 1933, George Armwood was dragged from the local jail with a rope around his neck, beaten, stabbed and kicked. The mob tied him to the back of a truck and dragged him down the street to a large tree. The crowd cut off his ears, took his gold teeth, and then repeatedly dropped his lifeless body from a large limb to the ground. They then dragged Armwood’s corpse back to the courthouse in the center of town where it was hanged from a telephone pole and set on fire.

Racial Solidarity in 1931 Strike

The virulent racism that characterized some sectors of the population wasn’t the whole story in Crisfield, and 1938 was not the first year crab pickers had resisted the packinghouses’ attempts to reduce their pay.

Housing at W. T. Handy Packinghouse 2: 1940

Workers who picked crabs, shucked oysters or canned vegetables were paid little and had little. Shown is housing for permanent workers at the W. T. Handy plant in Crisfield, MD  ca 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1931, the packers also reduced rates from $0.35 per gallon to $0.25 per gallon (the equivalent of seven cents to five cents per pound) of picked crabmeat.

Leroy R. Carson, who owned one of the largest packinghouses in Crisfield and also owned a packinghouse in Hampton, VA, led the move.   In what would become a recurring practice, Carson reduced rates in Hampton and used the Virginia competition as a reason to reduce rates in Crisfield.

In response, on September 8, nearly 300 crab pickers quit working and went on strike.

The strikers marched from door to door through working class neighborhoods enlisting support. Their ranks bolstered, they marched through downtown Crisfield.

In all, between 700 and 800 crabmeat pickers—of whom about 100 were white—from 22 crab-picking plants joined the strike.

They had the backing of a racially mixed group of oyster shuckers whose season was about to begin and who feared their rates would also be reduced. The U.S. Department of Labor, US Conciliation Service’s Georgia Johnson stated, “Much solidarity is reported between all workers, white and colored…”

Johnson went on to say that, “The operators are holding out, because they wish continued wage reductions through the oyster-shucking season which opens today; and that this reduction is chiefly to fix oyster shucking wages through the autumn, winter and spring seasons.”

The owner of one of the three largest seafood businesses in Crisfield, J. C. W. Tawes, was quoted as saying that “…rather than submit to the strikers’ demands he would sell out and leave Crisfield.”

Tawes demanded that Mayor William H. Bradshaw order out the police, arm the citizens or order out the militia, ostensibly to protect black women who he claimed didn’t want to strike.  He alleged they were intimidated by a mostly white, male group of oyster shuckers.

Instead, Bradshaw brokered an agreement where some packinghouses agreed to a compromise rate of 30 cents per gallon. Both the packers and the strikers were dissatisfied with Bradshaw’s deal and the packers quickly reneged and kept the rate at the 25 cent reduced level.  The strike had ended in defeat.

Labor Unrest Continues

Women Picking Crabmeat in MD: 1940 ca

Crab pickers at Milbourne Oyster Co., Crisfield, MD, 1940 ca. Image courtesy of Maryland State Archives, educational use only.

Labor unrest continued in subsequent years and there were allegations of intolerable working conditions and of the exploitation of children. Worker advocates called for crab pickers and oyster shuckers to be classified as wage workers and paid an hourly rate.

In response to federal inquiries, the packers raised the rates back to the 35 cents per gallon level.

However in February, 1934, packinghouse owner Carson told a National Recovery Act administrator that crab pickers in Crisfield were lying about conditions.  He insisted that it was not rates that were to blame for poor conditions of workers in Crisfield, but instead the federal government: “I can prove that one family there is getting $15 a week federal aid.  The wife won’t pick crabs and the husband won’t shuck oysters.”

He went on to say that the rate for crab pickers should be about 5 cents a pound and that he was opposed to an hourly rate.   He reasoned that the crab harvest was unpredictable and thus could not be subjected to an hourly wage.

In December, 1935 the packers again unilaterally reduced rates and 100 workers struck, temporarily closing all but three packinghouses that had not reduced rates.

CIO Organizing on the Shore

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore unions were scarce and organized African Americans were almost unheard of. But by 1937, the CIO was leading a movement that organized male and female, black and white workers into single industrial unions.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937

Black & White workers at the Phillips plant in Cambridge MD unite during 1937 strike. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The first big battle in the packing industry on the Shore occurred at the massive Phillips packing plant in Cambridge, MD, during a strike in 1937. Over 2,000 black and white workers united and waged a vigorous two-week struggle demanding wage hikes and unionization.

At one point a group of several hundred white and black strikers marched on the city jail and freed a black striker. They ultimately lost the strike and did not achieve a union independent of the company, but the effort was well publicized throughout the Eastern Shore.

The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, CIO that had been active in the Phillips strike began organizing in Crisfield.  In November 1937, three organizers of the cannery union were run out of Crisfield by a crowd of about 50 whites while trying to organize among oyster shuckers.

Leif Dahl, east coast organizer and national executive board member of the union, telephoned Governor Harry W. Nice and asked for protection for Michael Howard, secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, and his other organizers.

Crisfield Chief of Police Willard Laird claimed no knowledge of the incident but Mayor Bradshaw said he told the organizers to “withdraw peacefully” from the town because it “was not the proper time for their efforts”, according to the Washington Post.

Dahl vowed that the organizers would return to Crisfield, and the union representatives came back to organize quietly among oyster shuckers and crab pickers. Despite the intimidation, one of the smaller crab picking houses was organized in 1937.

The Strike Begins

In 1938, pickers’ pay was back up to 35 cents per gallon. At that rate many pickers earned between $1 and $1.50 weekly, although faster pickers could make as much as $5 per week or more. Out of these earnings, workers paid 35 cents weekly for removal of the crab shells they had picked.

A reduction back to 25 cents a gallon meant many workers’ already meager earnings would be cut by as much as a third.

The packinghouse owners announced the cut April 4, with the exception of Nelson R. Coulbourn’s packinghouse that continued to pay the old rate of 35 cents per gallon.

Pickers at every packinghouse except Coulbourn’s walked out April 6 and the packinghouses shut down.

The packers may have initially thought that the women would cave after a few weeks and the houses would be open in time for crab season that was to begin May 2.

The packers may also have considered the timing of their rate reduction.  The 1931 rate reductions occurred just before the beginning of oyster season and threatened the rates of oyster shuckers.  This reduction occurred near the end of the oyster season, making the oyster shuckers’ support of a strike less of a factor.

Shiloh United Methodist Church, Crisfield: 2012

Shiloh ME Church, Crisfield, MD shown in 2012. The CIO crab pickers union held meetings in the church & the grassy area in foreground is where a union organizer’s car was overturned & burned.

Local stores were pressured to cut off credit to the strikers, but Howard organized a food committee and began raising funds and food for strikers among the CIO unions and churches in Baltimore.

The workers—mostly African American women—held meetings to keep the strike organized and cope with their lack of income at the Shiloh ME (United Methodist) Church just off Route 413 on N. Fourth St. at the entrance of the town.

As the strike began its third week, Robert W. Knadler, a field examiner for the National Labor Relations Board, arranged a meeting between the packers and Howard. The conference quickly broke up when Howard demanded a contract guaranteeing rates for a definite period.

As the strikers held firm, the packinghouses, watermen and farmers combined forces. The watermen who set the lines to catch crabs were nearly all white, and the season was about to start with the packinghouses closed. Local farmers feared the cannery union would organize agricultural workers like it was attempting in New Jersey.

Mob Terrorizes Community

A white crowd estimated at between 100 and 300 gathered near a black section of town on N. Fourth Street on April 21. The mob broke into the home of two sisters who were on the strike committee, Eleanor Coulbourne and Martina Cooper.

Afro on Crisfield Strike with Headline, Article & 3 Photos: 1938

Afro American April 30, 1938 with banner headline “Troopers Halt Crisfield Mob,” story, “600 Girls on Strike” & 3 photos of strike, including Howard’s overturned & burned auto.

Mob leaders declared they would “ruin” Cooper and Howard if they found them, according to the Afro American newspaper. They broke into at least one other house on the street, but couldn’t find Cooper, Howard or another strike leader whose name they said was Terry Fowler.

Unable to find the strike leaders or the CIO organizers, they turned to the Shiloh Church on N. Fourth St. where Howard’s auto was parked. The mob overturned Howard’s car and set fire to it in front of the church.

The Associated Press reported, “The men were said to have been incensed because the organizers had been seen often in the Negro settlement.” According to oral history in Crisfield, Howard was hidden in Upturf, another black neighborhood located on Collins Street, about a half mile north of the church.

The local strike leaders stayed at home during the day, but took refuge with friends at night. Unable to find any of the organizers or strike leaders, members of the mob threatened to “burn the whole block,” according to the Afro American.

Mayor Bradshaw blamed the incident on “radical” and “hot-headed” persons, according to the Associated Press. The Afro American reported that Bradshaw said he was “not sure” whether the mob burned the car at all or whether it “caught fire itself.”

Union Organizers Forced Out of Town

Crisfield Sheriff William Dryden said he and his deputies were out of town during the car burning and when they returned did not make any arrests. The next day, Dahl reported from Salisbury that he had been “forced out of town” by vigilantes. He sent a telegram to Governor Nice requesting protection. Mayor Bradshaw denied any knowledge of Dahl’s eviction from the town.

Upturf Area, Possible CIO Refuge in Crisfield: 1938

Upturf area of Crisfield where CIO organizer Michael Howard may have been when his car was overturned & burned. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The following week, another CIO organizer was accosted. The men stopped an unidentified Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) union representative in front of Boycraft factory, where 200 shirt makers were employed.

He was taken down a dirt road to the Somerset County line and was warned not to try to organize workers.  “We don’t want to hurt you, but you got to get out of town,” said one member of the mob.  According to the Washington Post, the departing organizer stood up in his automobile and said, “I am a CIO organizer and I don’t want to get hurt, but I’m coming back.”

Federal Conciliator Evicted From Crisfield

On April 28, the same day the ACWA organizer was run out of town, federal mediator Stanley White was also ushered out.

In the morning, a group estimated at 150-200 men, who thought he was Howard, stopped White and detained him, then let him go.

When he went back to his lodging, proprietor James Byrd ordered him out of the Somerset Hotel.

“I ordered him out because back of him there was possible trouble. For three days he has been riding around town with Michael Howard and has been a bigger nuisance than Howard. He has even started more trouble,” Byrd said, according to an account in the Washington Post.

Byrd contacted US Rep. Thomas Goldsborough (D-MD) and asked him to get White recalled by the federal government.  A telegram arrived to that effect several hours later.

Before he left town, White went to a meeting where town officials, packinghouse owners and union representatives were to meet and confer.

A. Stengle Marine, Maryland Commissioner of Labor and an Eastern Shore resident, was asked by the governor to attend to help attempt a settlement. Governor Nice also dispatched Major Elmer P. Munshower, commander of the state police, to Crisfield to “report the true facts.”

Before Marine or Munshower arrived, some of the vigilante crowd began tossing firecrackers at White, the federal mediator. The situation became uglier and White left the meeting and went to his car.  When he cranked the ignition, a blast was heard and the auto rocked violently.  Someone had rigged a type of loud explosive to go off when the car was started, although no actual damage was done to the auto. White was then escorted out of town.

The crowd, unsatisfied at evicting White turned their attention to Howard. After much shouting and firing weapons into the air by the crowd, Howard was also escorted out of town.

Mob Violence Begins to Backfire

The anti-strike group had overplayed their hand. Running union organizers out of town usually didn’t attract a lot of attention, but evicting a federal mediator not far from Washington, DC was perhaps like poking a sleeping bear.

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Meeting of CIO crab pickers union at the Shiloh M E Church May 1938. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The Baltimore Sun editorialized, “One need not pass judgment on the merits of the strikers’ demands to insist that a community has failed in its duty when its police do not protect a labor organizer or an official interested in settling the strike. The situation at Crisfield is confused by the race issue, since the crab pickers are almost entirely Negro women, but that fact, while it may explain the antics of the vigilantes, does not excuse them.”

The Afro American was more direct: “Observers here point out that the defiance of the packers is one of the most open revolts against the National Labor Relations Act and are watching to see what the NLRB will do in the Crisfield situation where both labor and racial rights have been invaded.”

“So grave is the situation that the slightest untoward happening, it is said, would act as a spark to begin an orgy of lynchings, murders, burnings and the general destruction of property,” the Afro American wrote.

An in-depth article in the Baltimore Sun by Alfred Charles, an Eastern Shore resident, was published April 30 with the headline, “Crisfield Merchants and Citizens Lay Crab Pickers Strike to CIO.” The piece gave the impression that the packers might be willing to settle the strike, but not to bargain or sign a contract with the CIO.

Food Shipments to Strikers Blocked

Vigilantes began stopping all cars coming into Crisfield and demanding that occupants state their business.

Howard had collected 1,000 pounds of food to distribute, but was prohibited by town authorities from moving it in, according to the Afro American. Dahl asked Gov. Nice to provide an escort for the food, but Nice stalled for time.

The Afro wrote, “Crab packers, who have openly defied all constituted authority, together with local officers and leaders, have resorted to the tactics of starving the striking crab pickers out in order to force them back to work.”

N R Coulbourn: Packinghouse Did Not Reduce Rates: 1938

Virginia Lankford or Jackson at N. R. Coulbourn packinghouse in May 1938. Coubourn did not reduce rates and workers did not strike this plant. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Throughout the strike, the women had not engaged in picketing and had instead organized quietly out of the public view.

Five smaller packinghouses opened back up with the start of the crabbing season May 2, one paying the old rate of 35 cents and the other four paying the reduced rate, in addition to the N. R. Coulbourn house that had operated continuously since the strike began. This first chink in the strikers’ armor now put some pressure on the strikers, although the large packinghouses remained closed.

Perhaps coincidentally with the reopening of some of the packinghouses, twelve extra state troopers began appearing in Crisfield, assigned by Munshower to keep order in the town. In any event, no arrests were reported of those involved in illegal activities designed to intimidate the striking women.

Women Head to Washington

On May 3, the striking women made their next move. Three of the striking crab pickers, along with Howard, traveled to Washington. There, Senator Robert La Follette (Prog.-WI) promised careful consideration of their request for an investigation after hearing of the deplorable working conditions and the violence directed toward the strike organizers and leaders. The women, whose identities were closely guarded, also met with Maryland’s two senators, Labor Department officials and federal conciliators.

The packers again failed to appreciate the politics of their actions. The Afro reported that “Packers have let it be known that the women sent to Washington to complain to the government won’t be safe if they return to Crisfield.”

The same day, the union filed charges that eleven Crisfield packing companies were violating the National Labor Relations Act.

Packers Change Their Tune

Now understanding for the first time that the tide was beginning to turn against them, the packers altered their public position.

Back in Crisfield, Marine reported the packers did not attend scheduled meetings on April 30 or May 3 to attempt to settle the strike because—they now claimed—the plants were closed because of unprofitable operations and not because of any refusal to deal with the CIO.

Marine went on to report that J. C. W. Tawes told him, “When we are ready to operate we will deal with the representatives of the workers.”

The women were holding firm while pressure was mounting on the packers. The widespread press exposure of mob activity and resistance to the Depression-era labor laws brought political pressure from both the Governor and the federal government to settle the strike..

As the strike moved into the crab season, watermen were forced into longer, more expensive trips to sell their crabs elsewhere and the Crisfield packinghouses were losing money to packers in other towns.

Victory for the Strikers

CIO Union Wins at Crisfield: 1938

May 13, 1938 edition of the Labor Herald, an independent Baltimore based labor newspaper.

On May 9, most of the large packers broke ranks and gave in.  Meeting at the Cambridge home of Marine, representatives of eight packinghouses and Howard agreed to the terms of a contract.

The agreement was signed May 10 to restore the rate to 35 cents a gallon and recognize the CIO cannery union as the bargaining agent for the workers.  Howard, whose auto had been burned and who had been run out of town more than once, signed for the union.

Tawes, who once said in 1931 that he would close the plant rather than accede to strikers’ demands, was a signatory.  The N. R. Carson Company, which had led the drive to reduce the rates, was another signer.  In all, the agreement signed by eight packinghouses covered well over half of the crabmeat pickers in Crisfield. It was among the first large seafood worker contracts on the East Coast.


The national cannery union had only been formed in 1937 and achieved explosive growth, particularly among African Americans in the South and migrant workers in the West. By the Spring of 1938 it had 347 locals and 118,000 members. The cannery union also made progress in Crisfield and was able to organize oyster shuckers at a number of plants in Crisfield by 1942.

The cannery union quickly came under attack for communist influence. US Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX), who chaired the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, took testimony before his committee that named Dahl as a member of the Communist Party in 1938. In 1941, the Washington Post reported that the Dies committee named Michael Howard as a communist.

Leif Dahl, East Coast Cannery Union Leader: 1936

Leif Dahl, in charge of East Coast organizing for the CIO cannery union shown at a New Jersey meeting of agricultural workers in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The American Federation of Labor, in a bitter rivalry with the CIO at the time, sent in its own organizers to try to wrest some of the packinghouses from the CIO union and organize the unorganized. They gained a foothold at several packinghouses in Crisfield in the early 1940s, including the W. T. Handy Co., one of the larger packinghouses where the CIO had not obtained an agreement.

In 1944, the cannery union became the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America (FTA) and was by then a leader among unions for the rights of women. Sixty-six percent of the contracts nationwide contained “equal pay for equal work” provisions, 75% contained maternity leave without loss of seniority provisions, and 44% of its elected representatives in the food service division were women.

However, after World War II, the FTA came under vicious red-baiting attacks by AFL unions, employers and elected officials, and it began losing units as quickly as it had gained them in the late 1930s.

By 1948, the AFL Meat Cutters & Butcher Workman’s Seafood Workers Local 453 were voted as the exclusive bargaining agent for nearly all packinghouses in Crisfield including J. C W Tawes & Son and C W. Howeth, completely supplanting the CIO union.

In 1950, the FTA was expelled from the CIO with nine other unions for alleged communist influence. Already in decline, it fell apart quickly after the expulsion and its few remaining workers were folded into the Distributing and Processing Workers of America.

Seafood Workers Local 453 continued to represent the workers in Crisfield and made significant improvement in wages and working conditions from the 1950s until the end of the 1980s. However, the ongoing decline of the Chesapeake Bay crab and oyster harvests and the related closure of nearly all packinghouses meant a long, slow decline in membership.  The closure of a Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish plant put an end to the union in March 1990.

(This post was updated 12/10/2012 to include Addendum 2 as part of this post.)

(This post was updated 12/28/2012 to include the Labor Herald image  in Addendum 2)

Author’s Notes

This 1938 strike led by black women workers that ended in a tangible victory is remarkable for many reasons and it represents one of the few victories on Maryland’s Eastern Shore by African Americans fighting against determined resistance prior to the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

The material for this article is derived mainly from resources in the Maryland State Archives, the National Archives, The Crisfield Heritage Foundation, The Baltimore Sun, The Afro American, The Washington Post, Pedersen’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, Reutter’s Making Steel, & Feltault’s It’s How You Pick the Crab.

Accounts of this strike would be strengthened by original material from the strikers themselves—oral history, letters, diaries etc.  Hopefully future researchers will bring more of this remarkable story to light.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at

Addendum I: Crisfield Heritage Foundation – “Returning Home: Photographs from 1938”

In Aug. 2009, a photography instructor in California who had historical images of the Crisfield area contacted the Tawes Museum.

They are well composed, high quality images taken during or immediately after the strike (a wall calendar in one of the photos is turned to May 1938). However, the photographer, purpose and how they ended up on the West Coast are unknown.

The style, subject matter and medium are similar to US Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographs from that period and cover most aspects of life in Crisfield.

Ten of the images are on permanent display at the Tawes Museum at 3 Ninth St. in Crisfield. Call ahead at (410) 968-2501 to arrange to see all of these stunning photos (there are 88 total images).

The images shown from the collection on this site are low-resolution, distorted versions of the photos and it is worth the trip to see the whole collection and the detail portrayed in the collection. The images shown on this site do not do the originals justice.

One of photos in the collection may show the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters marching in Crisfield, while others show farm life, scenes of the town, industry and the people who lived in that period, including a number of photographs related to the crab pickers strike.

The photographs in this series are property of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation. All rights are reserved.

Addendum 2: Michael Howard – Fighter for Workers

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Union meeting at Shiloh ME Church in Crisfield MD, May 1938. Speaker is possibly Michael Howard. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Michael “Mike” Howard (formerly Smith—he took his wife’s last name when they married) joined the Young Communist League in 1932.

By 1936 he had joined the Communist Party (CP) and secured work at the Eastern Rolling Mill, a steel plant of about 1,000 workers just outside of Baltimore. Bethlehem Steel owned the plant and was fighting unionization tooth and nail at all its locations.

Howard put the first chink in the company armor when he successfully led a strike at the mill in 1936 that led to wage and benefit gains for the workers.  In 1937, he obtained union recognition for the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel & Tin Workers Local 1245 and signed the first contract as president of the local union.

He served as secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, the umbrella group for CIO unions.

As an organizer for the cannery workers’ union, he traveled constantly through hostile territory on Maryland’s Eastern Shore . He helped guide the largely African American women crab pickers to victory in their 1938 five week strike against the Crisfield, Maryland packinghouses, despite being run out of town on several occasions and having his car overturned and burned.

In 1936, as a member of the CP, he helped a team recruit new CP members from Cumberland, MD at the huge Celanese Mill. They ended up forming much of the core for the successful CIO organizing in Western Maryland.  Howard became the liaison between the CIO and the Communist Party in Maryland.

Eastern Rolling Mill Strike Won: 1936

Howard led the strike at Eastern Rolling Mill to victory in 1936. Labor Herald, Vol. 1, No. 5, June 26, 1936.

As a CP member in 1936 he also volunteered to go door-to-door in East Baltimore to gain support for unionization at Sparrow’s Point, the massive mill in Dundalk outside of Baltimore. He worked briefly as an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America before securing employment himself at the Point.

He worked hard to persuade his co-workers to vote for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in a 1941 National Labor Relations Board election. Following the union victory, he was elected zone committeeman in charge of all grievances for 2,400 workers in the open hearth department, the biggest in the mill.  Notably while there he fought for promotions for black steelworkers. Eventually he was chosen to chair the whole mill’s grievance committee.

When President Harry Truman seized the coal mines during a 1946 strike and the Taft-Hartley anti-labor, anti-communist act passed in 1947, Howard felt Truman was moving to reverse all the gains that labor had made. He threw himself into the third party candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948 and quit attending CP meetings when he felt they were not sufficiently backing Wallace’s candidacy.

The steelworkers union was backing Truman and promptly removed Howard as zone committeeman on trumped-up charges of malfeasance. In 1951 he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) where he refused to answer questions about individuals, despite the CP expelling him three years earlier.

The company didn’t fire him as he expected, but he was stung when his coworkers, whom he had fought so hard for, stopped speaking to him. Many eventually came back around but, in a 1982 interview with author Mark Reutter for the book Making Steel, he reflected:

Really, I thought I was fighting on a different level. I was fighting on a level which went to my Marxist beliefs, and I was working for them on a level which represented only their particular interactions with the company. And perhaps it shows what a poor job I did in radicalizing and politicizing the people in my department. Perhaps I should have done a better job of bringing the two together. I’m sure I could have done a better job than I did.

Isolated from his coworkers and his comrades and frozen out of his union, Howard quit the plant in 1953, went back to school, and later worked conducting experiments with precision instruments that he had first encountered in the steel mills. Michael Howard died on June 30, 1986.