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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.

Background

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.

Aftermath

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.


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 Washington_area_spark@yahoo.com


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: http://www.blackpast.org


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

H.Robinson

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

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.

Perspective

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 washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Spark 4th Quarter in Review

26 Dec

Miss our earlier posts? Catch up here!


Fighting Capital Transit’s Jim Crow Hiring

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)by  Craig Simpson
Posted October 14

A struggle initiated by a group of young African American union leaders against the most visible symbol of Jim Crow hiring in the District of Columbia reaches a peak with a 1943 wartime march against racism.

It is derailed by the duplicity of a President in 1945 and the post World War II anti-communist crusade that destroys many of the campaigns’ leaders and weakens their unions. The fight is not won until schools, parks, theaters and restaurants fall in the battle to desegregate Washington and a brash new union leader confronts the future. Read it here.


Beltsville Strikers Block Truck & Win Strike

Confrontation at Mineral Pigment 230Posted October 19

A strike wave swept the country in the early 1970s as workers resisted attempts by management to increase profits by squeezing more work out of fewer workers. At a small plant in Beltsville, Maryland that manufactured the pigment that colors steel, workers waged a fierce battle against a management determined to win.

For a moment in time, the workers won a decisive victory. Watch the slide show as management attempts to move a truckload of pigment out of the plant and past the strikers. The workers stopped the truck and won their strike. Watch it here.


Meat Cutters Strike Betrayed

Meat Cutters Strike Betrayed 1973 photo 3Posted October 26

The meat cutters union was one of four unions important to winning wage and benefit gains in the retail grocery industry in the 1970s. The others were the retail clerks and separate teamster locals that represented warehouse workers and truck drivers. Normally if one union struck, the others would honor their picket lines

In 1973, the meat cutters struck Giant Food and the other grocery chains locked them out. The teamster locals and the retail clerks union all voted to support the butchers, but national teamster president Frank Fitzsimmons overruled the local unions and refused to authorize a work stoppage. The meat cutters were forced to accept an offer that few would have voted for before the strike.

The solidarity broken at that time has never been fully repaired. Read it here


Washington Free Press Battles Suppression

Free Press Response to Obscenity Convictionby Craig Simpson
Posted November 7

Before blogs there was the alternative press and the local Washington Free Press hit authorities where it hurt. They published articles on revolution and how to grow marijuana, they posted undercover policemen’s photos and addresses, and broke barriers to free expression wherever they could.

Maryland authorities hit back with a grand jury investigation into “subversion” conducted by the paper. An epic back and forth battle ensued between the paper and authorities in Maryland, Virginia and the District that featured charges of pornography, multiple arrests of vendors, evictions, police break-ins, picketing a judge’s home and  outbursts in court. In the end, neither the Free Press nor laws on subversion, pornography or restrictions on news distribution survived this battle in the greater Washington, DC area. Read it here.


Maryland Marriage Equality Retrospective

Washington, DC Gay Liberation Front: 1970

Posted November 14

The victory for marriage equality in a November referendum in Maryland owes its success to years of struggle and sacrifice by countless people.  This retrospective takes a few photos from the early days of Mattachine Society, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance to show appreciation for those pioneering efforts.

The three chosen? A 1966 picket of the White House, the third conducted by the Mattachine Society.  An undated photo of early gay liberation activists at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in late 1970 or early 1971.  A torchlit march against police repression at the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, VA in 1972. See them here.


Marie Richardson Remembered

Marie Lucinda Richardson (Harris)by Craig Simpson
Posted November 19

Marie Richardson organized a women’s auxiliary to Washington Red Caps union while a teen. According to the Washington Afro American, she was the first black woman to serve at a national level in a major trade union and helped to organize federal workers in the city. She headed up the Washington, DC branch of the National Negro Congress where she fought employment discrimination, against lynching and worked to aid predominently African American labor unions.

She received little recognition for her efforts after a federal prosecutor decided to make an example of her during the McCarthy era and charged her with failing to disclose her membership in subversive organizations.  She was sent to jail for four and a half years before being paroled and she died in obscurity.  Read about her here.


Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention

Big Man Speaks to the Press 1970Posted November 25

The Black Panther Party set an ambitious agenda to hold a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention that would provide a unified platform for the disparate groups and struggles of the late 1960s.

In 1970 they held a successful rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and drew 10,000 to Philadelphia for what was termed a plenary session. However, they were unable to find a venue for the Washington, DC convention as thousands streamed into town. Shortly afterwards internal divisions and FBI dirty tricks set in motion a downward spiral for the group.  See photos here.


600 Crab Pickers Hold Out Against Terror

A Face of the CIO Union in Crisfield, MD: 1938by Craig Simpson
Posted December 5

In a town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore beset by unemployment and surrounded by racial terror, 600 black women take on the packing houses in 1938 and win.

The five week strike saw a CIO organizer’s car overturned and burned. Strike leaders houses were broken into. Vigilantes ran a federal mediator and union organizers out of the county and town leaders blocked food shipments to the strikers.

But the women stood strong and the packers gave in. They won a restoration of their pay rates and their union.  Read it here.


Pressmen Take on The Washington Post

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 1by Craig Simpson
Posted December 12

The influential and powerful Washington Post prepares for battle with its unions by training management to publish the newspaper without union workers. Some pressmen disable the presses before walking out on strike.

The battle ebbs and flows through the city for two and a half months in 1975 as the unions push a boycott and the newspaper has criminal charges brought against the pressmen.  The tide finally turns against the pressmen and the city’s labor movement suffers one of its biggest defeats.

Could the pressmen have won?  Read about it here.


Gay Teacher Fights to Stay in the Classroom

Joe Acanfora Winter 1972by Craig Simpson
Posted December

Attending Penn State on a Navy ROTC scholarship, Joe Acanfora quits the program and changes his major to education and joins with other early gay activists to form a rights group on campus.

He successfully fights to finish his student teaching assignment then prevails in a battle for a teaching certificate against those who question his moral fitness.

But Montgomery County Maryland transfers him out of the classroom and eliminates his job, setting off a firestorm of protest. The courts are determined to keep him out of the classroom and use every conceivable excuse to do so.

What happened to Acanfora?  Read it here.


 

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