Tag Archives: National Negro Congress

Shootings by DC Police Spark Fight Against Brutality 1936-41

20 Apr

A campaign from 1936-41 against police brutality in Washington, D.C. was led by the local National Negro Congress, which built a broad-based coalition. They won a sharp decline in the number of police shootings, a police review board, and new political power in an early civil rights struggle in the city.


Marchers Gather to Protest Police Brutality in DC: 1941

DC rally against police brutality Sept. 14, 1941. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Historical Image Collection. All rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Leonard Basey was out with co-workers on the evening of August 30, 1936 enjoying a respite from the work and barracks life in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp located at 26th and M Streets NE in Washington, D.C. The unit was doing the physical labor to build the infrastructure for the National Arboretum.

Basey was part of a group of young enlistees in Company 1360 in camp NA-1-DC, an African American post with white officers.

That night, Basey was walking with five other men from the camp, who were laughing and joking loudly as they walked along M Street toward Bladensburg Road through a predominantly white neighborhood.

Later testifying that he received a phone call from someone disturbed by the noise, police officer Vivian H. Landrum left his home in the neighborhood and approached the youths near 17th and M Streets NE. Landry placed the group under arrest and walked them to a police call box near Bladensburg Road and M Street NE.

When Basey questioned the arrest Landry reportedly responded, “Shut up, and don’t give me too much lip, or I’ll fill you full of lead,” according to a companion’s later testimony reported in the Afro American.

It was then that he “grabbed Basey, who was standing sideways toward him, spun him around and shot him in the abdomen,” said Basey’s companion, according to the same article.

He was just another black man who was the victim of a police murder in Washington, D.C…. or was he?

National Negro Congress

The first national convention of the National Negro Congress (NNC) took place in February of 1936 in Chicago. The NNC was formed to fill the void left by the NAACP’s reliance on a legal and lobbying strategy and would be more of an activist organization, engaging in pickets, protests and direct action to advance the cause of African American rights.

National Negro Congress Leaders at Banquet: 1940

NNC leaders John P. Davis (left) and A. Phillip Randolph (right) in March, 1940.

The NAACP had often placed a greater emphasis on issues of concern to the black elite, while the NNC was based in the black working class and was composed of many local African American union leaders along with a significant section of the black intelligentsia.

The founding Congress contained a relatively small group of activist ministers. Two national board members of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins and Charles Hamilton Houston, also attended. The NAACP as an organization, however, boycotted the group’s formation, although a number of leaders of local chapters attended.

The NNC attracted members with political views across the spectrum, including Democrats, Republicans, socialists and communists. The NNC selected A. Phillip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as its president and John P. Davis as executive secretary. Its headquarters was established in Washington, D.C.

Local Washington NNC

In contrast to the national convention, the Washington, D.C. chapter almost immediately gained wide representation among the black clergy.  Rev. William H. Jernagin, the former president of the National Race Congress, a previous broad-based African American organization, lived in the city and attended the first NNC convention.

Longtime Rights Leader Rev. William H. Jernagin: 1940 ca

Rev. William H. Jernagin circa 1940.

Jernagin was also a local rights activist and after the convention he persuaded the influential Interdenominational Ministers Alliance to affiliate with the local NNC.

These ministers were quickly able to prevail upon the local Elks, NAACP, the New Negro Alliance and other District of Columbia groups to join with the local NNC either directly or in coalition. A minister, Rev. Arthur D. Gray, was elected president of the local NNC.

The D. C. NNC began taking up issues of race discrimination in employment and the issue of police brutality.

In the Spring of 1936, during a meeting held at the Metropolitan Baptist Church to call for freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys,” Davis called for expanding the cause to fight police brutality in the city.

According to Erik Gellman in Death Blow to Jim Crow, William Hastie, a Howard University professor, told the crowd,

It doesn’t matter whether a person is hanged by an unauthorized mob or by an organized mob known as the law.

The city commissioners and the police department didn’t know it yet, but a new force had risen to challenge police violence.

Newspapers Report Self-Defense

The day after Basey was shot, the Washington Post reported

…Landrum fired at the man when Basey and several others rushed the policeman to prevent his arrest of another man who was with them.

DC National Negro Congress President Rev. Arthur D. Gray: 1940 ca

Washington branch NNC president Rev. Arthur D. Gray.

Basey died September 1 at the Casualty Hospital at 3rd and B Streets SE. The Afro American initially reported as part of a headline, “Policeman Fires as Gang Demands his Prisoner.”

But the official story began to unravel as witnesses came forward.

In testimony before a coroner’s jury inquest on September 3, white witnesses testified that Landrum was surrounded and did not draw his gun until after the group reached the call box.

One 11-year-old white youth said “Basey had his arm drawn back as if to strike Landrum when he was shot,” according to the Afro American. But the youth admitted that Landrum and another white man had talked to him the following day about being a witness for the defense.

When Landrum himself testified, he contradicted the white witnesses and admitted that the group did not surround him and he drew his service weapon as soon as the group was arrested.

‘Vision’ Flashed Through Policeman’s Mind

He also testified that the reason none of the youths struck him was because he fired his weapon when “a vision of officer Kennedy at Truxton Circle flashed through my mind.” He was referring to a police slaying by three youths at Logan Circle in 1932.

A later letter to the Washington Post characterized Landrum’s testimony thusly,

The officers’ tale resembled that of the sportsman who arrested for catching black bass out of season, maintained that he had taken the fish in self-defense, since they had jumped out of the water and bitten him.

African American CCC Camp Under Construction: 1934

CCC Camp NA-1-DC under construction in 1934.

Landrum’s testimony and that of other defense witnesses was disputed by the other CCC youths, but also by white CCC camp commander Richmond Bowen, who came on the scene shortly before the shooting. A white gas station attendant also testified he was about 40 feet from the group and heard Landrum tell them, “Shut up unless you want some of it too.”

The first inquest jury, composed of four whites and one black person, deadlocked 4-1 in Landrum’s favor and a mistrial was declared.

A second inquest held September 6 heard 29 witnesses give essentially the same testimony, but at 10 pm returned with an inexplicable verdict exonerating Landrum.

We believe the said V. Harry Landrum discharged his gun when he believed his life was in jeopardy, such a belief being initiated by a mental process and not by any overt act or acts on the part of those under arrest.

Press Ramps Up Outrage

NNC executive secretary John P. Davis and A. S. Pinkett, head of the local NAACP, immediately called for the district attorney to ask a grand jury to indict Landrum for the killing and for a police trial board to be convened to dismiss Landrum from the force.

DC Killer Cop is Free: 1936

‘Killer Cop Free.’ Afro American, Sept. 12, 1936.

But the case really began to take on a life of its own when the Afro American published its story September 12 under the headline “KILLER-COP FREE.”

The Afro printed a dramatic report that,

Lawrence Basey was the fortieth colored person shot to death by Metropolitan police since 1925. Every officer involved has been exonerated. Most of the victims were under 21 years of age.

Adam Lapin of the Washington bureau of the Daily Worker jumped on the story.  The Afro shared their research with Lapin so he could detail the victims’ names, dates of death, ages, and officers involved.

Afro Lists Victims of DC Police Killings: 1936

List of the slain. Afro, Oct. 17, 1936.

The national Communist Party paper published the statistics and an accompanying story where Lapin gave additional details on some of the deaths, writing that all forty cases “are similar, indeed, all the police murders of Negroes in Washington follow the same pattern.”

For one example, Lapin wrote,

On December 9, 1933, Policeman Wallace M. Suthard shot in the abdomen and killed Robert Lewis, a Negro worker who had been placed under arrest suspected of breaking into a home. Suthard claimed that he shot in self-defense because Lewis reached for a gun. No gun was found on the dead man.

A furor directed at Washington’s police erupted. Other newspapers around the country, particularly the African American press, began to run stories about the police shootings.

Officials Refuse to Act

Evidence came out during the inquest that Landrum had a past record of shooting at CCC workers and had beaten another African American some years before without justification.

The NNC held a protest meeting at the YMCA at 1816 12th Street NW attended by several hundred people. The NNC called for Landrum’s immediate suspension and for his indictment on murder charges. The group said that Landrum “requires the attention of a psychiatrist” because the officer believed that black people were inherently violent.

Despite the outcry, District Attorney Leslie C. Garnett refused to bring charges against Landrum before a grand jury, telling Lapin he was “not interested in the case,” according to the Chicago Defender.

A. S. Pinkett, the local NAACP secretary, said in a statement,

Thus we have the picture of a policeman arresting men for being disorderly, when there was no disorder; the shooting to death of one of them by the arresting officer; a meaningless verdict by a coroner’s jury and lastly the refusal by the District Attorney to lay the facts before a grand jury.

YE GODS! And colored persons are expected to have faith in their governmental machinery.

The Chicago Defender reported that a few minutes after interviewing Superintendent of Police Major Ernest W. Brown, Lapin announced that,

Major Brown made it perfectly clear despite his professions of sympathy for the colored people that he is opposed to a Congressional investigation or any kind of investigation of police brutality. He won’t even undertake one himself.

The Afro American published an editorial on October 31 saying,

Citizens ought to keep pounding away at Major Brown’s door in an effort to find out whether the police chief sees any connection between the Afro American’s list of fifty deaths, forty of them colored youths, at the hands of quick-trigger white policemen here in the past ten years, and the fact that nearly half of these killings have occurred during his term of office.

We believe they could make him understand that four years is long enough to ‘get away with murder.’

With the issue still boiling in November, the District of Columbia commissioners refused to release data on police killings to the American Civil Liberties Union, according to Gardner Jackson, a representative of the group.

Unable to contain the broadening protests, authorities finally responded by retiring Landrum on a pension. On November 14, 1936, the police department announced during a conference with brutality opponents that Landrum is “mentally and physically unfit for further duty as an officer,” according to the Afro.

Rev. Ernest. C. Smith: 1940 ca

Rev. E. C. Smith (shown circa 1940) lobbied for a Congressional investigation.

Fight Against Brutality Broadens

The city commissioners and the police superintendent may have thought the issue would go away with Landrum’s retirement, but the local Negro Congress continued to pound away.

The city of Washington, D.C.’s affairs were overseen directly by the U.S. Congress, to an even greater extent than today, and in 1937 the NNC began lobbying for a House subcommittee investigation…

…to determine whether and to what extent the use of unnecessary and unlawful use of force by police officers…have become a menace to life, liberty and the general security within the District of Columbia.

The group also organized an effort to lobby for an African American magistrate in the District. The NNC, NAACP, Elks, Afro American, YMCA, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, Howard University and the Washington Bar Association, along with other groups, lobbied local D.C. officials and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

To ramp up the pressure for a congressional investigation, the alliance named itself the Joint Committee for Civil Rights in the District of Columbia and sponsored a series of weekly radio broadcasts on local station WOL. It was another new tactic in the fight for civil rights in the city.

In an account by the Afro of the second broadcast on March 23, 1937, John P. Davis reminded the listeners of the exoneration of police officer Landrum in Lawrence Basey’s death:

I want you to realize the meaning of such a verdict. A coroner’s jury has held that an officer who has a mental fear for his life has a right to kill another person who has done nothing to cause that fear, who is not armed, and who has submitted peacefully to arrest.

Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: 1947

E. Franklin Frazier (shown in 1947) was among the leaders of the anti-brutality fight in 1937.

In April 1937, a meeting was held under the banner of the Joint Committee at the Metropolitan Baptist Church protesting three more police killings in recent months. At the meeting William C. Hueston, education director for the Elks, called for organized action to “stop this ruthless brutality on the part of the police,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.

Other prominent leaders included John P. Davis, Judge William Hastie, Rev. William Jernigan, Julia West Hamilton, Rev. E. C. Smith, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and John C. Bruce. Similar meetings were soon organized around the city while radio broadcasts on the issue continued.

Howard U Dean of Women Lucy Slowe

Lucy Slowe was among those acting as a judge at the mock police brutality trial.

Put Police on Trial

In May the protest effort culminated with a “public trial” of Washington’s “killer cops” at the John Wesley A. M. E. Zion Church. The trial “provided a complete picture of the lawless police terror which has reigned in Washington for the past ten years,” according to the Chicago Defender.

John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress presided. Judges included Major Campbell Johnson, secretary of the YMCA; Lucy Slowe, dean of women at Howard University; Rev. Robert W. Brooks, pastor of the Lincoln Congregational Temple; the Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood; William C. Hueston, commissioner of education of the Elks; and Dr. Victor Tulane, chemistry professor at Howard University.

Those prosecuting the case included George E. C. Hayes, of Cobb, Howard and Hayes; George A. Parker, dean of the Terrell Law School; and Edward P. Lovett, of Houston and Houston.

Major Campbell Johnson in His Office: 1942

Major Campbell Johnson was another judge in the mock police brutality trial.

“Eyewitnesses to numerous unpunished police murders, citizens who have been beaten by the police and leaders of civic associations and newspaper men who have investigated police brutality gave evidence,” according to the Chicago Defender.

Hundreds had attended each of the previous meetings and even more turned out for the trial, which included a number of whites in attendance and testifying as witnesses.

“This event demonstrated the new-style tactics of the NNC: with the theatrics in front of a large public audience, the mock trial showed how the District ought to protect citizenship rights through democratic governance,” Gellman wrote in “Death Blow to Jim Crow.”

No Victory Yet

But since many in Congress overseeing District affairs had few African American constituents, there was little interest on Capitol Hill in investigating police brutality in the city.

The White House put out trial balloons for the vacant judge position for two men: Hobart Newman, a young white attorney, and William L. Houston, founder of the firm Houston & Houston, whose son Charles was leading the NAACP legal defense effort.

However, local white officials nixed Houston’s nomination and the Roosevelt administration put forward Newman’s name for the position.

The brutality continued through the winter of 1937-38.  Incidents included the beating of a Howard University student by police and the assault by police on a black man and his wife when the man did not move his parked car fast enough. Police shot a twenty-year old African American man to death when he fled a traffic accident.

Police Shoot WWI Vet in Home: 1938

Afro American March 19, 1938 photo of Leroy Keys and the house where he was slain.

New Killing Sparks New Protests

On March 8, 1938 a distraught and delusional African American World War I veteran was making noise at his sister’s house at 2470 Ontario Road NW. When police arrived Leroy Keys began shouting at them, apparently believing they were German troops.

Keys threw small household objects through the window towards the police. Two police officers opened fire and shot him dead, despite the pleas of his sister that he needed help.

Rights groups demanded charges against the two police officers, calling the shootings “wanton and unwarranted,” and said police should have used tear gas or water to subdue the clearly disturbed man, according to the Afro American.

Two coroner’s juries deadlocked and a grand jury refused to indict.

The Afro wrote, “We think Hitler is a tyrant and a brute, a ruffian and a cur. We detest him for the way he is crushing the Jew [but] don’t forget that there is a man right here at home who has his heel on our neck.”

Thirty-six organizations joined the Keys campaign, including the United Federal Workers, which called it an “urbanized form of lynching.” Invited in to the coalition, the local Communist Party (CP) began holding open-air meetings around the city.

Martin Chancey, local CP secretary, told a gathering at 10th & U Streets NW that

We don’t hear of lynchings in Washington in the same manner as in Georgia or Alabama, but lynchings are perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect human life and property–the members of the District police force.

Chancey went on to demand suspension of the two officers involved in Keys’ death according to the Afro.

As the campaign picked up steam, another African American was shot by a police officer, this time over a bag of food.

Shot in the Back

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 26, officer John Sobolewski saw Wallace McKnight walking north on 15th Street near Massachusetts Avenue NW carrying a package under his arm.

According to Sobolewski’s testimony, he stopped McKnight and questioned him. During the interrogation, McKnight ran away, according to Sobolewski, and he [Sobolewski] opened fire.

McKnight was shot in the back, the bullet passing through his liver, and he died the next day. The package contained a chicken, a pound of butter, a dozen oranges, two pounds of bacon, a dozen bananas, several dozens eggs and some other fruit.  McKnight worked at a restaurant on the 1700 block of K Street NW not far from where he was shot.

The Rev. Robert W. Brooks observed, “Because of the record of the police department for the last eleven years, McKnight not knowing what officer John Sobolewski might do, took [his] chances on running away,” according to the Afro.

Coroner’s Jury Orders Cop Held

Police Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen tried to head off the gathering storm on June 27 by suspending Sobolewski and ordering an investigation of the McKnight shooting and a re-opening of the Keys death matter.

He also ordered a daily roll call reading of police rules on the use of revolvers. It stated: “Members of the force shall not use their revolvers except in the most urgent cases and then only in such a manner as will not jeopardize the lives of innocent people.”

The shifting public opinion also had an effect this time at the coroner’s jury. Police Lieutenant Arthur C. Belt, commanding officer of the Third Precinct on the night of the shooting, tried to save Sobolewski by telling the jury, “I would have done the same thing under the circumstances.” But his statement only added fuel to the fire.

A packed hearing room erupted in outrage at Belt’s statement and the coroner’s jury deliberated only 10 minutes before ordering Sobolewski held for grand jury action.

Edward Felder Urges Police Chief’s Firing During Brutality Protests: 1938

Edward Felder speaking to crowd of 2,000 at 9th & Rhode Island Ave. NW on July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Communists Organize March

With only a little over a week’s planning, the local Communist Party organized a march on July 8th beginning at 10th & U Streets NW, led by a car carrying Mollie McKnight, the widow of the slain Wallace McKnight. The local NNC, the New Negro Alliance and other coalition partners endorsed the march, but it was the communists who led the event.

The crowd heard Communist Party speakers including Martin Chancey, Tansell Butler and Calvin Cousins. Police were present and seized signs calling for chief Brown’s ouster, but the crowd made up for this strong arm tactic with their later chants.

Kids Swarm Widow’s Car During Police Brutality Protest: 1938

Children gather on the auto that carried the widow Mollie McKnight during the police brutality demonstration July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Over 2,000 people, of whom about 20% were white, marched and chanted “Major Brown Must Go,” “Police Brutality Must Stop,” “Everybody Join the Parade,” and “Stop Legal Lynching.”

Estimates of those who lined the streets ranged from 10,000 to 15,000. They watched marchers carrying signs like, “You May Be Next,” “Stop Police Murders,” “Compensation for Police Victims” and “Washington is not Scottsboro.”

The march ended at Rhode Island Avenue and 9th Street NW. A second rally was held there and speakers including Edward Felder of the Young Communist League urged the firing of Major Brown.

Resolutions adopted at the rally included calls for the suspension and trials of six police officers, appointing representatives of African Americans, civil organizations and labor to the panel of D.C. Commissioners, an impartial investigation into police killings, and compensation to victims’ families.

National marches for civil rights had been held previously in the city in 1922 over lynching and 1933 over the “Scottsboro Boys.”  However, this marked the first mass action in the streets of a significant size over a local African American issue in Washington since the 1919 picketing over the Moen’s school child abuse case.

First White Officer Indicted

In mid-July, the grand jury indicted Sobolewski for manslaughter. The Afro American reported it was the first time in D.C. history that a white policeman was charged in the death of a black person.

The National Negro Congress followed up the Communist Party-led march and demands by organizing a conference of over 100 organizations at the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church on July 31.

Negro Congress Leader Doxey Wilkerson at Town Hall Radio: 1942

Doxey Wilkerson (2nd from left).

The meeting was presided over by Rev. Arthur Gray in preparation for a mass meeting to be held the next day. Among the principal NNC speakers were Doxey Wilkerson of Howard University, former judge James A. Cobb, and former judge William C. Hueston.

Alphaeus Hunton, a Howard University professor, outlined eight proposed demands to be adopted at the mass meeting. They included removal of Major Brown; denial of pension rights to former officer Vivian Landrum, who had killed Leonard Basey two years earlier; suspension and trial for officers involved in shootings and recent brutality; public hearings on police brutality; and compensation for victims.

Ministers Rally 1,200

The next day, 1,200 rallied at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church under the auspices of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, where the pastor C. T. Murray presided.

John P. Davis, national secretary of the National Negro Congress, as quoted in the Washington Post, spoke of the “terror of urban lynching” which led to an “intolerable state of affairs” as “unwarranted beatings and needless killings were perpetrated by the police.”

NAACP Counsel Charles H. Houston Speaks: 1940 ca.

Charles Hamilton Houston.

Charles Hamilton Houston, counsel to the NAACP, blamed the lack of voting rights of citizens in the District and pledged legal services to help fight police brutality.

The National Negro Congress also announced a petition drive to seek 50,000 signatures to President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress.  A collection of $170 was taken up by Rev. William Jernagin from the ministerial alliance to be divided equally between Mollie McKnight and the NNC.

The petition campaign brought new allies into the fight.  The Washington Insurance Underwriters Association pledged 5,000 signatures to be collected through its 55 agents. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American League for Peace and Democracy, and the United Federal Employees also established committees to seek signatures.

The coalition organized “flying squadrons” that went house to house seeking signatures. Both black and white ministers conducted Sunday sermons across the city to popularize the cause.

Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter after two hours of deliberation by an all-white jury in September. In addition, Sobolewski was also brought before a re-constituted police trial board in September where he was again exonerated. The two officers who shot Leroy Keys were also cleared of charges by a police trial board.

However, despite the coroner’s jury verdicts, the grand jury failure to act, an acquittal at trial, and the police trial board whitewashes, change was in the air in Washington.

A Year Free of Police Killings

On June 26, 1939, one year after McKnight was killed, the NNC held a meeting at the Second Baptist Church at 3rd & I Streets NW attended by 1,500 people and hailed “a year free of police killings.”

National Negro Congress leader John P. Davis: 1940 ca.

John Preston Davis.

The meeting was presided over by local NNC president Rev. Arthur Gray.  Police superintendent Major Ernest W. Brown also spoke, trying to assure the group that he took the issue seriously. Other speakers included John P. Davis, Rev. J. L. S. Holloman of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, and Eugene Davidson of the New Negro Alliance.

The Washington Tribune saluted the work and said the “job could not have been done had it not been for the tireless energy and leadership the National Negro Congress gave to other organizations in this fight against police crimes on the Negro people of Washington.”

Rev. Gray, the D.C. NNC president, said after the campaign that the new trial board for police officers made a difference, according to Gellman’s book. The board obtained some suspensions and indictments against several police officers and Gray said, “The number of incidents has markedly decreased.”

A. Phillip Randolph Speaks at 1940 Negro Congress Convention

A. Phillip Randolph speaking at the 1940 National Negro Congress convention.

NNC Weakened

During 1939-40, the NNC was weakened by a campaign by U.S. Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX) to smear the group as a communist organization.  Then, in 1940, the president of the NNC, A. Phillip Randolph, refused to stand for re-election at the group’s Washington, D.C. national convention after delegates approved a resolution condemning the “imperialist war” in Europe and another calling for closer ties to the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The NNC’s broad political umbrella was broken. Randolph was president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters and his departure left the NNC without its most prominent leader. The Dies attack and Randolph’s withdrawal caused a number of organizations, clergy and others to drift away.

Even with its weakened state at the national level, the organization continued to wage an effective campaign in the city to desegregate defense-related employment throughout most of World War II. Further, despite the friction at the national level, the Washington, D.C. NNC continued relatively strong relationships with both the NAACP and the clergy at the local level.

Renewed Brutality in Washington

However, as time passed the initial success achieved during the 1938 police brutality campaign began to fade.

Protests spread to the Capitol Police force after the shooting and wounding of 10-year-old Fred Walker Jr. in the Senate Office Building on June 24, 1940. Sergeant Vernon Deus was quickly suspended while rights leaders demanded his dismissal and prosecution.

A month later the NNC, along with the Elks, several churches, the NAACP and the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, held a series of protest meetings against police brutality in the 4th police precinct in the city.

Over 100 people attended a mass meeting at the Zion Baptist Church at 333 F Street SW on July 18. Leaders, including pastor A. Joseph Edwards, condemned police for intimidation of African Americans in the precinct against attending the rally.

At another rally at the Mount Lebanon Church at 814 25th Street NW on July 29, Dr. C. Herbert Marshall, local NAACP president, urged African Americans to “stick together” to achieve the rally’s purpose, to “stop the cops from beating Negroes,” according to the Washington Post.

The broad coalition against brutality, now re-named the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality, took up the issue of a laundry workers’ strike at the Arcane-Sunshine Company, where police intervened on the side of strike breakers and beat pickets with their clubs.

On April 30, police officer Francis E. Davis arrested Robert Gray for disorderly conduct near 13th & Q Streets NW. According to Davis, Gray struck him and ran from the scene and when Davis caught up to him a scuffle ensued. Davis then shot Gray twice in the abdomen and Gray later died.

A coroner’s jury quickly cleared Davis, but the NNC demanded that the case be presented to a grand jury.

Three More Killed by Police

Three more African American men were shot to death by police officers in early August.  Police sergeant John Leach came upon an apparent robbery in an alley near the 1300 block of Ninth Street NW. Leach testified that Clarence Whitby struck him and fled, then Leach fired two shots, one striking Whitby and killing him.

Just days later, police officer Donald R. Webber came upon two men in an alley near 14th and Florida Avenue NW, standing beside an automobile.  Webber testified later that when he demanded a driver’s license from the two brothers they told him, “We don’t have to show you our driver’s permit,” according to the Washington Post.

During his testimony before a coroner’s jury, Webber testified he shot Jasper and Edward Cobb August 4 after he tried to place Jasper under arrest for being drunk and the two resisted. There were no other witnesses to the shooting, although Edward Cobb said before he died that he intervened in the arrest when Webber began beating his brother.

Longtime NNC nemesis police chief Maj. Ernest W. Brown was forced to retire just days after the three killings. Brown’s retirement was only tangentially related to the police brutality issue and was mainly due to Congressional concern over District crime rates and an internal police spying scandal.

But Brown’s departure also marked an opportunity for the anti-brutality coalition when Edward J. Kelly was named chief from among several internal candidates. Kelly had enemies within the department and needed broad political support to succeed as its head.

Stephen Gill Spottswood: 1940 ca

Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood.

More than 1,500 jammed the John Wesley A.M.E.Z. Church August 17 for the funeral of the Cobb brothers. Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood, pastor of the church declared, “this is not a funeral service, it is a mass meeting, protesting this occurrence,” according to the Afro American.

Spottswood continued, “They are but symbols, these two men, typical of what might happen to any of us, to you or to me. We must cooperate in decisive action to demonstrate our interest in the freedom of black men and women in the nation’s capital.”

Even as outrage against the killings was building during the month of August, coroners’ juries exonerated all the police officers in the three deaths.

Protests Escalate Again

In September, the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality in Washington called for mass protest.

Crowd Listens to Speakers at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Over 1,100 rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

At the Metropolitan Baptist Church on the 1200 block of R Street NW, a crowd estimated by the Afro American at 2,000 (the FBI estimated 1,100) gathered on September 7th to hear a wide array of speakers denounce police violence.

Doxey Wilkerson, an NNC leader and Howard University professor, presided at the meeting and called the police the enforcers of a system where black people “were segregated in living conditions and public affairs and also discrimination in employment,” according to Gellman.

Wilkerson added, “Police brutality used to be considered a local problem, today it must be viewed in terms of world significance. Police brutality and racial discrimination are part and parcel of this evil we are fighting on an international front,” the Afro American reported.

Hugh Miller, white leader of the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, said “the problems of the Negro were also the problems of the white” and urged the group to fight “Hitler’s theory” of “racial superiority” demonstrated by the killings, according to Gellman’s account.

John P. Davis, the national NNC leader, demanded permanent reforms in the department, shouting, “Don’t take no for an answer,” according to Gellman.

DC Police Chief Kelly Speaks at Anti-Brutality Rally: 1941

DC police chief Kelly speaks at anti-brutality rally on Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Wilkerson then introduced the new police chief Major Kelly, who addressed the crowd. “As long as I am head of the police department, I will not tolerate violence against any citizen or against any police officer,” he declared, according to the Afro American.

Kelly evaded calls for grand jury action against the officers involved in the three killings by saying he was not in charge at the time and urging the crowd to lobby the district attorney, but agreed with adding civilians to the police review board

Kelly also supported hiring additional African American officers, promoting an African American to captain and ending the police practice of holding people without specific charges.

It was a remarkable achievement for the group to have the police chief at the meeting and respond favorably to specific demands.

Following Kelly, a quartet from the United Cafeteria Workers Local 471 sang spirituals.

J. Finley Wilson, leader of the Elks, led off the second half of the rally saying that government protection of African American soldiers and civilians was necessary before the Elks would “battle and defend America and make it safe for the black and white under the ‘Stars and Stripes,” according to Gellman’s account.

Other speakers included Rev. L. Collins, Curtis Mitchell, Rev. E. C. Smith, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Jack Zucker, representing the Washington Industrial Council.

The rally ended with a call for marches through the streets of Washington the following week that would converge for a single rally against police brutality.

Four Marches Through the City

Protesting DC Police Brutality in Washington: 1941

One of four simultaneous marches marking each victim, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

A week later on September 14, four marches from different points in the city got underway involving an estimated 2,000 total participants. Each march was dedicated to one of the four recent victims.

Signs carried by protestors included, “Old Jim Crow Has Got to Go,” “Protect Our Civil Rights” and “Police Brutality is a Disgrace to the Nation’s Capital.” A hearse and an undertaker’s automobile carried signs in memory of persons shot in recent months by the police.

The treks converged at 10th and U Streets NW for a rally where about 500 remained to hear a number of speakers including Alphaeus Hunton, professor at Howard University, who reiterated the six demands put forth at the rally that were developed at the previous week’s meeting.

Demands included holding police officer Webber for grand jury action in the Cobb brothers shooting, internal police action to curb brutality, a citizens trial board to replace the current police board, appointment of 50 African American police officers, charges to be placed immediately against anyone arrested, and compensation to be granted dependents of those killed by the police.

Rev. Frank Alstork of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance argued for a peaceful solution but warned, “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” according to the Washington Post.

CIO Union Speaks Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Craig Vincent of the CIO speaks at anti-police brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Dorothy Strange of the National Negro Congress and the police brutality committee urged the crowd to sign and circulate a petition to be sent to the District government and the police department with the six demands.

Other speakers were Henry Thomas of the CIO United Construction Workers, Craig Vincent of the local CIO Industrial Council and Frank Donner, chair of the case committee of the brutality group.

In closing the rally, Doxey Wilkerson led chants of “Police Brutality has got to go” with the loudest for “Old Jim Crow has got to go,” according to the Afro American.

Aftermath

The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and  the subsequent German declaration of war.

The local NNC was weakened shortly afterwards when the National Negro Congress moved its headquarters to New York. In addition, Alphaeus Hunton, a key organizer behind the scenes, also moved to New York City. In 1943 Doxey Wilkerson, another local NNC leader, quit his post at Howard University to take a position with the Maryland Communist Party.

Rally Against DC Police Brutality on U Street: 1941

Crowd begins gather at 10th & U St. NW for anti-brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. DC Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

Other NNC organizers entered the armed services. The local NNC continued the fight for integration of war-related industries.  Mass protest activities continued up to the march demanding hiring of African American operators at Capital Transit in May 1943.

While large-scale actions faltered after this point, the local NNC continued to press for rights throughout the war and resumed larger protest activities after GIs began returning after the war ended in 1945.

The police brutality campaign marked a new chapter in the African American struggle for rights in the city. Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP summed up the police brutality campaign by writing,

The persistent and forceful campaign, which the Washington Council [of the National Negro Congress] and allied organizations have waged against police brutality in Washington, has been one of the most significant battles for civil rights and personal freedom and security ever conducted in the District of Columbia.

While this campaign achieved some limited reforms and curbed some of the more egregious police brutality, the lasting contribution may have been to bring new forms of mass protest to the local Washington, D.C. civil rights struggle, much as the Scottsboro campaign had done on a national scale just a few years previously.

This post was updated April 21, 2013 to reflect that officer Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of Wallace McKnight.


Author’s notes:

The five-year campaign against police brutality united the disparate elements among African Americans into a single unified local coalition that lasted for a significant span of time.

The effort produced both institutional reforms and an overall reduction in brutality.  Just as importantly, the campaign moved the local civil rights struggle beyond mass meetings in churches and small picket lines into mass marches in the streets. The campaign also used creative tactics from investigative reporting to utilization of radio broadcasts.

The mock trial of police practices involved every strata of the local African American community and attracted significant support from whites as well. Building off the “Scottsboro Boys” campaign, the NNC used a petition campaign to involve those unable or reluctant to join the protest activities.

The Dies Committee designated the National Negro Congress, which led the campaign, as a communist dominated organization in 1941.  Again, in the late 1940s, it was called a communist front group by the Truman administration.

The truth was significantly different. The Washington, D.C. NNC was a truly broad based organization that worked well with other rights organizations in the city.  In addressing its broad character, Thelma Dale, a youth leader and NNC member in Washington, D.C. said in a 2003 interview with Erik Gellman,

Sunday Worker on Sale at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

A woman sells the Communist Party’s Sunday Worker at an anti-brutality rally  Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

“In Washington in the fight against police brutality, were we going to put a circle around a Communist? Martin Chancey…the head of the Communist Party in Washington, D.C. functioned fully openly. So, who were we to turn them away? We didn’t.”

For activists today, the issue of how to work independently and in coalition with others who hold different viewpoints is just as complex as it was during this era. While conditions faced are vastly different, the same questions arise.

The 1938 police brutality campaign perhaps illustrates how divergent groups can work separately, but also function together around a common goal.

During the campaign organizations independently organized around the brutality issue in the communities, but also worked within the coalition together to strengthen the broad campaign and present a united front. Those on the left did so even when they thought the demands put forward by the coalition were limited and the tactics passive.  Likewise, participants who opposed left-wing political views and sometimes their militant tactics welcomed their help in building a campaign around the brutality issue.

In this instance, it produced an ongoing movement that began to break down the worst aspects of Jim Crow in the city.

Sources for this article include Erik Gellman’s book Death Blow to Jim CrowThe Chicago Defender, The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Atlanta Daily World, The Washington Herald, The Washington Star and The Crisis. 


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Related Posts:

“Scottsboro Boys” – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights
The Fight Against Jim Crow at Capital Transit
A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson


A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson

19 Nov
Marie Lucinda Richardson (Harris)

Marie Richardson, a labor & civil rights leader in the 1940s, was imprisoned during the McCarthy era for 4 1/2 years. Photo D A Harris, ©Afro American Newspapers.

By Craig Simpson

Marie L. Richardson (Harris) was a leading organizer for civil rights and labor unions in the District of Columbia from the late 1930s until 1950.

Her pioneering work helped to organize the predominately African American Washington red caps union and their women’s auxiliary while still a teenager. She was a leader of the early fight to integrate Capital Transit operator jobs.  She was an active member of the National Negro Congress and served as the executive secretary of the local branch.   

According to the Afro American newspaper, she was the first African American woman to hold national office in a major labor union. In her role as national representative of the United Federal Workers, CIO she helped lead the union’s organizing drives and battles against discrimination inside the federal government in the District.

The price she paid for her leadership was four and a half years in a federal penitentiary, a victim of  McCarthy-era persecution.

Fighter In Her Youth

Marie Lucinda Richardson was born September 4, 1920 to Mattie and Griffin Richardson in Washington, DC and grew up in a row house at 1638 Florida Ave. NW along with her brother Thomas “Tommy” Richardson.  She attended the segregated District of Columbia schools, graduating from Morgan School in 1932, Garnet-Patterson Junior High School in January 1935 and Cardozo High School in January 1938.

DC Red Caps Union: 1938

Griffin Richardson (back row, 2nd from right) with Washington red caps union in 1938. Photo: Scurlock, courtesy National Archives.

Her father had been a baggage handler at Union Station since it opened in 1907 and was an officer in an early association of red caps. On July 5, 1933, he was a founder of the Washington Terminal Station Porters, a red caps unit fighting for better working conditions.

While still in high school, Marie Richardson helped her father organize the group into a union. The effort inspired red caps in other cities and in January 1938, they banded together to form the International Brotherhood of Red Caps later renamed the United Transport Service Employees.

In 1939, Richardson helped organize the women’s auxiliary of the union and was chosen as a national officer of the auxiliary in January 1940.  She was re-elected in 1942.

Youth Organizer and Early Work

After graduating from high school, Richardson attended Howard University and Terrell Law School and during that time worked at the dean’s office at Howard for two years. From 1940-42, she worked at the Office of War Information as a messenger and the Naval Gun Factory at the Washington Navy Yard as a machinist, where she was also active in the United Federal Workers (UFW), CIO.

Cardozo High School Class: 1938

Marie Richardson (3rd row, middle, surrounded by those in white) with Cardozo High School 1938 mid-year class. Photo: Scurlock, courtesy National Archives.

In 1941, Richardson was an organizer for the National Conference of Negro Youth and served as acting secretary of the “Washington Initiating Committee” of the conference.

She led the organizing of the three-day November conference of the organization enlisting the support of prominent civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, popular entertainer Fats Waller and arranging for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to speak at the conference.

In her role as youth organizer, she began fighting to desegregate government and industry in the District. “Our purpose is to give special attention to Negro young people who have been discriminated against in Washington or who have been working at jobs not commensurate with their qualifications,” she said in a statement.

Richardson’s committee began the early work on ending Jim Crow hiring at Capital Transit by soliciting letters and petitions from groups and individuals in support of hiring African American streetcar and bus operators. This work laid the groundwork for the eventual integration of operator ranks at the company in 1955.

First Black Woman National Representative at Major Union

She was selected national representative of the United Federal Workers (UFW), CIO in the Spring of 1943, becoming one of the first (perhaps the first) African American women to serve at that level in a major labor union.

Richardson worked to organize federal workers and the cafeteria workers employed by quasi-private contractors in federal and defense department cafeterias.  She helped lead the UFW organizing efforts and fights against discrimination at Freedmen’s Hospital, teachers at Howard University, the Bureau of Engraving, Federal Security Agency and US Treasury Department.

During the World War II years she also volunteered for the Office of Civilian Defense where she received two commendations for her work as a sector air raid warden.

Executive Secretary of DC National Negro Congress

Richardson had been active in the local chapter of the National Negro Congress (NNC) since the late 1930s.  The NNC was a broad civil rights organization based in the black working class that emphasized direct action in contrast to the legal strategy of the NAACP.

She was selected as executive secretary of the District of Columbia unit of the NNC in 1945 where she continued work on police brutality, voting rights for District of Columbia residents and desegregating the operator jobs at the Capital Transit Company.

When Charles Hamilton Houston resigned from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) in protest of President Harry Truman’s thwarting an order forcing the transit company to hire African American operators, Richardson drafted a letter from the local NNC blasting Truman.

The letter charged that Truman’s actions were “in substance, a declaration of support of the Jim Crow laws in operation” in the District. “Your letter [Truman’s] is a cynical welcome for colored veterans returning to their homes in Washington looking for fair employment without discrimination,” the letter continued.

Marie Richardson at Home at Her Desk

Marie Richardson at Florida Ave NW home in 1946. Photo: D. A. Harris Jr.©Afro American Newspaper.

While at the NNC, Richardson led the local campaign to pass a bill for a permanent federal FEPC. Despite the Capital Transit debacle, the FEPC had helped to desegregate some of the defense related industry during World War II.  When a filibuster was conducted in the U.S. Senate to stop the bill, Richardson led picketing at the home of each Senator blocking the bill (see photo of Richardson picketing here, click “browse this newspaper” & navigate to Feb 2, 1946 edition, page 24).

The bill ultimately died in the Senate. However, President Truman issued an executive order in 1948 prohibiting employment discrimination in the federal government.

She organized an outdoor anti-lynching rally in July 1947 that drew 500 people where Savannah Churchill, a popular singer, declared that “people must unit themselves to stop the terrible crimes” of lynching. As organizer of the event, Richardson offered resolutions adopted by the group in support of federal anti-lynching legislation and condemning discrimination in the District of Columbia.

In late 1947, the NNC merged into the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a group that had originally been created to pursue legal and legislative strategies.

Richardson’s work with the NNC spilled over to the CRC and she helped build support for the strike over wages and benefits by Local 471 of the United Cafeteria Workers (UPW, CIO) union in 1947 and again in 1948 when the union waged an 11 week strike after a government-sponsored corporation refused to bargain with a “red union.”

In 1948, she took a job as campaign manager for Joseph Rainey, Progressive Party candidate for Congress in Philadelphia.  Rainey’s grandfather was the first black congressman during Reconstruction and Rainey had been elected magistrate in Philadelphia and had served as president of the Local NAACP chapter. Rainey lost, but out-polled Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace in the district.

After returning to Washington, Richardson assisted Henry Thomas’s Building Laborer’s Local 74 in their one-day strike in June 1949.  In the post WWII years, Richardson was also active with the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Council of Women and the Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax.

In 1950, Richardson moved to New York City with her husband, Rev. Benjamin Harris who became the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia in Long Island.  The two operated a dry cleaning establishment to make ends meet.

Federal Loyalty Oath

In March 1947, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order requiring loyalty oaths of all government employees.  Current and prospective employees were required to pledge they were not members of the Communist Party and to disclose, in writing, current and past membership in organizations deemed “subversive” by the Attorney General.  It was the opening salvo in a series of actions that drove most communists and other left-wing activists out of jobs in government and private industry and out of the labor and civil rights movements.

The initial “subversive list” was published in the federal register March 20, 1948 and included the National Negro Congress, the Civil Rights Congress and the Communist Party.

The order did not provide criminal penalties, but set up “loyalty boards” to fire employees it deemed guilty of disloyalty.

Shortly after the order went into effect in 1948, Richardson applied for and was hired for a temporary clerical job at the Library of Congress where she worked for three months.  In May 1949, she re-applied and was hired again for a clerical job at the Library where she worked for several months before her move to New York.

Markward Infiltrates Communist Party

Long before the loyalty oath, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was spying on left-wing organizations, including the Communist Party.

Mary Markward Testifies Before HUAC: 1951

Mary Markward testifies before HUAC. Her testimony helped convict Marie Richardson and send her to prison. World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The FBI approached Mary Stalcup Markward in March 1943 to infiltrate the District of Columbia Communist Party after the FBI determined that several of her beauty shop customers were associated with the group.

Markward worked diligently at routine Communist Party tasks and was elevated to local treasurer and a member of the governing board of the Maryland-DC state party. Markward was in charge of membership, including the collection of dues from District of Columbia party members.  During this time Markward made regular reports to the FBI.

In June 1951, Markward began testifying in secret before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) about communist activities in the Washington area, ultimately naming over 200 people as members of the Communist Party.  In July, Marie Richardson and her father Griffin were named in newspapers as members of the Communist Party identified by Markward.

Richardson Indicted, Faces 40 Years

By November 1951, it was the height of the Korean War where the US sent troops against communist-led forces. Eleven national unions had been expelled from the CIO labor federation for alleged communist ties, along with numerous members of individual AFL and CIO unions. Julius & Ethel Rosenberg had been sentenced to death for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

Leaders of the US Communist Party were jailed under the Smith Act and many more members and left-leaning activists were under investigation or facing trial.  None were convicted for any specific alleged acts to overthrow the government, but were instead jailed for alleged communist beliefs or membership in the Communist Party.

Some were jailed for contempt when they refused to answer questions in Congressional hearings about their beliefs, organizations they belonged to or people that they knew or may have known. Others had their names and addresses published in newspapers, were fired from their jobs and blacklisted.

Richardson was indicted November 30 for “false and fraudulent statements” stemming from her signed loyalty oaths and her job applications for the library clerical jobs in 1948 and 1949.  She faced a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for each of eight counts that charged she had not revealed past membership in “subversive organizations.”

Critics of loyalty oaths contended that they accomplished little and the government was determined to prove them wrong.  Richardson’s imprisonment would show that the loyalty oath program worked.  Further, jailing Richardson who no longer lived in the area or worked for the federal government would bolster the message that anyone who was affiliated with left-leaning unions and civil rights organizations were not safe unless they renounced other members and the organizations.

William Hitz, Assistant United States Attorney sent out a chilling message that, “he expected there would be many more [indictments] here and elsewhere.”  He made a point to say that Richardson was “uncovered” during a “routine” FBI loyalty check, although authorities were well aware of Richardson for years.

Among the organizations Hitz cited in support of the indictment were Richardson activities with the National Negro Congress, American Youth Congress, Americans for Peace Mobilization and the Americans for Democratic Action along with the Communist Party.

Arraignment & Suppression of Defense Committee

At Richardson’s December 14 arraignment, she was released on $1,000 bond pending trial set for January 17, 1952.  Before she could leave the courthouse, Richardson was detained by US Marshals who demanded the names of those who had helped her with bail money.  Richardson refused to answer their questions.

Ralph Powe, a prominent CRC attorney from New York, represented her at the arraignment and charged that it was “…another attempt on the part of the government to silence outspoken colored leaders.”

If anyone doubted the government’s desire to make an example of Richardson, that notion was quickly dispelled.

Committee to Defend Marie Richardson Pamphlet: 1952 ca

Committee to Defend Marie Richardson pamphlet, 1952 ca.

January 13, 1952, police raided a party to raise money for Richardson.  Twelve police officers broke up the party attended by about 60 persons and arrested one for selling whiskey without a license.  According to the Afro-American, police seized an envelope marked “Marie Richardson Defense Committee” containing $980 as evidence.

Richardson was detained, but not arrested by police.  However, police took the names and addresses of all persons at the party “in case witnesses were needed,” and confiscated the list of contributors.

The drive to sandbag defense efforts later resulted in the 1953 attorney general listing of the Committee to Defend Marie Richardson  as a subversive organization.

Trial and Conviction

Powe put together a strong legal defense team for Richardson.  James A. Cobb was a former municipal court judge and a vice-dean of the Howard University law school. George A. Parker founded the Robert H. Terrell School of Law in 1931 and later was appointed as a federal judgeBarrington Parker was law partner with his father, defended Paul Robeson and W. E. B DuBois and was later appointed by President Nixon as a federal judge. George E. C. Hayes was the lead attorney on the Supreme Court case that desegregated Washington, DC public schools in 1954.  Powe was a veteran civil rights attorney.

However, the team was only able to obtain a brief postponement to prepare and the trial began February 18 before Judge James R. Kirkland and a jury of eight whites and four blacks

The short time between arraignment and trial resulted in long hours for the defense team.  Barrington Parker told the Afro-American newspaper that most of each night was spent in research, resulting in little sleep for any of them.

The government’s called only three witnesses.  The first, Leon W. Seidner, chief of operations at the Library of Congress, testified Richardson denied communist affiliations in applying for clerical jobs in 1948 and 1949.

The legal case against Richardson hinged on the testimony of Markward and that of Henry Thomas, the laborer’s union president who quit the Communist Party in 1949 and denounced those he alleged to be members to HUAC in 1950.

Thomas testified that he had known Richardson since 1939 and had been at meetings of the Young Communist League with her. Thomas further testified that he and Richardson had been at a number of different meetings with high profile Communist Party leaders over the years.

DC Home of Marie Richardson: 2012

DC home of Marie Richardson where she grew up and stayed during her trial shown in 2012.

Under cross-examination defense attorneys quickly had Thomas back peddling on a number of assertions.  He recanted numerous dates and places of meetings when challenged and admitted that he or his wife had invited many of the communist leaders to the meetings, some of which had been meetings of the NAACP. At times Thomas was uncertain whether Richardson had even been present.

Markward’s testimony was more crucial, given her job as keeper of the Communist Party membership records.  Markward testified she [Markward] filled out Richardson’s membership card in her own handwriting in 1946. However, Markward said that Richardson never picked up the card. Markward further testified that she kept the card in her own possession. The card was entered into evidence by the prosecution.

Under cross-examination Markward admitted that she saw no documents signed by Richardson indicating that she was a party member, “I have never seen Mrs. Richardson fill out a party card,” Markward acknowledged.

In other evidence, Markward testified that Richardson once gave a report on the local National Negro Congress of which Richardson was then executive secretary.  Under cross-examination, Markward admitted the aim of the Congress was to “better the status of negroes,” but also testified that the organization received support from the Communist Party.

Defense attorneys challenged her motivation and branded her as a paid informant, but Markward said her work was “without compensation” and denied receiving any funds from the FBI, other than incidental expenses, and said her motives were patriotic.

When the trial ended after more than a week, no Communist Party membership card in Richardson’s writing or dues payment records with Richardson’s name were produced and defense attorney Hayes told the jury there was “no evidence anywhere that Mrs. Richardson ever joined the Communist Party.”

Hayes went on to say that Richardson’s long association with the National Negro Congress only showed that she “dedicated herself to do something for a race of people with which she was identified.”

The jury began deliberations late February 28 and the elder Parker expressed the belief that a hung jury would result.

However, after six hours of deliberations the jury returned to the courtroom. Each juror stood and read his or her verdict on each count.  Two of the African American jurors hesitated for a long moment before softly saying guilty, but Richardson was convicted on all counts. The anti-communist hysteria of the day was ultimately too much to overcome.  Kirkland refused bond and remanded Richardson to jail pending sentencing.

Sentence & Further Degradation

On March 7, Kirkland sentenced Richardson to a prison term of 28 months to 7 years and fined her $2000.  Kirkland gave gushing praise to Markward saying, “she gave valiantly of her services. She deserves to take her place alongside of Molly Pitcher, Barbara Fritchie and Clara Barton.”

He blasted Richardson and admitted he was sentencing her for her beliefs, “Your teachings at your mother’s knee and your American father should not have permitted you to embrace such false doctrines.  You, a highly educated woman, have brought this upon yourself.” Kirkland again refused to set bond during appeal and remanded her to jail.

In another apparent attempt to degrade her and send a message to others, she was hauled before a grand jury investigating drug trafficking almost immediately after sentencing.  When Richardson said she wanted to consult a lawyer, she was not questioned, but the incident was publicized by the local newspapers. Assistant United State Attorney Thomas Wadden, Jr. declined to state to the Washington Post why he was calling Richardson. Richardson was never recalled to testify.

Appeals and Prison

Richardson’s defense team eventually secured her release on $5,000 bail.  David Rein and Joseph Forer, attorneys with extensive experience defending accused communists, assisted with the appeal. A number of grounds for overturning the verdict were raised, but most significantly that Markward had misled the jury on a key point.

After the trial, documents were discovered that showed Markward had been paid a little over $24,000 by the FBI–which equates to about $207,000 in 2012 dollars or about $30,000 per year—at odds with the small-reimbursed expenses Markward claimed during trial.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that “the contentions made by [the] appellants are insubstantial.  There is no reversible error and the judgment of conviction and the order denying the motion for a new trial must and hereby are affirmed.”

Richardson’s attorneys appealed back to Judge Kirkland for a reduction of sentence and sought a US Supreme Court review.  They were turned down on both counts.  In July 1954, Richardson was ordered to jail and sent to Alderson Federal Penitentiary in West Virginia.

Richardson’s Release

Richardson was denied parole several times and served four years before a group of African American ministers persuaded the parole board to reconsider their decision.

Appearing before the parole board on Richardson’s behalf were Rev. Ct. T. Murray, pastor of the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, The Rev. N. H. Travis, Salem Baptist Church; the Rev. Andrew Fowler, president of the Baptist District Convention, the Rev. J. H. Randolph, chairman of the Fraternal Council of Churches and the Rev. Wendell C. Somerville, representing the Baptist Ministers Conference.

Richardson was finally released from prison in October 1958.

Richardson died without fanfare March 6, 1987. Richardson’s final viewing was held March 12, 1987 at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC and her final resting place is in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, MD.

Author’s notes:  Richardson’s contributions to the District of Columbia labor and civil rights movements were lost in the anti-communist frenzy of the 1950s. Her pioneering stint as perhaps the first African American woman to hold a major national trade union office receives scant attention in labor, civil rights and women’s histories. The injustice of four and a half years in prison related to a loyalty oath that was overturned by the Supreme Court years later has also been forgotten.

Most information for this article came from the Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta Daily World, Washington Post, Washington Star, Ginger & Christiano’s “The Cold War Against Labor,” court documents and HUAC transcripts.

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 e-mail at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com. 

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