Segregation

Eat Anywhere! Mary Church Terrell, the Lost Laws, and the End of Segregation in D.C. Restaurants

Washington Afro American headline from June 9, 1953.

On Friday, January 27, 1950, Mary Church Terrell met three friends for a late lunch in downtown Washington. Terrell, then 86, entered Thompson’s Restaurant on 7th Street NW around 2:45pm with Rev. William H. Jernigan, Geneva Brown and David Scull. Their party was integrated – Scull was white while the others were black – however, Thompson’s Restaurant was not. Like most other D.C. eating establishments at the time, it was whites only.

As the group went about selecting entrees along the cafeteria line, Manager Levin Ange emerged and informed them that Thompson’s did not serve “colored” people. Terrell clarified, “Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” When Ange confirmed that was the case, the group left the restaurant.

The chain of events was, of course, entirely expected. As a leader of Washington’s civil rights movement for half a century, Mary Church Terrell was well aware of Thompson’s policy. But she and the others didn’t go to the restaurant to be served. Rather they went with the expectation of being turned away – the necessary, if also demeaning, first step toward bringing a new sort of legal challenge, which they hoped would topple segregation in the nation’s capital.

Photograph of Mary Church Terrell as a young adult.

Impressions of Washington: Mary Church Terrell’s Activism

Educator, author, and activist Mary Church Terrell was the first president of the National Association for Colored Women, the first African-American woman elected to a major city school board, and a founding member of the NAACP. A lifelong advocate for equality, Terrell participated in sit-ins well into her eighties. But out of all of her activism, one 1906 speech stands out as an insightful and damning critique of racial dynamics in the nation's capital.

"The Whitest Huddle of Any Team in the League"

The Washington football team in 1961. (Image source: RedskinsCardMuseum.com)

The Washington Redskins are being accused of insensitivity and intolerance. The government is taking steps to intervene if the team doesn’t change its ways. Sound familiar? That’s because today’s name-change controversy echoes the situation over fifty years ago, when the Redskins were the last all-white team in the NFL. By 1952, every other team in the league had African-American players, but Washington team founder and owner George Preston Marshall refused to integrate, and dragged his feet for ten more years until his hand was forced.

Cooling Off in the Tidal Basin

Women frolic on the shores of the Bathing Beach in 1920. (Photo source: National Park Service)

The National Building Museum’s new indoor beach may be making headlines, but it’s not D.C.’s first seashore. For a period of time between 1918 and 1925, Washingtonians dipped into the Tidal Basin to experience some summertime heat relief. Now I know what you’re thinking: you couldn’t pay me to swim in that water today. But with a serious lack of public pools, and no air conditioning, citizens back then were pretty desperate. We look into it more below the cut.

Meeting the Community's Needs: Arlington’s Friendly Cab Company

In the 1940s, Jim Crow held strong in Arlington, Virginia. African-Americans encountered discrimination at segregated eating establishments, businesses and recreation facilities. Even access to medical care was divided along racial lines.

African American mothers were barred from the maternity ward at Arlington Hospital and were expected to travel to hospitals in Washington, D.C. or Alexandria to give birth. For many black Arlingtonians, getting to D.C. was difficult – especially in a medical emergency – as many could not afford cars of their own.

In 1947, three men with bright ideas and business ingenuity stepped up to fill the void.

Mary Custis Lee in 1914 (Source: Library of Congress)

Mary Custis Lee Challenges Streetcar Segregation

111 years ago today, Mary Custis Lee was arrested on an Alexandria streetcar for sitting in the section reserved for black patrons. As the daughter of Robert E. Lee, the General of the Confederate Army, the incident caused quite a stir within the community.

On her way to visit a friend, and being burdened with many large bags, Miss Lee chose to sit near the rear of the car in order to easily exit upon arriving at her destination. Shortly after she sat down the conductor Thomas Chauncey “explained the Virginia law on the subject, but being ignorant of the existence of the law herself, and also being loth [sic] to move her baggage, she protested.” At that time, Chauncey let her stay seated.[1]

Portrait of Lead Belly, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948 (Photo: William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)

Impressions of Washington: Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues"

Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949), better known as Lead Belly, was a legendary folk and blues musician known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, powerful vocals and the huge catalog of folk standards he introduced. Inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, artists from Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin to Nirvana and the White Stripes have covered his songs and recognized his musical influence.

Somewhat less remembered, even locally, is Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues," a song written about his first visit to Washington, D.C. in 1937 — an incisive indictment of the city's racial segregation conveyed in 3 minutes of rippling 12-string blues.