desegregation

Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria in 1936 (Source: Performing Arts Archives)

How Helen Hayes Helped Desegregate the National Theatre

There are two things that all D.C. residents love: the first lady and the performing arts. It’s no surprise then that in the capital, “First Lady of American Theatre” Helen Hayes is an icon. Born in 1900 in Washington D.C., Hayes’s career spanned nearly eighty years. She was the first EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) recipient to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan in 1986. But out of all her accomplishments, perhaps one of the most overlooked is Helen Hayes’s involvement in the desegregation of the National Theatre.   

Picketers, including future Maryland State Senator Gwendolyn Greene Britt, stand outside Glen Echo Park in 1960. (Photo source: National Park Service)

Remembering the Summer of 1960 at Glen Echo

You might not immediately associate roller coasters with racial equality, but more than three years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, Maryland’s Glen Echo Park was a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement. It made sense: since its opening in 1899, Glen Echo had been the premier amusement park for white Washingtonians. The park featured a number of modern roller coasters, a miniature railway, a Ferris wheel, an amphitheater, a pool: everything and more that other parks provided.

On February 2, 1959 (l-r) Michael Jones, Gloria Thompson, Ronald Deskins and Lance Newman became the first black students to break the color line in Virginia's public schools. (Source: Washington Post website)

It Happened Here First: Arlington Students Integrate Virginia Schools

On February 2, 1959, Stratford Junior High School (now H-B Woodlawn High School) in Arlington was the first public school in Virginia to be integrated. That morning, four African American seventh graders – Ronald Deskins, Lance Newman, Michael Jones and Gloria Thompson – started classes at the school with over 100 Arlington County police officers in riot gear standing guard. To the great relief of the community, there was no violence or disorder (though two students were sent home for setting off a firecracker in a school bathroom)

The day had been a long time coming.

John Phillip Sousa Junior High School. (Source: Wikipedia user Dmadeo)

D.C.'s Own "Brown vs Board"

Ask most people what Supreme Court case ended public school segregation and (perhaps after checking their smartphone) they will say, “Brown vs. Board of Education.” That is would be correct… for most of the country. But, for citizens in the federally-controlled District of Columbia another case was more important.

Sixty years ago this week — on December 10, 1952 — the Supreme Court heard the first arguments in Bolling vs. Sharpe, a case filed on behalf of eleven African American parents whose children had been denied enrollment at D.C.'s John Phillip Sousa Junior High School on the basis of race. The court would issue its decision two years later alongside the more famous Brown decision.