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 14th Street NW around 2:45 pm 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.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the debate over the future of slavery raged through the halls of Congress. Abolitionists in the North, however, had little faith that their fight could be won through political discourse. A quarter of Washington, D.C.’s black population was enslaved, and the slave trade in the District was one of the most lucrative markets in the country. Abolitionists reasoned that they needed to resort to other means to combat slavery in this socially hypocritical and politically entrenched environment. In the early months of 1848, a local cell of the Underground Railroad devised a plan to smuggle slaves out of the area and take them north to free territory.
In 1939 — decades before Virginia schools were integrated, and sit-ins emerged as a primary strategy for protesting segregated businesses and public facilities in the South — Alexandria, Virginia lawyer Samuel Tucker organized a successful sit-in to demonstrate against the Alexandria Library's "whites only" policy. It is believed to be the first sit-in for desegregation in American history.
Prior to 1909, Harry Bradford had almost never landed himself in the paper. He appeared in The Washington Post once, when it announced that the Kensington Orchestra was going to be performing in the near future. (Bradford played violin.) But other than that, nothing. And yet, in 1910, Bradford’s name was in all caps on the front page of the Post. “Bradford told to quit,” the headline read.
In 1910, the Howard Theater was founded in Washington's Shaw neighborhood, and it soon became the premier black theater in the country, helping launch the careers of many African American performers. But for Duke Ellington, who was a fixture in the neighborhood as a kid, the pool hall next door to the theatre did more to shape his musical sensibilities.
If you live in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and you are interested in visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) but have not secured tickets yet, this might be a great time to explore the many African American history focused museums, cultural centers and historic houses in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
In the early 1900s, Dr. Anna J. Cooper, eschewed inherently racist notions that education for African American students should be solely vocational. Pursuing more classical studies, she pushed her students toward some of the best colleges and universities in the country, but her dedication raised the ire of the D.C. Board of Education.
Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier, was pressured into testifying before the infamous communist-hunting committee in July 1949. But he also used the opportunity to speak out about racial injustice.
Frederick Douglass spent time in Washington, D.C. during his career as an abolitionist, writer, and orator, but he was never a permanent resident. His presence prior to and during the Civil War was most notable as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln during the debate over constitutional amendments to guarantee voting rights and civil liberties for African Americans.
It wasn’t until his Rochester, N.Y. home was destroyed by fire in 1872 that Douglass took up permanent residence in the District. Relocating to Washington seemed a logical choice since he was already spending an increasing amount of time there.
Benjamin Banneker was already a practiced mathematician and astronomer when he was approached in February 1791 by his friend Andrew Ellicott to survey the land staked out for the new United States capital. A free black who grew up in Maryland as a farmer, Banneker was more than a laborer. Though his formal education ended at an early age, he continued to study science and physics and would later write a series of best-selling almanacs. He designed and built a striking clock at age 22 that kept perfect time for forty years until it was destroyed in a fire. But, perhaps him most long lasting mark was the unique role he played in the development of the nation's capital — a job that went far beyond what Ellicott orginally had in mind.