Most chronologies of the fight for school desegregation often leave off at the Supreme Court decision, a nice bow-on-top finish to a long struggle against segregation, but in reality, the process of integrating the schools was far from over.
The history of school desegregation in the District is rooted in civil disobedience. The story is one of a grassroots organization of parents that challenged the institution of legalized segregation to guarantee better schools for their children. Throughout the seven-year struggle, the activists were supported by the District's Black churches, and their mission was grounded in the principles of faith and social justice.
By 1963, “Belair at Bowie” was thriving. Since its opening in 1961, over 2,000 houses were occupied. But its prosperity hid an uncomfortable truth. William Levitt’s vision of the perfect neighborhood included attractive homes, affordable prices, comfort, and community — but only one type of neighbor. From the moment Levitt arrived in Washington, local activists — and even the government — became aware of the developer’s racist policy: none of the homes in Belair could be sold to people of color.
In the early 1960s, theEvening Star called the Columbus Circle fountain in front of Union Station “a ready made swimming pool with ledges, platforms, and friendly statues. It is a grand place to wrestle and splash during the heat of the day, to get the shivers, and to finally recapture the heat by stretching full length on the warm bricks of the surrounding walk. Columbus looks on — pleased and noble.” However, as inviting as it was, swimming in the fountain was technically against Park Police regulations ... which made it the perfectplace to protest Washington’s shortage of accessible swimming pools.
Decades before Venus and Serena Williams dominated women’s tennis on the WTA tour, the Peters Sisters — Margaret Peters, a.k.a. “Pete", and Roumania Peters, a.k.a. “Repeat” — from Georgetown, were unstoppable champions in the all-black American Tennis Association.
Few people in history have skipped their senior prom for the opportunity to play baseball in Hagerstown, Maryland. Few people in history have also hit 660 home runs, played in 24 All-Star games, and won 13 Gold Glove Awards. As far as we know, there’s only one who has done both.
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.
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.
By 1952, every team in the National Football League had African-American players... except one. Washington Redskins (now Commanders) team founder and owner George Preston Marshall refused to integrate and dragged his feet for ten more years until his hand was forced.