James Nabrit Jr came to the District as an up-and-coming Howard law professor. He developed the first course at an American law school on civil rights law and instilled in his students an unrelenting belief in the immorality and impracticality of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. As the lead counsel for the District's Bolling v. Sharpe case, Nabrit championed the position of attacking segregation outright, instead of relying on equalization. He pushed Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP to sharpen their attacks on school segregation and strongly influenced the outcome of all of the Brown v. Board school cases.
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.
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.
Have you ever heard of Leo Frank? His case, a lesser known piece of American history, had tremendous long-lasting impact on the nation -- leading to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League and reviving the Ku Klux Klan. There’s also a Washington, D.C. connection.
In 1913, Leo Frank, a young Jewish man originally from New York, was accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in the Atlanta pencil factory he managed. After a month-long trial, with prejudice heavy in the air, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. Due to the judge’s fear of mob violence, Frank and his family were not in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.
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.
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.