This Day in History: How Mary Terrell ended racial segregation by Washington DC's restaurants in 1953
With an inimitable resilience and quick wit, one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree in the US also gave the nation's capital the gift of equal dining experiences
The death of George Floyd, a man who pleaded "I can't breathe" as a police officer knelt on his neck until he died, has shaken the world and inspired protests against police brutality and racial discrimination. The incident thrust the Black Lives Matter movement back into focus as protestors took to the streets and celebrities gave it their voice. Social media is abuzz as netizens dig up older instances of racial segregation – a stark reminder of the discrimination and xenophobia that has been rampant in the country, despite the dissolution of all discriminatory laws against people of color.
It is no secret that America's history is blemished by a 150 year-long tradition of racial segregation. People were divided on the basis of the color of their skin and forced to abide by the rules allocated to each race. The segregation came into play soon after the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th Amendment, which aimed at abolishing slavery. Most states adopted "Black Codes" that were meant to be laws that were reformed to benefit the former slaves and emancipate African-Americans. Despite these efforts, the struggle to achieve equality and guarantee the civil rights of all Americans brought no gains. The movement of the African-American community was restricted and they were forced to work in a labor-intensive economy with very low wages and debt. The Black Codes became a leeway for newer laws that advocated for white supremacy and came to be known as "Jim Crow".
This series of rigid, anti-black laws became a way of life. The Jim Crow was applied to every aspect of society, and especially public places where one would go for leisure. Racism was at its peak and African-Americans were not allowed to dine at restaurants. While getting a take out, they weren't allowed to be in the restaurant at the same time as a white patron. But history is peppered with poignant references that tell you, "all it takes is one person to lead the change" – and in January 1950, it was Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree in the US.
As the former president of the National Association of Coloured Women and a charter member for the National Association for Advancement of Coloured People, Terrell had already spent the last 40 years of her career advocating for equal rights. So, when she attended a late Friday lunch with her group of "integrated friends" in downtown Washington, she was bound to raise eyebrows. Terrell, who was 86 at the time, entered Thomspons's Restaurant and began selecting entrees with her friends, only one of whom was white. The restaurant manager got word of "colored patrons" dining-in and informed them that Thompson's stuck to the Jim Crow. As soon as they had heard that, the group including Terrell, immediately left.
At the time, not many knew that the incident was actually a well-executed plan, aimed at segregation in the nation's capital city of Washington, DC. As the leader of Washington's civil rights movement for well over 50 years, Terrell was aware of the segregation laws and Thompson's policy of not serving African-Americans. Yet, she went there, not with the intention of being served, rather being rejected and if necessary, degraded. She was adamant on bringing about change and the group had been focused on changing regressive laws that had existed for the last 75 years. Since the end of the Civil War, the racial tensions in the country had been at an all-time high, and with a new government every four years or so, societal and segregation laws seemed to fluctuate between being barred and re-implemented.
The laws of integration or "lost laws", as they were called at the time, hadn't resurfaced until 1948 when the Truman administration published a critical analysis titled 'Segregation in Washington', put together by 100 national figures including the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Hayes. Shortly after this report was released, Terrell and several other activists formed the Co-ordination Committee for the Enforcement of DC Anti-Discrimination Laws to further their movement. However, it was the incident that unfolded at Thompson restaurant that gave them a solid footing to present a case before court.
Without wasting time, Terrell asked for authorities to prosecute the restaurant for violation of prior injunctions. However, the accused denied the claims put forward by Terrell and her group. The District Commissioners needed to assess the claims thoroughly for legitimacy before coming to a decision worthy of prosecution and announced that the lost laws would still be practiced and that they would review the next restaurant discrimination case that came to them.
Without losing hope, Terrell and her friends set out to re-enact the incident from January. A month later, they were not disappointed since the African-Americans in their group were refused service at Thompson's restaurant, again. Terrell immediately notified city officials and the District filed a lawsuit against the restaurant. After a long and tedious battle, the case titled District of Columbia vs. John R. Thompson Co concluded on June 8, 1953, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the city's favor. The lost laws were back and restaurants were enforced to open their doors to everyone, regardless of race and color. Segregated eating facilities were deemed unconstitutional – a groundbreaking milestone in the Civil Rights movement.
While it was a big victory for the African-American community in Washington, DC, it wasn't until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Right Act that racial segregation and discrimination became illegal. Despite these efforts, the struggle to achieve complete equality and guarantee the civil rights of all Americans would continue well into the 21st century.