1937 Phillips Packinghouse Strike – Promise & Defeat

18 Sep

By Daniel Hardin

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Strikers in front of Phillips Packing Co. Factory F, June 1937

“Down here on the Shore, where in the past the only time whites ever visited a jail in connection with a colored prisoner was to lynch him, a group of white strikers went to a jail and made police turn a colored striker loose.”—William N. Jones, 1937, Baltimore Afro-American newspaper.

A strike by hundreds of workers at the Phillips Packing Company in Cambridge, Maryland in June 1937 brought hope to the struggle for racial and economic justice in an area where African Americans were subjected to worst aspects of Jim Crow and unions were to be crushed mercilessly.

Climate of Racial Intolerance

Jones wasn’t exaggerating. Maryland’s Eastern Shore had been a slave labor, plantation-based economy before the Civil War and Jim Crow afterwards.

At the time of the strike, the brutal lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury in 1931 and George Armwood in Princess Anne in 1933 had just occurred a few years earlier.

The two-year legal battle of Euel Lee, also known as “Orphan Jones,” involved an attempting lynching at Snow Hill and ended with the legal lynching (no African Americans served on his jury) of Lee in 1933.

Matt Williams Barbarically Lynched in Salisbury Md: 1931

Matt Williams Brutal Lynching on Md Eastern Shore in 1931

Lynchings Enforced Economic Oppression

Jim Crow kept workers divided and helped keep wages on the Shore low. When challenged, racist leaders used terror to keep workers divided.

In 1931, a September strike by 800 predominantly African American crab pickets in Crisfield was supported by predominantly white oyster shuckers–showing the potential for unity.

The racist leaders on the Shore got their opportunity to send a message about standing up for higher wages in December. In the official version of the story, Matthew Williams allegedly shot his white employer in Salisbury in a dispute over wages, wounding himself during the altercation. While there was a more plausible explanation that involved the employer’s son doing the shooting, this mattered little.

Williams was dragged from dragged from his hospital bed and brutally lynched in front of the courthouse in front of a crowd of 2,000. Body parts were cut from him as souvenirs. His dead body was later dragged through the street by a rope and his body set afire. What remained of his charred corpse was hung from a lamp pole in an African American section of town as a warning.

Once again, in the official story, Green Davis and his family were slain in Taylorville in 1931 in an alleged dispute over wages. Euel Lee, an African American who worked for Davis was arrested. White International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and companions were beaten outside the courthouse in Snow Hill when a white mob couldn’t get their hands on Lee.

Despite Ades’ efforts in winning a precedent-setting Maryland retrial based on exclusion of African Americans from juries, Lee was hanged in Baltimore October 28, 1933.

CIO Organizer Leif Dahl 1936

Leif Dahl of the CIO Cannery Workers Union

New Unions of CIO United Workers

However, barbaric, racially motivated violence wasn’t the only force in play in the middle of the Great Depression.

New unions that ultimately became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were organizing workers into single industrial unions of all races and sexes–not along the craft lines of most unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), where African Americans and women were often excluded. The new unions were also winning wage gains from employers.

In 1937, a single employer, the Phillips Packing Company that employed over 2,000 workers canning vegetables grown on local farms, dominated Cambridge. The CIO, through the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing & Allied Workers, headed locally by Leif Dahl, had begun to organize the plant covertly and at least one organizer had obtained work at the plant.

The Cannery union was a recent arrival on the shore, but was already well known to workers for its attempts to organize migratory field workers and seafood workers.

Wildcat Strike Begins

On the evening of June 23, 1937, a relatively small number of workers at the can-making factory within the massive Phillips plant struck after the company announced plans to reduce the workforce. The strike quickly spread to the rest of the workforce that was engaged in packing.

Loading Stringbeans for Packinghouse Near Cambridge: 1937

Migratory field workers initially joined the strike

That night, a crowd of 1,000 marched through the streets rallying support and overturning trucks carrying vegetables. The workers were majority African American with a substantial minority of whites. For the first few days of the strike they convinced migratory bean pickers who were destitute and lived in farmer provided shanties to join the strike.

AFL Unions Try Quick Deal

Strikers Rally Cambridge Md: 1937 – Hi-Res

A woman, possibly Anna Neary, speaks to a crowd of strikers.

A woman, possibly Anna Neary, addresses strikers.[/caption]

The next day on June 24, Anna Neary (the only high-ranking female AFL organizer) appeared and the company president Albanus Phillips opened negotiations with her and concluded a quick agreement that included a relatively small 10% wage increase and the recognition of the AFL union.

Many CIO supporters believed that the company had invited the AFL to undercut them and that the wage increase was too small. At a mass meeting, the proposal was voted down.

March on Jail Frees Black Striker

That night, 1,000 predominantly white strikers and their supporters gathered at the jail to demand the release of James “Midnight” McKnight who had been arrested earlier in the day during a confrontation with truck drivers. McKnight was charged with disorderly conduct after a trucker was hit with a rock.

Overturned Truck During 1937 Cambridge Strike – Hi-Res

Overturned vegetable truck at Phillips Plant B

The sheriff, confronted with the likelihood of more violence, released McKnight on the promise of the strikers to refrain from more violence that night. It was probably the only instance of a predominantly white crowd marching on a jail to free (and not lynch) an African American south of the Mason Dixon line since Reconstruction.

The victory, however, was short-lived. On the following day of June 25, John Cephas, an African-American, was killed by a truck loaded with vegetables that swerved and struck him beside a road near the plant. Cephas was an occasional worker at the plant who had come out to support the strikers.

Over the next few days, the strikers tried to rally support, enlisting favorable merchants and closing the stores of those opposed the strike.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Phillips workers apparently signing union cards

Strike Falters

By June 30, the strike was beginning to falter. When police arrested one of the strikers, a crowd of only 200 was mustered at the local police station and held back by a dozen local policemen. The strikers eventually raised enough bail money to get him out. Meetings were attended by less than 300.

The AFL tried to set up a number of different unions—for cannery workers, truck drivers and packing workers—further dividing workers. Neary claimed to the company that she could settle the strike without a vote by workers and would accept the previous offer of a 10% increase.

Phillips rejected Neary’s offer and violence increased. Strikers stoned trucks and guards fired on the strikers, wounding James Powell. Police then arrested Powell.

Strikers also clashed with police who broke up their picket line. One striker, James Roberts, suffered a three-inch gash from a police club. Several more strikers were arrested.

Truck Overturned During Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Strike sign on the pole reads, “We can’t live on $9.80 a week, 40¢ no less.”

Company Union Created

Phillips, through a Merchants Association, set up a company union called the Cambridge Workers Association. He quickly recognized the bogus union and “settled” the strike for the original offer of 10%. A quick trial of Powell, the striker who was shot, resulted in a 12-month jail sentence for Powell.

The strike began to crumble and Phillips re-opened some of the plant. Phillips filed suit against the town for damages as a result of the strike. By July 9, the strike was over. A number of strikers were sentenced to jail by the local courts.

The AFL and CIO settled their differences over the Phillips plant in the aftermath of the strike with the CIO taking jurisdiction over the packing house workers while the AFL accepted truck drivers.

The National Labor Relations Board twice ruled against Phillips’ company union and ordered several strikers reinstated, but the cause was lost. The CIO Cannery union lost a final close vote in 1947 to the company union at a time when the Cannery union was accused of communist leadership.

Gloria Richardson brushes off National Guard: 1963

Gloria Richardson brushes off the National Guard: Cambridge, Md., 1963

Victory in the 1960s

The company-inspired union continued to “represent” the workers and acted as a hiring hall and helped to screen out workers who may try to organize a union that would act more forcefully.

The Phillips Company continued to dominate Cambridge until the mid 1950s when the company began to layoff workers. The company was sold to Consolidate Foods in 1957. The United Packinghouse Workers finally broke into non-union Cambridge when it organized the Coastal Food Plant in the 1960s when local civil rights activists led by Gloria Richardson joined their efforts.

A Third View of Factory F: 2014

Phillips Packing Company Factory F in 2014

Editors Notes:

Looking back at this strike and its ultimate failure is an agonizing exercise in “what ifs?”

The CIO organizing drives of the 1930s provided hope to thousands of workers on the Shore, both black and white. The defeat at the Phillips Packing Co., however, insured that any organizing would not fundamentally challenge Jim Crow.

Today little remains of the packing industry in Cambridge, Maryland. Visiting the site of this great failed strike requires a bit of imagination.

Location of Phillips Packing Factory B: 2014

Phillips Packing Co. Factory B occupied the upper left corner of the intersection of Washington St & these tracks in Cambridge, Md.

In 1965, Factory B and a number of other buildings burned, leaving only a small administrative office that still stands today and is occupied by the Coastal Gunite Construction Company at 16 Washington Street (across the street from a Wawa).

The massive Phillips complex that was composed of several dozen buildings is now reduced to the administrative office and Building F on Dorchester Street (the building next to Packing House Antique Mall and a small vacant building where two smokestacks still stand. Also standing is some of the boiler building and a smokestack across the railroad tracks behind Building F.

________________________________________________

For additional images related to the strike, see https://www.flickr.com/photos/washington_area_spark/sets/72157631308678086/

For a related article, see “600 Black Women Stand Strong, the 1938 Crab Pickers Strike,” http://washingtonspark.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/600-black-women-stand-strong-the-1938-crab-pickers-strike/

 

Miami Means Fight Back: 1972

26 Apr

Miami Means Fight Back: 1972

by Bob Simpson
Originally published in the Montgomery Spark, Vol. 2, No. 1, September 6, 1972

One of the most striking aspects of the demonstrations around the Republican National Convention was their total isolation from the actual convention. Surrounded by a high chain-link fence and phalanxes of well-armed cops, the grim, white-washed convention hall might as well have been on the moon.

Unlike the Democratic convention, where at least some of the street people harbored thoughts about influencing the process, no one at the Republican protests talked of opening a dialogue with the delegates. It was our volunteer army of protesters vs. their uniformed security forces. Whether expressed violently or not, this feeling of uncompromising confrontation dominated the entire week.

Diverse Group

Gay Love for the Vietnamese: 1972

Demonstrators were a diverse lot. Photo: John Buckley, courtesy Florida State Archives.

We were a diverse lot, covering a wide spectrum. Gays, feminists, Zippies, SDS, Yippies, Attica Brigade, Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, Route One Brigade, pacifists, and hundreds of independents made an uneasy and sometimes very difficult alliance.

Rampant sexism within the Park angered gays, feminists and some straight men. Women were harassed by men looking for an easy lay. Two attempted rapes were broken up, one by a man assigned to camp security, the other by the women’s Anti-Rape Squad. Gays were seen by many straights as a carnival sideshow.

Viet Vets March in Miami Against War: 1972

Vietnam Veterans Against the War lead a march. Photo: Tony Schweikle, Florida State Archives.

There were conflicts between the pacifists and the violence advocates, between the rival Zippies and Yippies, and between the many passive dope smokers and those more active protesters. The VVAW suffered a series of ripoffs within their own encampment. Some of the people assigned to camp security became overzealous and tempers flared. We had many problems but we did our best to deal with them.

No Serious Problems Among Protesters

Compared to other similar gatherings, we were fairly successful. Hard drugs were at an absolute minimum. After the first two near-rapes in the beginning of the week, security was tightened and there were no more reports of that particular activity. While arguments between different groups and individuals were often loud, there was little actual physical fighting.

Women March Against Nixon: 1972

Women’s March in Miami, 1972. Liberation News Service.

The protest activities were generally spirited and unified. The Gay Rights march and the Women’s march both displayed the loving solidarity that has grown up with these movements. The Veterans displayed a serious discipline in all their activities. One of their marches was held in complete silence to emphasize their feeling that there is nothing else to say about the war.The Zippies injected their bizarre humor by bringing Coke bottles, Barbie dolls and other symbols of plastic America and pissing on them.

Viet Cong Flag Passes Miami Police: 1972

Protestors carried large colorful flags and banners like this NLF flag. Photo: Tony Schweikle, Florida State Archives.

The Attica Brigade from New York, SDS, and the Route One Brigade (consisting of people associated with the University of Maryland and Montgomery College in Rockville) provided militant anti-capitalist-anti-imperialist solidarity to the large all-camp protests. With large colorful banners and flags from many liberation movements, including Vietnam, Laos and Palestine, they helped to spark the forceful blocking of delegates and the eventual fighting back against the police offensive.

Support from Community

The surrounding community of Miami Beach gave us a surprising amount of support. Many of the older people in this retirement colony supported our struggle against Nixon and his policies. One older man came up during a rally and said the Arthur Bremer was not only a bad shot, but that he had hit the wrong person, clearly indicating Nixon. Another older woman said that she supported us and wished that we would kill Nixon.

Miami Residents Mix with Protesters: 1972

Protests received support from the community. Photo: John Buckley, Florida State Archives.

Other older people offered us food and water as we moved through the streets and alleys trying to evade police. A community meeting to explore Nixon’s policies toward the old drew surprising support. Speakers condemned the war, wage-price controls and the paltry social security and pension benefits available.

Many older people stayed with us in the park during the day, discussing the issues which interested them. When a group of Nazis were forcibly evicted from Flamingo Park, the older Jewish people from the surrounding community gave us encouragement. Even during the street battles of Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we were offered water by apartment residents, to wash away the teargas. The solidarity was impressive and difficult to convey to those who weren’t there.

Confrontations with Police Begin

Until Tuesday night, most of the rallies and marches led by various groups were peaceful. But events Tuesday night caused an increased militance on the part of many participants. A large “Street Without Joy” was organized. People lined the streets with death masks and symbols of Nixon’s murderous policies. Guerilla theaters in front of the convention hall showed large papier-mâché B-52s bombing Vietnamese peasants.

The Attica Brigade, SDS and the Route One Brigade were angered by the portrayal of the Vietnamese as passive victims. They chanted “Vietnamese Fight Back!” while shouldering their flag poles and “shooting” at the American bombers. Eventually these chants influenced the guerilla theatre and the planes were torn apart, set afire and hurled over the fence at the surprised police inside.

Anti-Vietnam War Protesters Block Street: 1972

Demonstrators attempted to block convention delegates. Here they are piling sandbags across a road to block cars. Photo: John Buckley, Florida State Archives.

Militants then marched around the block and attempted to block delegates’ entrance. Delegates were verbally harassed. Several fights broke out. As people’s anger arose, delegates sere spat upon and objects were hurled at advancing police. Chanting “Attica Means Fight Back”, protesters did what they could to make their slogan a reality. Many protesters who had watched from the sidelines joined in.

Battle Rages

Watching the well-heeled, well-dressed representatives of rich white America, which wages war on Southeast Asia and on the streets of America, brought out an almost uncontrollable rage. These moral degenerates were people bent on another four years of war, wage controls and repression and racism. Anger spilled over. Police responded with clubs, tear gas and mace. The battled raged on into the night until most of the protesters returned to the camp.

Wednesday protests were thrown into complete chaos. Demonstrators moving into the streets Wednesday afternoon found large numbers of very hostile police. Several Route One Brigade members had their flags seized and were threatened by Miami Beach police while on their way to the convention site. They were walking in a group of seven.

Miami Police Officer Fires Mace at a Protester: 1972

Demonstrators were maced on the way to convention site. Photo: Tony Schweikle, Florida State Archives.

Demonstrators who managed to evade police and reach the convention area divided into sit-in groups and mobile groups. Barricades were hastily thrown up to prevent traffic from coming into the convention area. These efforts were met with mace, tear gas and clubs. People who were sitting-in were often maced and sometimes beaten. Those arrested were thrown into the backs of dark, hot, unventilated trucks. Some people collapsed from heat exhaustion while on their way to the jails.

Exceptional Bravery

People remaining in the convention area showed exceptional bravery. About a thousand people were completely cut off next to the Doral Hotel, where Republican headquarters were. They defied police orders to move. Many were arrested in a militant sit-in while others later joined the street fighting. Even after most of the demonstrators had been driven back to Flamingo Park, people continued to organize new protests.

Police Tear Gas Protesters in Miami: 1972

While demonstrators fled the gas, others advanced. Photo: John Buckley, Florida State Archives.

At least three spontaneous night marches left the park to penetrate areas held by thousands of police. People left the park in silence armed against police interference with rocks and improvised wooden staves. Fading into alleys when the helicopters would flash their searchlights into the streets, one group managed to reach a bridge leading into the Doral Hotel. When police ordered them to disperse, they broke their silence by chanting “Tear Gas Up Your Ass!”

Soon gas covered the area as people trashed banks and other political targets while fighting back against a numerically superior police force. None of the three groups which left the park was larger than 400 people. All showed exceptional courage in the face of overwhelming police tactical superiority.

Defending the Park

Back at the park, people went about organizing a defense of the area in case the police tried to clear out the tent city. Caches of rocks were scattered about, runners and communications were set up, and people armed themselves with stout poles. Barricades were thrown up around some park entrances. Squad cars responded to these preparations by racing up and down a street adjacent to the park, occasionally tossing gas into the encampment.

Miami Police Ready Clubs: 1972

Police ready their clubs during convention protests. Photo: John Buckley, Florida State Archives.

A large group of state police penetrated park defenses at one point but retreated within a few minutes after a tense confrontation. It was decided by several people that the speeding police cars represented a threat so that for about two hours each squad car was bombarded with rocks to drive it away. Eventually Miami Beach police set up roadblocks to prevent police cars from harassing the park occupants.

The last night of protests showed that the people in the park were prepared to move aggressively against police as well as defend their encampment. Had the police invaded the camp in earnest, we would have been defeated and driven out, but the cops would have paid a heavy price. Similar solidarity was shown by those in jail. Most refused bond and stayed in jail until bonds for all were reduced. This tactic was very successful and almost all were released with 24 hours.

Antiwar Encampment at Flamingo Park: 1972

Tent encampment at Flamingo Park can be seen in the background. Photo:Tony Schweikle, Florida State Archives.

While the number of people who came to Miami Beach was less than 5,000 and many serious problems arose within the camp, the overall spirit and determination was very high. People left Miami Beach determined to carry on and expand the battle against the system which created the monstrosity of Richard Nixon. Every reader of this paper is strongly urged to participate in this struggle.

ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE


Route 1 Brigade Banner: 1972

Route One Brigade banner carried during protests at the Republican National Convention in Miami, 1972. It was the only time this banner was carried at a protest. Photo: Bob Simpson.

This article was compiled by several members of the Route One Brigade who participated in the Convention protests. The Brigade consisted of about 35 Maryland residents and included several students from Montgomery College. The group took its name from the Route One occupations at the University of Maryland, as well as the periodic seizures of Route One in Vietnam by the NLF.


Editor’s Notes

The version above is the same as the original published in the Montgomery Spark, except that headers and additional images have been added. The confrontation at the Miami Beach Republican Convention August 21-23, 1972 was one of the last of the Vietnam War era. 

The Route One Brigade delegation to the Miami protests was infiltrated by a female provocateur and police informant named “Dee” that participants believe led to police knowing almost every move they made. After the demonstrations were over, disaster was narrowly averted when a van carrying eight of the Brigade participants was sabotaged when someone loosened the lug nuts on a rear wheel. Fortunately no one was injured.

 

30 Days in May: U of MD 1970

29 May
U of MD Students Denounce Killings at Kent State: May 1970

U. of Md. May 5, 1970 after four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post

Introduction

The University of Maryland had a relatively small core of activists during the upheavals of the 1960s, protesting for civil rights and later against the Vietnam War. Demonstrations were held on campus against military and CIA recruiters, against the draft and against the Vietnam War, but they usually involved no more than 100-200 students.

U of MD Building Occupation: April 1970

Md. students seize campus building in April 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

In the March 1970, two popular professors were denied tenure by the school and students occupied a building to demand a greater say in university affairs. Eight-seven students were arrested and a student-faculty activist group was formed out of the demonstrations. When President Richard Nixon announced he was invading Cambodia on April 30, 1970, the first mass demonstrations against the war began on the campus. When four students were shot to death by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4, a nationwide student strike was called and a majority of students at Maryland boycotted classes.

The following account was written shortly after the month long strike and demonstrations that included two occupations of the campus by the Maryland National Guard.


30 Days Last May

by the Democratic Radical Union of Maryland
From the Radical Guide to the University of Maryland, Aug. 1970

April 30

Nixon announces the invasion of Cambodia by U.S. troops. The Concerned Students and Faculty, a group formed after the arrest of 87 people in the Skinner Building sit-in in March, called for a rally on the mall the next day in response.

Police Advance on Anti-Vietnam War Protesters in College Park MD: May 1970

Police advance on Md. students occupying U.S. Route 1 on May 1, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 1

The mall rally is held. After hearing several speakers, the crowd marches on the ROTC offices in the armory. After some trashing, Route 1 is taken over. Around 6 PM, Marshmallow Marvin Mandel sends the police to clear the road. The pigs inform the students that their demonstration is illegal. The crowd responds that Nixon is murdering Indochinese and Americans ~ which is also illegal. To nobody’s surprise, the pigs do not march on the White House, but instead charge the students using clubs and tear gas. Following the Nixon strategy of no sanctuary, the cops shoot tear gas into dormitories: Montgomery Hall, Annapolis Hall and other hill area residents are forced to evacuate. Often the cops would wait at the dorm doors and club students coming out to avoid the gas. About 10 are arrested during the afternoon, additional arrests are made throughout the night. The battle lasts until 3 AM.

U of MD Student Dragged from Dorm: May 1970

Police drag student from dormitory May 1, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 2

What begins as a more or less ordinary Saturday night soon becomes another night of confrontation and protest. Route 1 is again liberated. At about 3:30AM approximately 150 cops mass behind the Plain and Fancy donut shop in College Park and then charge in, arresting 28 startled customers. (Most were talking and eating, two were playing chess. One was asleep in his chair. A girl was arrested in “hot pursuit”- she was on crutches at the time because of a foot injury.) The authorities’ rationale seemed to be that if they stomped hard enough, people would stick their heads in the sand.

Students Move on Police Lines at U of MD: May 1970

Students confront police after being driven off U.S. Route 1 on May 4, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 4

A rally is held beginning at 11:30 on the mall. By 11:35 the Administration Building was occupied by students; by 12:30 people are again·demonstrating on Route 1. Marshmallow Marvin proclaims a state of emergency. The pigs move in around 6 PM– Marvin has mobilized 500 National Guard, 350 State Police, 70 PG County Police, 200 Baltimore City cops, Kersey’s Keystone Kops too! 4000 students are cleared by gas and clubs. A curfew is put on the campus area at 8:30 PM. Over 200 people are arrested, and Larry Babits, an anthropology graduate assistant, is shot in the rear with buckshot. At Kent State, Ohio, four students are killed by National Guard bullets.

Guard Commander Addresses U of MD Students: May 1970

Guard commander met with chant “Pigs off campus” during rally May 5, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 5

Classes are called for a “foreign policy discussion day.” 3000 hear Dr. Spock on the mall. Nationally, the student strike begins.

May 6

The student strike begins at the University of Maryland–pickets are set up and a large number of students boycott classes. At 8:30 PM 1500 students force the administration to open Cole Field House for a mass meeting. Discussion leads to the formation of a strike steering committee and various working committees. The three demands of the national student strike are adopted by the Maryland strikers.

MD Student Extinguished Tear Gas Canister: May 1970

Students use fire extinguishers to suppress tear gas May 1, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 7

Picketing continues, with a large boycott of classes resulting. At 4 PM an assembly of about 1000 faculty gathers in Cole Field House, with about 7000 students in the audience. The faculty assembly first passed a motion urging that police actions on campus involving more than five men be effected without the introduction of firearms. The second motion passed set up facilities on the campus for persons wishing to camp at Maryland while attending the demonstration behind the White House on May 9. During the assembly, word was received that the administration had sent word to the press and radio that the University would be closed from May 8 to May 11, so that its facilities would not be available to students or guests. This led· the faculty to pass a motion stating:

This body expresses its lack of confidence in the administration, and its specific censure of this action (the closing of the University) taken without consent of this body and released to the press without consultation. This University will remain open as of May 8th and the rest of the semester so that all students who wish to attend classes may do so, and so that students who prefer to strike may do so without penalty as long as they do the required amount of work for the courses in consultation with their professors. That a committee of three be appointed by the chair immediately to inform the administration that the faculty and students do not accept their decision to close the University and demand that they reconsider.

Police Move Onto U of MD Campus Using Tear Gas: May 1970

Police with pepper fogger pass Cecil Hall May 1, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The assembly then passed resolutions calling for the immediate withdrawal of all American personnel from Indochina, and an end to repression of black people in the United States and in particular an end to the repression of the Black Panther Party. These motions were essentially endorsements of the first two demands of the national student strike. Finally, the body passed a motion creating a committee to work on obtaining an injunction against the closing of the University. This proved unnecessary however– in the face of the solidarity and determination of faculty and students, the administration was forced to give in and withdraw the closing order.

Students Occupy Route 1 Protesting War & Kent State: May 1970

Students occupy U.S. Route 1 May 4, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 8

As the strike continued, administration sources (Waetjen) estimated the class boycott to be 65-70% effective. Sargent Shriver addressed a memorial rally for the Kent 4 held at the Chapel. Preparations were made for out-of-towners coming for the May 9 White House demonstration.

May 9

100,000 demonstrated on the Ellipse behind the White House. The demonstration, which had been set up with very little preparation after the Cambodian invasion, proved two things: the tremendous antipathy Americans had come to have for the war, and the total lack of a program on the part of the New Mobilization, which had called the demonstrations. The University of Maryland fed and housed over 2000 visitors over the weekend.

PhD Urges Takeover of ROTC Building at U of MD: May 1970

Dr. Gregory Dunkel urges takeover of ROTC building May 11, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 11

Strikers held a mass meeting in Cole Field House to consider further action against ROTC. A motion to take over the Armory loses by about 1800 to 1200. However, because many felt that a militant action was required, a group of strikers briefly occupied the building anyway. Later a large group formed spontaneously on Route 1. The police stay away, leaving the faculty group of green armband marshals (which had patrolled the campus over the weekend) to maintain order. No disorder occurred, primarily because no pigs were present, and the “block party” ended around 2:30 AM. By way of contrast, 6 black people were murdered by cops in Augusta, Georgia this same evening. Later reports showed that all were shot in the back.

Professor Against U of MD Building Takeover: May 1970

Professor argues against building takeover May 11, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 12

Another faculty assembly is held, to consider grading procedures for striking students. Over 1000 faculty, and close to 10,000 students, were present. Two main plans are put forward: the Aylward proposal, developed by an ad-hoc committee chaired by Professor Aylward of the Speech Department, and the proposal that had been made several days earlier by the strike steering committee and was moved at the faculty assembly by Professor Chapeles of Government and Politics. While both plans adopted the principle that there should be no academic penalty for striking, the Aylward proposal lacked a number of safeguards that would have protected students from being screwed by reactionary teachers. The assembly decided to submit the two plans to a faculty referendum.

Students Again Seize U.S. Route 1 in War Protest: May 1970

Students again seize U.S. Route 1 in war protest May 11, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 13

A memorial service was held on the mall for the six killed in Augusta. Speakers included the Rev. Channing Phillips, John Clark from the Baltimore Black Panthers, and a member of the University Black Student Union, Woody Farrar. On this day a number of instances of repression came to light– Leonard Cohen, a physical plant worker, was fired for strike activity, and Charlie and Jim Schrader were kicked off the track team for being seen at strike rallies. The Student Government Association legislature, which had been more or less dormant since the beginning of the strike, stated that it would lead an occupation of Route 1 if the Chapeles (strike committee) grading plan were not accepted •

National Guard Outside Taliaferro Hall at U of MD: May 1970

National Guard outside Taliaferro Hall May 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 14

The administration served notice that it was trying to re-establish its power by refusing to permit SDS the use of University loudspeakers for a noon rally. A rally organized by the strike steering committee began (with loudspeakers) at 7 PM. Around 7:30 the rally received the results of the grading referendum– the Aylward proposal won, 1583 to 698. The overwhelming student sentiment, as evidenced by over 10,000 signatures supporting the strike committee proposals, was ignored. By 8 PM Route 1 was liberated by 5000 students. At 10 PM the National Guard moved in, firing 50 rounds of tear gas and pepper gas within ten minutes. The ensuing battle was the bitterest of the strike.

U of MD Student Tosses Tear Gas Canister Back to Police: May 1970

Student tosses tear gas back toward National Guard and police lines May 1970.

Students chanting “pigs off campus” and “l-2-3-4, we don’t want your fucking war!” picked up tear gas canisters and threw them back at the Guard. General Warfield, trying to advance onto the campus, found he was unable to do so until reinforcements arrived at midnight, bringing the Guard’s strength up to 1200 men. In the intervening period the administration building received a serious trashing. About 100 arrests were made.

May 15

Early in the morning Marshmallow Marvin proclaims a new state of emergency which essentially makes National Guard General Edwin Warfield the military dictator of the University of Maryland. Warfield begins by banning 25 students, whose names were supplied by the administration, from the campus. Meetings of over 100 people are prohibited. Scheduled meetings of the faculty assembly and the University Senate are cancelled.

Professor Leads Group to Extinguish Fire at U of MD: May 1970

Students extinguish fire at administration building May 14, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 16

Meeting off campus (at Catholic University Law School) the strike steering committee votes to defy the ban on rallies by holding a mass rally on the mall on Monday May 17. Ten students were issued felony warrants. (Note: On June 19th the Grand Jury ruled that there was insufficient evidence for the felony charges and changed the charges to misdemeanors.)

May 17

Frank Greer and Elizabeth Miller, members of the strike steering committee who were banned from campus, go to court with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to obtain an injunction against Warfield’s eviction notices. The judge refuses to issue an injunction, but the orders banning Greer and Miller are voluntarily rescinded by the University, and the court does require that a degree of due process be introduced into the hearings of students appealing their banishment. (Originally the fair-minded General Warfield had set up an appeals board composed of Vice President Waetjen, Campus Security Director Witsil, and a National Guard officer. Since Waetjen and Witsil were the very ones who provided the list of students for Warfield to ban, this was not exactly an impartial board.)

Occupying Administration Building at U of MD: May 1970

Occupying administration building at U. of Md. May 4, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 18

More than 1000 people gather on the mall to violate the rally ban. A half hour before the rally Warfield backs down and-gives permission, thus making it legal. Word is received that students are being harassed by the FBI and the strike steering committee attempts to inform people of their right to refuse to talk to the pigs. Diamondback photographs are subpoenaed. Members of the anthropology, sociology and economics departments announce a faculty strike, refusing to teach until the military presence on the campus is ended.

May 19

Gregory Dunkel, a member of the strike steering committee and a University alumnus (Ph.D, mathematics) receives a special letter from President Elkins barring him from the campus.

State Police Arrest Student Occupying U.S. Route 1: May 1970

Police arrest student occupying U.S. Route 1 May 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 20

The rally ban is again challenged, when 1500 students stage a midnight march to President Elkins’ house, in memoriam to those killed at Kent, Augusta, and Jackson State. Earlier in the day the Diamondback had reported that the Board of Regents planned to vote the University’s GM stock in opposition to Ralph Nader’s “Campaign GM proposal, which would put consumer representatives on the GM Board of Directors. The newspapers also carried newly released testimony by J. Edgar Hoover in which he called student protesters communists (won’t the old [deleted for offensive language] ever die?)

Jane Fonda Speaks to Antiwar Rally at U of Md.: May 1970

Activist actress Jane Fonda speaks at Md. antiwar rally May 22, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 22

The last major rally was held– 3000 students heard Jane Fonda and Mark Lane talk about the GI movement. After the rally about 15 students go with Fonda and Lane to Fort Meade to try and leaflet the soldiers. They are arrested by military authorities and expelled from the base.

May 24

A small meeting of members of the steering committee plans activity for the summer and fall.

May 26

The strike steering committee officially disbands itself, and forms the Democratic Radical Union of Maryland (DRUM) to continue its work on a permanent basis.

POSTSCRIPT TO THE STRIKE

On Thursday evening May 14, while several thousand students liberated route 1, a smaller group occupied the administration building. Lt. Downs of the campus kops was present at the building with several other police, and told the students that they would be arrested if they did not leave.

However they occupied the building for over an hour, leaving of their own volition by about 9:30 PM. No arrests were made. By about 10:30 PM the building was empty except for police.

Damage from Attempted Arson at U of MD: May 1970

Damage during second occupation of administration building May 14, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Then a group of people passing by the administration building– probably fleeing from tear gas attacks– threw some rocks through the windows. Apparently the cops thought it prudent to leave. The building was then occupied for the second time, and thoroughly trashed.

It is important to realize that neither the police nor the administration has any idea who participated in the second occupation. In their anger and frustration the pigs arrested nine students, most of whom were known activists, under felony warrants in connection with the trashing.

The original warrants charged breaking and entering, destruction of state property, etc etc . The felony charges were dropped by the grand jury on June 16, and replaced by misdemeanors. Later in the summer the charges were again revised. The trials are scheduled to begin the first week of classes.

Despite all the talk about burning and destruction, the charges are essentially trivial. One student is accused of ·rearranging the letters on the directory to spell out the strike demands. Why then are the nine students being prosecuted? The answer lies in the administration’s continued insistence that a small group of radicals is responsible for the campus unrest. These students must not be made the victims of the administration’s inability to understand that a revolution has taken place in apathetic College Park. DEFEND THE MARYLAND NINE!


Cover of the Radical Guide to the University of Maryland: 1970

Cover of the DRUM Radical Guide, published Aug. 1970.

Postscript by the Editor

The radicalization that occurred during 1970 at the University of Maryland carried over into the next two years, resulting in National Guard occupation of the campus again in 1971 and 1972. The upheaval, however, failed to generate any ongoing organization among the students. The Democratic Radical Union of Maryland (DRUM) produced by the 1970 strike was a spirited, but short-lived organization.

A defense effort around the Maryland Nine resulted in five acquittals in jury trials. Three other students entered into plea bargain agreements. One of those charged, Larry Dean, was convicted and served three months in jail. Over 400 other students were arrested during the month long demonstrations, but charges were dropped against most for lack of evidence.


Back cover of the Radical Guide to the University of Maryland: 1970

Back cover of the Radical Guide with its hidden message.

Want to see and read more?

See the complete Radical Guide here. The Radical Guide contains “30 Days Last May” in its original context, an extensive explanation of DRUM’s five demands, an essay advocating non-violence and an essay advocating violence, a map of a battle plan and tactical advice for confrontations along with on and off-campus activist information. Take time to look at the back cover of the Radical Guide which has an expletive along with university president Elkins name hidden within it.

See photos related to the 1970 U. of Md. strike and demonstrations here
See photos related to the 1971 U. of Md. demonstrations here
See photos related to the 1972 U. of Md. demonstrations here

Shootings by DC Police Spark Fight Against Brutality 1936-41

20 Apr

A campaign from 1936-41 against police brutality in Washington, D.C. was led by the local National Negro Congress, which built a broad-based coalition. They won a sharp decline in the number of police shootings, a police review board, and new political power in an early civil rights struggle in the city.


Marchers Gather to Protest Police Brutality in DC: 1941

DC rally against police brutality Sept. 14, 1941. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Historical Image Collection. All rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Leonard Basey was out with co-workers on the evening of August 30, 1936 enjoying a respite from the work and barracks life in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp located at 26th and M Streets NE in Washington, D.C. The unit was doing the physical labor to build the infrastructure for the National Arboretum.

Basey was part of a group of young enlistees in Company 1360 in camp NA-1-DC, an African American post with white officers.

That night, Basey was walking with five other men from the camp, who were laughing and joking loudly as they walked along M Street toward Bladensburg Road through a predominantly white neighborhood.

Later testifying that he received a phone call from someone disturbed by the noise, police officer Vivian H. Landrum left his home in the neighborhood and approached the youths near 17th and M Streets NE. Landry placed the group under arrest and walked them to a police call box near Bladensburg Road and M Street NE.

When Basey questioned the arrest Landry reportedly responded, “Shut up, and don’t give me too much lip, or I’ll fill you full of lead,” according to a companion’s later testimony reported in the Afro American.

It was then that he “grabbed Basey, who was standing sideways toward him, spun him around and shot him in the abdomen,” said Basey’s companion, according to the same article.

He was just another black man who was the victim of a police murder in Washington, D.C…. or was he?

National Negro Congress

The first national convention of the National Negro Congress (NNC) took place in February of 1936 in Chicago. The NNC was formed to fill the void left by the NAACP’s reliance on a legal and lobbying strategy and would be more of an activist organization, engaging in pickets, protests and direct action to advance the cause of African American rights.

National Negro Congress Leaders at Banquet: 1940

NNC leaders John P. Davis (left) and A. Phillip Randolph (right) in March, 1940.

The NAACP had often placed a greater emphasis on issues of concern to the black elite, while the NNC was based in the black working class and was composed of many local African American union leaders along with a significant section of the black intelligentsia.

The founding Congress contained a relatively small group of activist ministers. Two national board members of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins and Charles Hamilton Houston, also attended. The NAACP as an organization, however, boycotted the group’s formation, although a number of leaders of local chapters attended.

The NNC attracted members with political views across the spectrum, including Democrats, Republicans, socialists and communists. The NNC selected A. Phillip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as its president and John P. Davis as executive secretary. Its headquarters was established in Washington, D.C.

Local Washington NNC

In contrast to the national convention, the Washington, D.C. chapter almost immediately gained wide representation among the black clergy.  Rev. William H. Jernagin, the former president of the National Race Congress, a previous broad-based African American organization, lived in the city and attended the first NNC convention.

Longtime Rights Leader Rev. William H. Jernagin: 1940 ca

Rev. William H. Jernagin circa 1940.

Jernagin was also a local rights activist and after the convention he persuaded the influential Interdenominational Ministers Alliance to affiliate with the local NNC.

These ministers were quickly able to prevail upon the local Elks, NAACP, the New Negro Alliance and other District of Columbia groups to join with the local NNC either directly or in coalition. A minister, Rev. Arthur D. Gray, was elected president of the local NNC.

The D. C. NNC began taking up issues of race discrimination in employment and the issue of police brutality.

In the Spring of 1936, during a meeting held at the Metropolitan Baptist Church to call for freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys,” Davis called for expanding the cause to fight police brutality in the city.

According to Erik Gellman in Death Blow to Jim Crow, William Hastie, a Howard University professor, told the crowd,

It doesn’t matter whether a person is hanged by an unauthorized mob or by an organized mob known as the law.

The city commissioners and the police department didn’t know it yet, but a new force had risen to challenge police violence.

Newspapers Report Self-Defense

The day after Basey was shot, the Washington Post reported

…Landrum fired at the man when Basey and several others rushed the policeman to prevent his arrest of another man who was with them.

DC National Negro Congress President Rev. Arthur D. Gray: 1940 ca

Washington branch NNC president Rev. Arthur D. Gray.

Basey died September 1 at the Casualty Hospital at 3rd and B Streets SE. The Afro American initially reported as part of a headline, “Policeman Fires as Gang Demands his Prisoner.”

But the official story began to unravel as witnesses came forward.

In testimony before a coroner’s jury inquest on September 3, white witnesses testified that Landrum was surrounded and did not draw his gun until after the group reached the call box.

One 11-year-old white youth said “Basey had his arm drawn back as if to strike Landrum when he was shot,” according to the Afro American. But the youth admitted that Landrum and another white man had talked to him the following day about being a witness for the defense.

When Landrum himself testified, he contradicted the white witnesses and admitted that the group did not surround him and he drew his service weapon as soon as the group was arrested.

‘Vision’ Flashed Through Policeman’s Mind

He also testified that the reason none of the youths struck him was because he fired his weapon when “a vision of officer Kennedy at Truxton Circle flashed through my mind.” He was referring to a police slaying by three youths at Logan Circle in 1932.

A later letter to the Washington Post characterized Landrum’s testimony thusly,

The officers’ tale resembled that of the sportsman who arrested for catching black bass out of season, maintained that he had taken the fish in self-defense, since they had jumped out of the water and bitten him.

African American CCC Camp Under Construction: 1934

CCC Camp NA-1-DC under construction in 1934.

Landrum’s testimony and that of other defense witnesses was disputed by the other CCC youths, but also by white CCC camp commander Richmond Bowen, who came on the scene shortly before the shooting. A white gas station attendant also testified he was about 40 feet from the group and heard Landrum tell them, “Shut up unless you want some of it too.”

The first inquest jury, composed of four whites and one black person, deadlocked 4-1 in Landrum’s favor and a mistrial was declared.

A second inquest held September 6 heard 29 witnesses give essentially the same testimony, but at 10 pm returned with an inexplicable verdict exonerating Landrum.

We believe the said V. Harry Landrum discharged his gun when he believed his life was in jeopardy, such a belief being initiated by a mental process and not by any overt act or acts on the part of those under arrest.

Press Ramps Up Outrage

NNC executive secretary John P. Davis and A. S. Pinkett, head of the local NAACP, immediately called for the district attorney to ask a grand jury to indict Landrum for the killing and for a police trial board to be convened to dismiss Landrum from the force.

DC Killer Cop is Free: 1936

‘Killer Cop Free.’ Afro American, Sept. 12, 1936.

But the case really began to take on a life of its own when the Afro American published its story September 12 under the headline “KILLER-COP FREE.”

The Afro printed a dramatic report that,

Lawrence Basey was the fortieth colored person shot to death by Metropolitan police since 1925. Every officer involved has been exonerated. Most of the victims were under 21 years of age.

Adam Lapin of the Washington bureau of the Daily Worker jumped on the story.  The Afro shared their research with Lapin so he could detail the victims’ names, dates of death, ages, and officers involved.

Afro Lists Victims of DC Police Killings: 1936

List of the slain. Afro, Oct. 17, 1936.

The national Communist Party paper published the statistics and an accompanying story where Lapin gave additional details on some of the deaths, writing that all forty cases “are similar, indeed, all the police murders of Negroes in Washington follow the same pattern.”

For one example, Lapin wrote,

On December 9, 1933, Policeman Wallace M. Suthard shot in the abdomen and killed Robert Lewis, a Negro worker who had been placed under arrest suspected of breaking into a home. Suthard claimed that he shot in self-defense because Lewis reached for a gun. No gun was found on the dead man.

A furor directed at Washington’s police erupted. Other newspapers around the country, particularly the African American press, began to run stories about the police shootings.

Officials Refuse to Act

Evidence came out during the inquest that Landrum had a past record of shooting at CCC workers and had beaten another African American some years before without justification.

The NNC held a protest meeting at the YMCA at 1816 12th Street NW attended by several hundred people. The NNC called for Landrum’s immediate suspension and for his indictment on murder charges. The group said that Landrum “requires the attention of a psychiatrist” because the officer believed that black people were inherently violent.

Despite the outcry, District Attorney Leslie C. Garnett refused to bring charges against Landrum before a grand jury, telling Lapin he was “not interested in the case,” according to the Chicago Defender.

A. S. Pinkett, the local NAACP secretary, said in a statement,

Thus we have the picture of a policeman arresting men for being disorderly, when there was no disorder; the shooting to death of one of them by the arresting officer; a meaningless verdict by a coroner’s jury and lastly the refusal by the District Attorney to lay the facts before a grand jury.

YE GODS! And colored persons are expected to have faith in their governmental machinery.

The Chicago Defender reported that a few minutes after interviewing Superintendent of Police Major Ernest W. Brown, Lapin announced that,

Major Brown made it perfectly clear despite his professions of sympathy for the colored people that he is opposed to a Congressional investigation or any kind of investigation of police brutality. He won’t even undertake one himself.

The Afro American published an editorial on October 31 saying,

Citizens ought to keep pounding away at Major Brown’s door in an effort to find out whether the police chief sees any connection between the Afro American’s list of fifty deaths, forty of them colored youths, at the hands of quick-trigger white policemen here in the past ten years, and the fact that nearly half of these killings have occurred during his term of office.

We believe they could make him understand that four years is long enough to ‘get away with murder.’

With the issue still boiling in November, the District of Columbia commissioners refused to release data on police killings to the American Civil Liberties Union, according to Gardner Jackson, a representative of the group.

Unable to contain the broadening protests, authorities finally responded by retiring Landrum on a pension. On November 14, 1936, the police department announced during a conference with brutality opponents that Landrum is “mentally and physically unfit for further duty as an officer,” according to the Afro.

Rev. Ernest. C. Smith: 1940 ca

Rev. E. C. Smith (shown circa 1940) lobbied for a Congressional investigation.

Fight Against Brutality Broadens

The city commissioners and the police superintendent may have thought the issue would go away with Landrum’s retirement, but the local Negro Congress continued to pound away.

The city of Washington, D.C.’s affairs were overseen directly by the U.S. Congress, to an even greater extent than today, and in 1937 the NNC began lobbying for a House subcommittee investigation…

…to determine whether and to what extent the use of unnecessary and unlawful use of force by police officers…have become a menace to life, liberty and the general security within the District of Columbia.

The group also organized an effort to lobby for an African American magistrate in the District. The NNC, NAACP, Elks, Afro American, YMCA, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, Howard University and the Washington Bar Association, along with other groups, lobbied local D.C. officials and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

To ramp up the pressure for a congressional investigation, the alliance named itself the Joint Committee for Civil Rights in the District of Columbia and sponsored a series of weekly radio broadcasts on local station WOL. It was another new tactic in the fight for civil rights in the city.

In an account by the Afro of the second broadcast on March 23, 1937, John P. Davis reminded the listeners of the exoneration of police officer Landrum in Lawrence Basey’s death:

I want you to realize the meaning of such a verdict. A coroner’s jury has held that an officer who has a mental fear for his life has a right to kill another person who has done nothing to cause that fear, who is not armed, and who has submitted peacefully to arrest.

Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: 1947

E. Franklin Frazier (shown in 1947) was among the leaders of the anti-brutality fight in 1937.

In April 1937, a meeting was held under the banner of the Joint Committee at the Metropolitan Baptist Church protesting three more police killings in recent months. At the meeting William C. Hueston, education director for the Elks, called for organized action to “stop this ruthless brutality on the part of the police,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.

Other prominent leaders included John P. Davis, Judge William Hastie, Rev. William Jernigan, Julia West Hamilton, Rev. E. C. Smith, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and John C. Bruce. Similar meetings were soon organized around the city while radio broadcasts on the issue continued.

Howard U Dean of Women Lucy Slowe

Lucy Slowe was among those acting as a judge at the mock police brutality trial.

Put Police on Trial

In May the protest effort culminated with a “public trial” of Washington’s “killer cops” at the John Wesley A. M. E. Zion Church. The trial “provided a complete picture of the lawless police terror which has reigned in Washington for the past ten years,” according to the Chicago Defender.

John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress presided. Judges included Major Campbell Johnson, secretary of the YMCA; Lucy Slowe, dean of women at Howard University; Rev. Robert W. Brooks, pastor of the Lincoln Congregational Temple; the Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood; William C. Hueston, commissioner of education of the Elks; and Dr. Victor Tulane, chemistry professor at Howard University.

Those prosecuting the case included George E. C. Hayes, of Cobb, Howard and Hayes; George A. Parker, dean of the Terrell Law School; and Edward P. Lovett, of Houston and Houston.

Major Campbell Johnson in His Office: 1942

Major Campbell Johnson was another judge in the mock police brutality trial.

“Eyewitnesses to numerous unpunished police murders, citizens who have been beaten by the police and leaders of civic associations and newspaper men who have investigated police brutality gave evidence,” according to the Chicago Defender.

Hundreds had attended each of the previous meetings and even more turned out for the trial, which included a number of whites in attendance and testifying as witnesses.

“This event demonstrated the new-style tactics of the NNC: with the theatrics in front of a large public audience, the mock trial showed how the District ought to protect citizenship rights through democratic governance,” Gellman wrote in “Death Blow to Jim Crow.”

No Victory Yet

But since many in Congress overseeing District affairs had few African American constituents, there was little interest on Capitol Hill in investigating police brutality in the city.

The White House put out trial balloons for the vacant judge position for two men: Hobart Newman, a young white attorney, and William L. Houston, founder of the firm Houston & Houston, whose son Charles was leading the NAACP legal defense effort.

However, local white officials nixed Houston’s nomination and the Roosevelt administration put forward Newman’s name for the position.

The brutality continued through the winter of 1937-38.  Incidents included the beating of a Howard University student by police and the assault by police on a black man and his wife when the man did not move his parked car fast enough. Police shot a twenty-year old African American man to death when he fled a traffic accident.

Police Shoot WWI Vet in Home: 1938

Afro American March 19, 1938 photo of Leroy Keys and the house where he was slain.

New Killing Sparks New Protests

On March 8, 1938 a distraught and delusional African American World War I veteran was making noise at his sister’s house at 2470 Ontario Road NW. When police arrived Leroy Keys began shouting at them, apparently believing they were German troops.

Keys threw small household objects through the window towards the police. Two police officers opened fire and shot him dead, despite the pleas of his sister that he needed help.

Rights groups demanded charges against the two police officers, calling the shootings “wanton and unwarranted,” and said police should have used tear gas or water to subdue the clearly disturbed man, according to the Afro American.

Two coroner’s juries deadlocked and a grand jury refused to indict.

The Afro wrote, “We think Hitler is a tyrant and a brute, a ruffian and a cur. We detest him for the way he is crushing the Jew [but] don’t forget that there is a man right here at home who has his heel on our neck.”

Thirty-six organizations joined the Keys campaign, including the United Federal Workers, which called it an “urbanized form of lynching.” Invited in to the coalition, the local Communist Party (CP) began holding open-air meetings around the city.

Martin Chancey, local CP secretary, told a gathering at 10th & U Streets NW that

We don’t hear of lynchings in Washington in the same manner as in Georgia or Alabama, but lynchings are perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect human life and property–the members of the District police force.

Chancey went on to demand suspension of the two officers involved in Keys’ death according to the Afro.

As the campaign picked up steam, another African American was shot by a police officer, this time over a bag of food.

Shot in the Back

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 26, officer John Sobolewski saw Wallace McKnight walking north on 15th Street near Massachusetts Avenue NW carrying a package under his arm.

According to Sobolewski’s testimony, he stopped McKnight and questioned him. During the interrogation, McKnight ran away, according to Sobolewski, and he [Sobolewski] opened fire.

McKnight was shot in the back, the bullet passing through his liver, and he died the next day. The package contained a chicken, a pound of butter, a dozen oranges, two pounds of bacon, a dozen bananas, several dozens eggs and some other fruit.  McKnight worked at a restaurant on the 1700 block of K Street NW not far from where he was shot.

The Rev. Robert W. Brooks observed, “Because of the record of the police department for the last eleven years, McKnight not knowing what officer John Sobolewski might do, took [his] chances on running away,” according to the Afro.

Coroner’s Jury Orders Cop Held

Police Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen tried to head off the gathering storm on June 27 by suspending Sobolewski and ordering an investigation of the McKnight shooting and a re-opening of the Keys death matter.

He also ordered a daily roll call reading of police rules on the use of revolvers. It stated: “Members of the force shall not use their revolvers except in the most urgent cases and then only in such a manner as will not jeopardize the lives of innocent people.”

The shifting public opinion also had an effect this time at the coroner’s jury. Police Lieutenant Arthur C. Belt, commanding officer of the Third Precinct on the night of the shooting, tried to save Sobolewski by telling the jury, “I would have done the same thing under the circumstances.” But his statement only added fuel to the fire.

A packed hearing room erupted in outrage at Belt’s statement and the coroner’s jury deliberated only 10 minutes before ordering Sobolewski held for grand jury action.

Edward Felder Urges Police Chief’s Firing During Brutality Protests: 1938

Edward Felder speaking to crowd of 2,000 at 9th & Rhode Island Ave. NW on July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Communists Organize March

With only a little over a week’s planning, the local Communist Party organized a march on July 8th beginning at 10th & U Streets NW, led by a car carrying Mollie McKnight, the widow of the slain Wallace McKnight. The local NNC, the New Negro Alliance and other coalition partners endorsed the march, but it was the communists who led the event.

The crowd heard Communist Party speakers including Martin Chancey, Tansell Butler and Calvin Cousins. Police were present and seized signs calling for chief Brown’s ouster, but the crowd made up for this strong arm tactic with their later chants.

Kids Swarm Widow’s Car During Police Brutality Protest: 1938

Children gather on the auto that carried the widow Mollie McKnight during the police brutality demonstration July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Over 2,000 people, of whom about 20% were white, marched and chanted “Major Brown Must Go,” “Police Brutality Must Stop,” “Everybody Join the Parade,” and “Stop Legal Lynching.”

Estimates of those who lined the streets ranged from 10,000 to 15,000. They watched marchers carrying signs like, “You May Be Next,” “Stop Police Murders,” “Compensation for Police Victims” and “Washington is not Scottsboro.”

The march ended at Rhode Island Avenue and 9th Street NW. A second rally was held there and speakers including Edward Felder of the Young Communist League urged the firing of Major Brown.

Resolutions adopted at the rally included calls for the suspension and trials of six police officers, appointing representatives of African Americans, civil organizations and labor to the panel of D.C. Commissioners, an impartial investigation into police killings, and compensation to victims’ families.

National marches for civil rights had been held previously in the city in 1922 over lynching and 1933 over the “Scottsboro Boys.”  However, this marked the first mass action in the streets of a significant size over a local African American issue in Washington since the 1919 picketing over the Moen’s school child abuse case.

First White Officer Indicted

In mid-July, the grand jury indicted Sobolewski for manslaughter. The Afro American reported it was the first time in D.C. history that a white policeman was charged in the death of a black person.

The National Negro Congress followed up the Communist Party-led march and demands by organizing a conference of over 100 organizations at the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church on July 31.

Negro Congress Leader Doxey Wilkerson at Town Hall Radio: 1942

Doxey Wilkerson (2nd from left).

The meeting was presided over by Rev. Arthur Gray in preparation for a mass meeting to be held the next day. Among the principal NNC speakers were Doxey Wilkerson of Howard University, former judge James A. Cobb, and former judge William C. Hueston.

Alphaeus Hunton, a Howard University professor, outlined eight proposed demands to be adopted at the mass meeting. They included removal of Major Brown; denial of pension rights to former officer Vivian Landrum, who had killed Leonard Basey two years earlier; suspension and trial for officers involved in shootings and recent brutality; public hearings on police brutality; and compensation for victims.

Ministers Rally 1,200

The next day, 1,200 rallied at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church under the auspices of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, where the pastor C. T. Murray presided.

John P. Davis, national secretary of the National Negro Congress, as quoted in the Washington Post, spoke of the “terror of urban lynching” which led to an “intolerable state of affairs” as “unwarranted beatings and needless killings were perpetrated by the police.”

NAACP Counsel Charles H. Houston Speaks: 1940 ca.

Charles Hamilton Houston.

Charles Hamilton Houston, counsel to the NAACP, blamed the lack of voting rights of citizens in the District and pledged legal services to help fight police brutality.

The National Negro Congress also announced a petition drive to seek 50,000 signatures to President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress.  A collection of $170 was taken up by Rev. William Jernagin from the ministerial alliance to be divided equally between Mollie McKnight and the NNC.

The petition campaign brought new allies into the fight.  The Washington Insurance Underwriters Association pledged 5,000 signatures to be collected through its 55 agents. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American League for Peace and Democracy, and the United Federal Employees also established committees to seek signatures.

The coalition organized “flying squadrons” that went house to house seeking signatures. Both black and white ministers conducted Sunday sermons across the city to popularize the cause.

Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter after two hours of deliberation by an all-white jury in September. In addition, Sobolewski was also brought before a re-constituted police trial board in September where he was again exonerated. The two officers who shot Leroy Keys were also cleared of charges by a police trial board.

However, despite the coroner’s jury verdicts, the grand jury failure to act, an acquittal at trial, and the police trial board whitewashes, change was in the air in Washington.

A Year Free of Police Killings

On June 26, 1939, one year after McKnight was killed, the NNC held a meeting at the Second Baptist Church at 3rd & I Streets NW attended by 1,500 people and hailed “a year free of police killings.”

National Negro Congress leader John P. Davis: 1940 ca.

John Preston Davis.

The meeting was presided over by local NNC president Rev. Arthur Gray.  Police superintendent Major Ernest W. Brown also spoke, trying to assure the group that he took the issue seriously. Other speakers included John P. Davis, Rev. J. L. S. Holloman of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, and Eugene Davidson of the New Negro Alliance.

The Washington Tribune saluted the work and said the “job could not have been done had it not been for the tireless energy and leadership the National Negro Congress gave to other organizations in this fight against police crimes on the Negro people of Washington.”

Rev. Gray, the D.C. NNC president, said after the campaign that the new trial board for police officers made a difference, according to Gellman’s book. The board obtained some suspensions and indictments against several police officers and Gray said, “The number of incidents has markedly decreased.”

A. Phillip Randolph Speaks at 1940 Negro Congress Convention

A. Phillip Randolph speaking at the 1940 National Negro Congress convention.

NNC Weakened

During 1939-40, the NNC was weakened by a campaign by U.S. Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX) to smear the group as a communist organization.  Then, in 1940, the president of the NNC, A. Phillip Randolph, refused to stand for re-election at the group’s Washington, D.C. national convention after delegates approved a resolution condemning the “imperialist war” in Europe and another calling for closer ties to the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The NNC’s broad political umbrella was broken. Randolph was president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters and his departure left the NNC without its most prominent leader. The Dies attack and Randolph’s withdrawal caused a number of organizations, clergy and others to drift away.

Even with its weakened state at the national level, the organization continued to wage an effective campaign in the city to desegregate defense-related employment throughout most of World War II. Further, despite the friction at the national level, the Washington, D.C. NNC continued relatively strong relationships with both the NAACP and the clergy at the local level.

Renewed Brutality in Washington

However, as time passed the initial success achieved during the 1938 police brutality campaign began to fade.

Protests spread to the Capitol Police force after the shooting and wounding of 10-year-old Fred Walker Jr. in the Senate Office Building on June 24, 1940. Sergeant Vernon Deus was quickly suspended while rights leaders demanded his dismissal and prosecution.

A month later the NNC, along with the Elks, several churches, the NAACP and the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, held a series of protest meetings against police brutality in the 4th police precinct in the city.

Over 100 people attended a mass meeting at the Zion Baptist Church at 333 F Street SW on July 18. Leaders, including pastor A. Joseph Edwards, condemned police for intimidation of African Americans in the precinct against attending the rally.

At another rally at the Mount Lebanon Church at 814 25th Street NW on July 29, Dr. C. Herbert Marshall, local NAACP president, urged African Americans to “stick together” to achieve the rally’s purpose, to “stop the cops from beating Negroes,” according to the Washington Post.

The broad coalition against brutality, now re-named the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality, took up the issue of a laundry workers’ strike at the Arcane-Sunshine Company, where police intervened on the side of strike breakers and beat pickets with their clubs.

On April 30, police officer Francis E. Davis arrested Robert Gray for disorderly conduct near 13th & Q Streets NW. According to Davis, Gray struck him and ran from the scene and when Davis caught up to him a scuffle ensued. Davis then shot Gray twice in the abdomen and Gray later died.

A coroner’s jury quickly cleared Davis, but the NNC demanded that the case be presented to a grand jury.

Three More Killed by Police

Three more African American men were shot to death by police officers in early August.  Police sergeant John Leach came upon an apparent robbery in an alley near the 1300 block of Ninth Street NW. Leach testified that Clarence Whitby struck him and fled, then Leach fired two shots, one striking Whitby and killing him.

Just days later, police officer Donald R. Webber came upon two men in an alley near 14th and Florida Avenue NW, standing beside an automobile.  Webber testified later that when he demanded a driver’s license from the two brothers they told him, “We don’t have to show you our driver’s permit,” according to the Washington Post.

During his testimony before a coroner’s jury, Webber testified he shot Jasper and Edward Cobb August 4 after he tried to place Jasper under arrest for being drunk and the two resisted. There were no other witnesses to the shooting, although Edward Cobb said before he died that he intervened in the arrest when Webber began beating his brother.

Longtime NNC nemesis police chief Maj. Ernest W. Brown was forced to retire just days after the three killings. Brown’s retirement was only tangentially related to the police brutality issue and was mainly due to Congressional concern over District crime rates and an internal police spying scandal.

But Brown’s departure also marked an opportunity for the anti-brutality coalition when Edward J. Kelly was named chief from among several internal candidates. Kelly had enemies within the department and needed broad political support to succeed as its head.

Stephen Gill Spottswood: 1940 ca

Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood.

More than 1,500 jammed the John Wesley A.M.E.Z. Church August 17 for the funeral of the Cobb brothers. Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood, pastor of the church declared, “this is not a funeral service, it is a mass meeting, protesting this occurrence,” according to the Afro American.

Spottswood continued, “They are but symbols, these two men, typical of what might happen to any of us, to you or to me. We must cooperate in decisive action to demonstrate our interest in the freedom of black men and women in the nation’s capital.”

Even as outrage against the killings was building during the month of August, coroners’ juries exonerated all the police officers in the three deaths.

Protests Escalate Again

In September, the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality in Washington called for mass protest.

Crowd Listens to Speakers at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Over 1,100 rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

At the Metropolitan Baptist Church on the 1200 block of R Street NW, a crowd estimated by the Afro American at 2,000 (the FBI estimated 1,100) gathered on September 7th to hear a wide array of speakers denounce police violence.

Doxey Wilkerson, an NNC leader and Howard University professor, presided at the meeting and called the police the enforcers of a system where black people “were segregated in living conditions and public affairs and also discrimination in employment,” according to Gellman.

Wilkerson added, “Police brutality used to be considered a local problem, today it must be viewed in terms of world significance. Police brutality and racial discrimination are part and parcel of this evil we are fighting on an international front,” the Afro American reported.

Hugh Miller, white leader of the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, said “the problems of the Negro were also the problems of the white” and urged the group to fight “Hitler’s theory” of “racial superiority” demonstrated by the killings, according to Gellman’s account.

John P. Davis, the national NNC leader, demanded permanent reforms in the department, shouting, “Don’t take no for an answer,” according to Gellman.

DC Police Chief Kelly Speaks at Anti-Brutality Rally: 1941

DC police chief Kelly speaks at anti-brutality rally on Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Wilkerson then introduced the new police chief Major Kelly, who addressed the crowd. “As long as I am head of the police department, I will not tolerate violence against any citizen or against any police officer,” he declared, according to the Afro American.

Kelly evaded calls for grand jury action against the officers involved in the three killings by saying he was not in charge at the time and urging the crowd to lobby the district attorney, but agreed with adding civilians to the police review board

Kelly also supported hiring additional African American officers, promoting an African American to captain and ending the police practice of holding people without specific charges.

It was a remarkable achievement for the group to have the police chief at the meeting and respond favorably to specific demands.

Following Kelly, a quartet from the United Cafeteria Workers Local 471 sang spirituals.

J. Finley Wilson, leader of the Elks, led off the second half of the rally saying that government protection of African American soldiers and civilians was necessary before the Elks would “battle and defend America and make it safe for the black and white under the ‘Stars and Stripes,” according to Gellman’s account.

Other speakers included Rev. L. Collins, Curtis Mitchell, Rev. E. C. Smith, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Jack Zucker, representing the Washington Industrial Council.

The rally ended with a call for marches through the streets of Washington the following week that would converge for a single rally against police brutality.

Four Marches Through the City

Protesting DC Police Brutality in Washington: 1941

One of four simultaneous marches marking each victim, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

A week later on September 14, four marches from different points in the city got underway involving an estimated 2,000 total participants. Each march was dedicated to one of the four recent victims.

Signs carried by protestors included, “Old Jim Crow Has Got to Go,” “Protect Our Civil Rights” and “Police Brutality is a Disgrace to the Nation’s Capital.” A hearse and an undertaker’s automobile carried signs in memory of persons shot in recent months by the police.

The treks converged at 10th and U Streets NW for a rally where about 500 remained to hear a number of speakers including Alphaeus Hunton, professor at Howard University, who reiterated the six demands put forth at the rally that were developed at the previous week’s meeting.

Demands included holding police officer Webber for grand jury action in the Cobb brothers shooting, internal police action to curb brutality, a citizens trial board to replace the current police board, appointment of 50 African American police officers, charges to be placed immediately against anyone arrested, and compensation to be granted dependents of those killed by the police.

Rev. Frank Alstork of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance argued for a peaceful solution but warned, “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” according to the Washington Post.

CIO Union Speaks Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Craig Vincent of the CIO speaks at anti-police brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Dorothy Strange of the National Negro Congress and the police brutality committee urged the crowd to sign and circulate a petition to be sent to the District government and the police department with the six demands.

Other speakers were Henry Thomas of the CIO United Construction Workers, Craig Vincent of the local CIO Industrial Council and Frank Donner, chair of the case committee of the brutality group.

In closing the rally, Doxey Wilkerson led chants of “Police Brutality has got to go” with the loudest for “Old Jim Crow has got to go,” according to the Afro American.

Aftermath

The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and  the subsequent German declaration of war.

The local NNC was weakened shortly afterwards when the National Negro Congress moved its headquarters to New York. In addition, Alphaeus Hunton, a key organizer behind the scenes, also moved to New York City. In 1943 Doxey Wilkerson, another local NNC leader, quit his post at Howard University to take a position with the Maryland Communist Party.

Rally Against DC Police Brutality on U Street: 1941

Crowd begins gather at 10th & U St. NW for anti-brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. DC Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

Other NNC organizers entered the armed services. The local NNC continued the fight for integration of war-related industries.  Mass protest activities continued up to the march demanding hiring of African American operators at Capital Transit in May 1943.

While large-scale actions faltered after this point, the local NNC continued to press for rights throughout the war and resumed larger protest activities after GIs began returning after the war ended in 1945.

The police brutality campaign marked a new chapter in the African American struggle for rights in the city. Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP summed up the police brutality campaign by writing,

The persistent and forceful campaign, which the Washington Council [of the National Negro Congress] and allied organizations have waged against police brutality in Washington, has been one of the most significant battles for civil rights and personal freedom and security ever conducted in the District of Columbia.

While this campaign achieved some limited reforms and curbed some of the more egregious police brutality, the lasting contribution may have been to bring new forms of mass protest to the local Washington, D.C. civil rights struggle, much as the Scottsboro campaign had done on a national scale just a few years previously.

This post was updated April 21, 2013 to reflect that officer Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of Wallace McKnight.


Author’s notes:

The five-year campaign against police brutality united the disparate elements among African Americans into a single unified local coalition that lasted for a significant span of time.

The effort produced both institutional reforms and an overall reduction in brutality.  Just as importantly, the campaign moved the local civil rights struggle beyond mass meetings in churches and small picket lines into mass marches in the streets. The campaign also used creative tactics from investigative reporting to utilization of radio broadcasts.

The mock trial of police practices involved every strata of the local African American community and attracted significant support from whites as well. Building off the “Scottsboro Boys” campaign, the NNC used a petition campaign to involve those unable or reluctant to join the protest activities.

The Dies Committee designated the National Negro Congress, which led the campaign, as a communist dominated organization in 1941.  Again, in the late 1940s, it was called a communist front group by the Truman administration.

The truth was significantly different. The Washington, D.C. NNC was a truly broad based organization that worked well with other rights organizations in the city.  In addressing its broad character, Thelma Dale, a youth leader and NNC member in Washington, D.C. said in a 2003 interview with Erik Gellman,

Sunday Worker on Sale at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

A woman sells the Communist Party’s Sunday Worker at an anti-brutality rally  Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

“In Washington in the fight against police brutality, were we going to put a circle around a Communist? Martin Chancey…the head of the Communist Party in Washington, D.C. functioned fully openly. So, who were we to turn them away? We didn’t.”

For activists today, the issue of how to work independently and in coalition with others who hold different viewpoints is just as complex as it was during this era. While conditions faced are vastly different, the same questions arise.

The 1938 police brutality campaign perhaps illustrates how divergent groups can work separately, but also function together around a common goal.

During the campaign organizations independently organized around the brutality issue in the communities, but also worked within the coalition together to strengthen the broad campaign and present a united front. Those on the left did so even when they thought the demands put forward by the coalition were limited and the tactics passive.  Likewise, participants who opposed left-wing political views and sometimes their militant tactics welcomed their help in building a campaign around the brutality issue.

In this instance, it produced an ongoing movement that began to break down the worst aspects of Jim Crow in the city.

Sources for this article include Erik Gellman’s book Death Blow to Jim CrowThe Chicago Defender, The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Atlanta Daily World, The Washington Herald, The Washington Star and The Crisis. 


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Related Posts:

“Scottsboro Boys” – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights
The Fight Against Jim Crow at Capital Transit
A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson


Spark 1st Quarter in Review

3 Apr

Missed Our Earlier Posts? Catch Up Here!

The historic events we’ve highlighted over the last three months have striking relevance to some questions of today:

  • Can there be ongoing social change without an organized movement?
  • How can a small group spark social change?
  • How much has male-dominated culture changed in 40 years?
  • Is abortion right or wrong?
  • Confront the right-wing or ignore them?
  • Civil disobedience or reliance on the courts?
  • What relationship should the U.S. have with Native Peoples?

Find some of the answers in the 1st quarter 2013 posts.


Standing Against the Maryland Klan in 1971

Klansman Slapped, Robe Torn: 1966By Bob Simpson
Posted January 2

Bob writes a personal memory about his fears on the day he joined others to picket the Ku Klux Klan in Rising Sun, Maryland in 1971.

While not as strong as in the Deep South, the Klan has had a long, violent presence in Maryland. Should organizations that are similar to the Klan be ignored today in the hope that they’ll go away or should they be confronted? Read it here.


The 1969 Counter-Inaugural

Antiwar Protestor With Nixon Mask: Counter-Inaugural 1969By Craig Simpson
Posted January 9

The anti-Vietnam-War movement was on its heels. Its leaders were trying to regroup while thousands of youth, ready to toss the American system out, were on their way to Washington, D.C. to confront the newly elected President.

It was three days of confusion, confrontation and exhilaration involving peace, a pig, horse manure and rocks thrown at the Presidential limousine during his Inaugural parade. Read it here.


A Personal Abortion Experience in 1972

Demonstration for Women’s Rights: 1970By Anonymous
Posted January 15

PreTerm, the District of Columbia’s first abortion clinic, opened for business in the city in 1971. Anonymous writes in detail about her own decision to have an abortion and her personal experience at the clinic, then reflects on her decisions 40 years later.

The article was originally printed in the February 1972 Montgomery Spark. Read it here.


Crazy Dion Diamond: A Rights Warrior in 1960

Bravery at Arlington Virginia Lunch Counter: 1960Posted January 20

A small group of Howard University students, joined by white students from other schools in the Washington, D.C. area, tired of picketing the Capitol for civil rights legislation and being ignored.

Instead, they began using direct action in the suburbs where Jim Crow was still widespread. They gained quick success in Arlington, Va. and Montgomery County, Md. desegregating restaurants, a movie theater and the Glen Echo Amusement Park. The group, including Dion Diamond, showed exemplary bravery in the face of arrests and physical confrontation with Nazis.

Many of the group drew on this experience when they went south to join the Freedom Rides in 1961. Read about it here.


The 1922 Silent March on Washington

Silent Anti-Lynching March on Washington: 1922By Craig Simpson
Posted February 6

As the privileged classes of the South sought to re-subjugate African Americans in the last part of the 19th Century and the first part of the 20th Century, lynching became the principal weapon of intimidation.

Long before the seminal 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, African Americans organized their first march on Washington on June 14, 1922 to demand basic civil rights. First and foremost they demanded the passage of a federal anti-lynching law.

The campaign ultimately failed when Southern Democrats staged a filibuster in the Senate. The failure caused an abandonment of the use of mass action for civil rights for ten years before the communists revived it in the case of the “Scottsboro Boys.”  This post is the first of a series on marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 demonstration. Read it here.


Cock Rock: The Rape of Our Culture

Cock Rock Illustration edited reversedBy Bob Simpson
Posted February 12

An encounter with rocker Mike Quatro before a Montgomery College concert causes the writer to reflect on rock music and the subjugation of women. The article was first published in the October 1972 issue of the Montgomery Spark.

The post reflects a man’s early attempt at consciousness-raising about the role of culture in the oppression of women. One of the 1972 editors finds that the premise of the article is equally applicable today. Read it here.


Scottsboro: New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights

4,000 March in Washington to Free ‘Scottsboro Boys’ – 1933By Craig Simpson
Posted February 19

The labor and women’s suffrage movements had used direct action prior to its adoption by the Communist Party in the case of the nine youths condemned to death in Alabama dubbed “The Scottsboro Boys.”

But the 1932-34 campaign led by the communists marked the revival of the mass march and the first use of high-profile civil disobedience in the civil rights movement. It was not without controversy and the debate continued over strategy and tactics all the way up to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This is the second of a series on marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln memorial that laid the basis for the 1963 march. Read it here.


1930 Protest by Unemployed at the White House

Unemployment Rally in DC: 1930Posted February 26

The worldwide March 6, 1930 protests against unemployment marked the first organized response to the Great Depression. In Washington, D.C., police attacked and dispersed a relatively small picket line in front of the White House.

There are striking photos and film footage of the Washington demonstration starting with a rally at the Communist Party headquarters and ending with police clubs and tear gas at the picket line. Read and watch it here.


Police Raid Progressive Party Event in 1948

Demonstration Protests DC Police Raid on Veterans Dance: 1948By Craig Simpson
Posted March 6

As the post-World War II “red scare” began in earnest, Washington, D.C. police broke up interracial gatherings and began compiling lists of names of suspected progressives, socialists and communists.

In this event, over 30 police officers broke up a fundraising dance for third party presidential candidate Henry Wallace over a raffle for 2 fifths of liquor. They took hundreds of names and arrested more than a dozen people.  Leaders were prosecuted for minor alcohol violations.  It was indicative of what was to come as many left-leaning activists were fired from their jobs, blacklisted, and often jailed for their political beliefs.  Read it here.


1939 Concert is a Blow to Jim Crow

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 3By Craig Simpson
Posted March 14

The 1939 Marian Anderson concert marked the first mass civil rights rally using the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial to symbolize freedom.

The fight to get Anderson a venue in the city, after both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Washington, D.C. school board rejected her, was part of a long struggle to desegregate performing arts theaters in the city.

Anderson’s concert marked a turning point in the battle against Jim Crow, both locally and nationally.  This is the third of a series on marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Read it here.


The WWII Women Streetcar Operators

100 Women Operators Needed: 1943By Craig Simpson
Posted March 20

The labor shortage that developed during World War II opened up many previous white-male-only jobs to African Americans and women. But the Capital Transit Company bitterly resisted hiring black people as streetcar operators.

Instead they embarked on an ambitious effort to recruit white women to a “Women’s Auxiliary Transit Service” (WATS) that would fill in for white male streetcar and bus operators who had gone to war.

As the by-product of another struggle, the women’s groundbreaking role was quickly eroded after the war. By 1948 only ten remained and all were gone with the end of streetcar operations in the city in 1962. It wasn’t until five years later, during the social upheaval of the 1960s, that women broke through the barriers in large numbers as transit bus and rail operators. Read it here.


Native Americans Seize BIA in 1972

BIA Spokesperson at Trail of Broken Treaties Protest: 1972By Bob Simpson
Posted March 26

Native Americans fed up with corruption involving tribal leaders, Congress and large corporations launched a “Trail of Broken Treaties” caravan that crisscrossed the country before arriving in Washington, D.C. with a twenty-point program demanding a new relationship with the federal government.

Interior Department officials gave permission to the demonstrators to stay in the Bureau of Indian Affairs building past the normal closing time. But government security forces instead attacked the protestors in another betrayal of U.S. promises.

The result was a week-long armed occupation of the building by Native Americans They studied and removed and thousands of documents that proved the corruption they alleged, then publicized them. The article was originally published in the November 1972 Montgomery Spark. Read it here.


Looking for More? Check out 2012 Spark 4th Quarter in Review


Native Americans Take Over Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

26 Mar

By Bob Simpson
From The Montgomery Spark, November 29, 1972. page 13 & page 14

Trail of Broken Treaties Participant: 1972

Sign of distress by unidentified Trail of Broken Treaties protester. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] by militant Native Americans in early November [1972] began almost by accident.

Leaders of the Trail of Broken Treaties were negotiating with the Interior Department over the question of housing. Suddenly fighting broke out between several GSA security guards and a group of young Indians.

Apparently the guards misunderstood that the BIA had given the Indians permission to stay in the building past closing time. The guards were quickly overpowered and escorted from the building. Indians ran through the BIA building at 19th & Constitution breaking up furniture to barricade entrances and manufacture makeshift weapons. The occupation was on.

Trail of Broken Treaties Press Conference: 1972

Before the takeover. From the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Trail Required Concerted Effort

The Trail of Broken Treaties had originally come to Washington as a concerted effort by militant Native Americans from across the continent. Numbering well over 1,000, they had to negotiate over a series of 20 demands.

These demands involved the abolition of the BIA, whose paternalism and corruption is infamous, plus a whole series of reforms leading to greater self-determination for Indian people. Both urban and reservation Indians had joined the protest. Discriminated against in jobs, their land ripped off by greedy whites, water rights threatened, possessing a terrible infant mortality and T.B. rate, the Indians of over 250 tribes were represented.

Rumors of Police Violence

When the Indians seized the building Nov. 2, the government began a series of complex legal maneuvers to force the Indians out. A deadline was set for the night of Nov. 3. Rumors of impending police violence led the Indian leadership to put out a call for support.

Prepared for the Worst at the Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

One Native American is prepared for the worst. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Groups began to appear outside the BIA with food, supplies and political support. On the night of Nov. 3, several hundred non-Indians formed a line of bodies to interfere with the expected police assault. Confronted with hundreds of armed Indians plus their supporters, the government backed down. The waiting game was on.

From the beginning the government game was clear, keep the occupiers in a constant state of doubt and suspense to wear down their morale.

Deadlines Repeatedly Postponed

With the election on Nov. 7, the Nixon administration could not afford a massacre until after this date. So they kept setting shifting, fluid deadlines. They sent dozens of undercover agents to spy on the occupation force.

Army buses would ride by and ominously park in front of the building. Pig cars would race around the block. From across the street, cops would stand and photograph demonstrators. This type of harassment failed to break the spirit of the fighters.

Housekeeping During the BIA Occupation: 1972

Protesters set up basic services during the occupation. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

A relatively efficient system of organization was set up. Armed Indian security ringed the building. Child-care was set up. A paramedical team from the University of Maryland contributed themselves and their resources. Food distribution was organized.

Tribal ceremonies were held and large council meetings of all the occupiers kept people informed and allowed for democratic decision-making. Communication was set up with support groups.

Native Americans Take Over BIA in DC: 1972

The occupation on Nov. 5, 1972. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Tensest Moments

The tensest moments of the occupation occurred on Monday, Nov. 6. The judge had given an order that the Native Americans must vacate the building by 6 p.m. or face forcible eviction. A large force of GSA [General Services Administration] and Civil Disturbance Unit riot police were quartered about a block away.

Tension mounted Monday afternoon as the Indians broke down into teams of four and established military perimeters. Armed with clubs, knives and spears they passed out rags to cover their mouths against the expected tear gas. Inside the building itself, firebombs and other more potent weapons were prepared. Some Indians barricaded inside reportedly had guns. People broke up pieces of iron grating for missiles and Indians on the roof prepared to rain down destruction upon the expected invaders.

Molotov Cocktail in BIA After Native Americans Leave: 1972

At the BIA. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

As the deadline approached, Indian leaders spoke on the steps of the BIA. Russell Means spoke of the telegrams of support they had received from the Irish Republican Army and the Black Panther Party.

He spoke of the occupation of the BIA office in Seattle, Washington. Indians had seized the Indian Affairs office in Ottawa, Canada and had all their demands met. The Canadian police had refused to march on the occupation force. Means reminded those present that the mostly black GSA riot squad was using one oppressed group to smash another.

Plead for No More Massacres

After the Civil War, Freedmen had been used in all black cavalry regiments in the Indian wars of the west. They had a reputation for brutality and harshness. Means pleaded for the black riot police not to follow in the infamous footsteps of their post-civil-war predecessors and aid in the smashing of Native American aspirations.

He asked all non-Indians to stand in solidarity, comparing the anticipated massacre at Washington, D.C. with American actions like the massacre of Vietnamese at My Lai, and the slaughtering of Indians by the 19th Century cavalry at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek.

Native Americans Vow to Fight

The Indians had come to Washington in peace, but had been given the prospect of war. They were ready. Many of the young warriors had daubed on war paint, signifying that they had taken vows to fight until death.

Had the government decided to attack, much death and injury would have resulted. The 6 p.m. deadline came and went. Soon the word was out that the judge had extended it until Wednesday, Nov. 8. There was much rejoicing as once again the government had backed down.

Documents Liberated from BIA Commissioner’s Safe: 1972

Documents were taken from BIA commissioner’s safe. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

On Election Day the leadership held several press conferences. It was announced at the first press conference that many records had been removed in order to expose the record of corruption and scandal within the BIA. It was revealed that massive corruption was involved in the building dams on Seneca land in upstate New York, and that Senator Mike Mansfield was involved in shady real estate dealings in his hometown in Oklahoma. It was stated that the files would be kept in secret hiding places until Native American lawyers could untangle them and expose their content.

Indian leader Russell Means explained that people would begin leaving but that an occupation force would remain the building until the Wednesday deadline. He announced that the BIA was effectively abolished. Prosecution for activities was expected, but [he said] that they would meet this bravely.

DC Police Spy Captured

Later on in the day, a metropolitan police detective was captured while spying in the building. After being chased, captured, and knocked around a little bit, he was taken back inside the building for questioning.

Bill Cross at Trail of Broken Treaties Demonstration: 1970

Bill Cross of the Dakotas, a participant during the protest. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post

Indians called on his police band walkie-talkie and the cops at headquarters freaked. He was brought outside in his own handcuffs and forced through a humiliating press conference. He said his name was Roger O’Day of Criminal Investigation but pleaded ignorance to other questions. He was eventually turned over to his superiors.

By late Tuesday afternoon, it was clear that a settlement was in the offing. The Indians were demanding a twelve person commission be set up with seven of their leaders and five top Nixon aides. This commission would work to implement the 20 demands.

Settlement Reached

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, a settlement was reached. As a task force was set up to deal with the demands, amnesty for the occupiers was agreed upon. As the Indians left, they took with them many paintings and artifacts. Police made no attempt to stop them.

Marilyn Nuttle at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Marilyn Nuttle of the Pawnee during protests. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Although they left the building interior totally destroyed, it was not set afire or blown up as had been threatened. Although over $2 million damage was done, these acts of destruction were nothing compared to the destruction that whites have wreaked upon the Indian people.

Before you join the ranks of those condemning this action, think who was it who stole the Indians’ land, ravaged it, despoiled it, polluted it, and put up fences and ugly stinking cities. The real criminals are where they have always been in the highest corporation and government offices in this land. If there is to be prosecution, let the real criminals go on trial.

US Betrayal on Amnesty
[Originally published as a sidebar]

Although representatives of Nixon signed an agreement with Native Americans occupying the bureau of Indian Affairs recommending against prosecution, the government has decided to go ahead and begin indictment proceedings.

This means the White House has broken yet another treaty with the Indians. A White House spokesperson claimed the amnesty agreement did not mean that the government couldn’t prosecute the Indians for stolen property and destruction of the building.

Total damage to the building was estimated by the government at over $2 million. The government said damage was the third heaviest ever to government buildings, surpassed only by the burning of Washington by the British in 1814 and the destruction of government buildings in the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.


Floyd Young Horse at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Floyd Young Horse, a participant at the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Public LIbrary Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Postscript: March, 2013

The Trail of Broken Treaties was originally proposed by Robert Burnette during a Sun Dance ceremony in South Dakota. Burnette was a former tribal chair of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Others at the ceremony agreed that a demonstration in Washington was needed because of numerous treaty violations and widespread poverty among Indian people.

A dozen Indian organizations eventually signed on to the caravan idea including the American Indian Movement (AIM). When the caravan reached Minneapolis, the coalition drew up a 20 point document, mostly written by Hank Adams, a longtime fishing rights activist in the Pacific Northwest.

Central to the 20 points was that Indian people were members of sovereign nations and should be negotiated with on that basis. When the caravan arrived in Washington DC, there was a major communications breakdown between the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the caravan members, resulting in the takeover of the BIA building. AIM then assumed a dominant role in the leadership of the Trail of Broken Treaties.

At the Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Unidentified participant in the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

AIM’s role in the BIA takeover as well the armed occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973, put it directly in the crosshairs of federal COINTELPRO-type repression.

AIM supporters on the Pine Ridge Reservation were assassinated by mysterious death squads widely believed to be linked to the FBI. AIM was infiltrated by informants who spread rumors that various leaders were actually working for the FBI, leading to divisions and violence within the group.

The mayhem on the Pine Ridge reservation led to the shooting of two FBI agents under murky circumstances. AIM member Leonard Peltier is serving 2 life sentences for the killings even though the evidence against him was contradictory. Two other AIM members indicted for the killings were found not guilty. There has been considerable international pressure to free Leonard Peltier.

AIM survived in a weakened state and eventually split into two different AIM organizations, one headquartered in Minneapolis and the other in Denver. Both continue to be active today.

As for the 20 points originally raised by the Trail of Broken Treaties, most still remain unaddressed.


Robert “Bob” Simpson is a former University of Maryland and Washington, DC area social justice activist who moved to Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1970s. He is one half of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team. Bob remains active in greater Chicago and is a regular contributor to the Daily Kos, Counter Punch and has his own blog The Bobbosphere.


See the Trail of Broken Treaties photos in larger sizes and with more description at the Washington Area Spark Flickr set: BIA Takeover 1972


The DC Women Streetcar Operators of World War II

20 Mar
Women Operators in Superintendent's Office: 1943

Women operators at the superintendent’s office in 1943.

By Craig Simpson

In December, 1942, the Capital Transit Company began a series of advertisements in wartime Washington, D.C. newspapers seeking women to operate the city’s streetcars and buses.

African Americans and their allies were demanding that the company end its Jim Crow practices and hire black operators, but the owners instead opened the door a crack to white women.

Women Workers Converge on D.C.

During the first year of World War II, many thousands of men left their jobs and entered the armed forces while tens of thousands of women moved into Washington to work in the rapidly expanding federal city and fill many jobs traditionally held by men.

The District was not a blue-collar town, but women quickly began turning out ships’ guns at the Naval Gun Factory and driving trucks. They also filled the jobs of store and bank clerks that had been traditionally held by men. But most of all, they came to join the federal government’s rapidly burgeoning clerical corps.

A Woman Operating DC Streetcar: 1943

Collecting a fare on a DC Streetcar in 1943.

The Capital Transit Company was desperate. The company adamantly refused to consider hiring African Americans, even though streetcars and buses lay idle in the barns and yards for lack of operators. While women had driven buses for some smaller suburban companies and operated streetcars in a few other cities, none had ever been employed as operators in the biggest transit company in the Washington area.

The same week that the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission issued a preliminary order to Capital Transit to hire African American operators, the company began its advertising for women workers.

Recruiting women, however, was going to be no easy matter. The new workers were required to work split shifts covering both rush hours and there were plenty of other help-wanted ads filling the newspapers.  The company also imposed other restrictions. The openly biased Washington Post wrote,

The last bastion of male drivers in the District has fallen before the assault of the gentler sex, but the hands that guide the trolleys down the track must not be too gentle. It’s Amazons, not Veronica Lakes, who’ll qualify according to the specifications. Applicants must be between 25 and 35 years old, at least 5 feet, 5 inches tall without shoes, and–listen to this, you dieters—must weigh at least 130 pounds or more.

First Women Hired

Betty Whitehurst and Dorothy Berlett became the first women trainees on January 6, 1943. Capital Transit’s plan was to first train them as conductors, then streetcar operators, and later, perhaps, on the buses.

At the same time, pressure was building on the company to provide adequate transportation in the federal city. Milton Diehl of the Office of Defense Transportation, said, “We want to keep the transportation system going here in Washington and I think it is awfully serious when 200 buses are idle because there are not enough men to operate them.”

Capital Transit President E. D. Merrill: 1940

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill (far right)  in 1940. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill sought other means besides integration, and he called for draft deferrals for the men operating streetcars. He said up to 600 new workers would be needed to maintain the level of service the company was attempting to provide.

Plans to use women, however, were dealt a blow when both of the initial trainees quit only two weeks into the training program. Whitehurst dropped out when she and her husband, who was also an operator, decided one member of the family working odd hours was enough. Berlett’s Navy husband was transferred to New Orleans and the couple decided to relocate.

Company Renews Commitment

Capital Transit, under intense fire from advocacy groups and from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) for its racial policies, was determined to make the women’s program work.

The Washington Post reported,

Undiscouraged by the recent defaulting of its two pioneer women bus drivers, the Capital Transit Co. is still training its Amazonian operators, a company official disclosed last night. As a matter of fact, two of the girl graduates are already getting experience as conductors on the Fourteenth Street streetcar lines during the afternoon rush hours while three others are immersed in the academic courses. Enrollment in the streetcar seminary is light, but the transit company still approves the idea and is welcoming possible freshmen to the ranks.

The company tried to entice women to apply for the jobs by offering Sundays off and prohibiting night work by women. This was in contrast to previous new hires who would be at the bottom of the seniority list and end up with the least desirable days off and hours.

First All-Female DC Streetcar Crew: 1943

Edna Cobb & Bessie Allison are the first all-female streetcar crew. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Women soon began going out unaccompanied by trainers on streetcar and bus lines. On April 8, 1943 two women left the Fourteenth Street barn and headed to the Bureau of Engraving as the first all-female trolley crew in the city. Bessie Allison piloted the vehicle while Edna Cobb served as conductor.

Allison came to Washington from Mullen, West Virginia, where she had been assistant manager of a dairy store. Cobb became a spokesperson for the women transit workers during the war years, attempting to recruit more women to the ranks.

Women’s Auxiliary Transit (WATS)

In May 1943, company president Merrill announced the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Transit Service (WATS) and an ambitious plan to recruit 100 women a week to the group. The group was modeled after the initially civilian Army WAC and Navy WAVE programs and was designed to promote the idea of women temporarily serving in essential wartime transportation in the city.

Join Capital Transit WATS: 1943

WATS advertisement in June 1943.

When it was first formed, WATS was composed of seven streetcar operators, two bus operators, and five in training, plus 19 fare collectors at the Pentagon. Merrill began promoting his idea to recruit more women with regular advertisements in the city’s newspapers appealing to patriotism.

Before long, Merrill hired a women’s counselor to head the group and recruited a panel of Washington, D.C. business and professional women to form a “Women’s Committee to Sponsor the WATS.”

The Committee opened a lounge for the transit women at 4702 14th Street NW, across the street from the Northern streetcar and bus barn. It was dedicated with a housewarming party on July 13, 1943. By this time there were 16 women streetcar and bus operators and 19 conductors. All the women were assigned to the 14th Street streetcar line or the buses in that section of Northwest Washington that operated out of the Northern barn, although later they operated out of other locations as well.

Transit Women Between Shifts: 1943

Women operators between shifts in 1943.

The lounge was equipped with three rooms and a basement for the women’s exclusive use. The rooms contained easy chairs, a radio, a Ping-Pong table and reading material.

The women had the option to wear skirts or slacks at work. The slacks, skirts and blazers were navy blue, the shirts were grey and the ties were black. Operators’ caps had a visor whereas the fare collectors at the Pentagon wore foldable “overseas” caps.

The Women Operators and Conductors

Among these women was Ruth Rautio. She had been a homemaker until joining her husband who was already a streetcar operator. The two worked the same streetcar line, passing each other several times during the day.

Bus operator Elsie Stone reported few problems with customers who she said had grown used to seeing women on the trolleys and buses. “But once in Petworth a man ran real fast to catch the bus and backed right out when he saw me driving,” according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Conductor Washington DC: 1943

Hattie Sheehan in 1943.

Another was Hattie Sheehan, who had worked three months on the midnight shift at the Glen L. Martin Aircraft factory north of Baltimore. Sheehan decided day work was more appealing and moved to Washington to take a streetcar operator job. Sheehan’s sister, Eva Bennet, joined her on the job. The two were originally from Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The most senior operator was Bessie Allison, who had a strong West Virginia accent. “I’m a hillbilly and don’t mind who knows it. But I’m having a lot of fun running streetcars in Washington,” she said, according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Outside Her DC Streetcar: 1943

Frances Lewis in 1943.

Still another was Frances “Tennessee” Lewis, who came from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Valeria Schwalenberg hailed from Greensboro, N.C. She said operating a streetcar was “awfully exciting” compared with her life back home, according to the Post.

Sheehan, Allison, Lewis and Schwalenberg formed a quartet that sang songs learned from childhood. One song that everyone knew was “I’ve been working on the railroad,” according to Sheehan. She added, “It sure is a good theme song for us,” according to the Post.

African American Fired

Sarah Grayson was hired in September, 1943 and worked without incident as a streetcar operator on 14th Street NW until January 31, 1944, when she was summarily fired.

100 Women Operators Needed: 1943

Capital Transit refused to hire African American men or women and fired one woman after she had worked five months when they discovered she was black.

The company rejected the application of an African American neighbor of Grayson’s because of skin color. The applicant reportedly told the company representative, “I don’t see why you can’t hire me when you have a colored girl working for you,” according to the Afro American.

Grayson, who had light skin and blue eyes, told the Afro, “I made no effort to conceal my identity.  The question just never came up.” Grayson had previously been a clerk at a People’s Drug Store.

Grayson told the Afro that it was amusing when her male coworkers would try to chat her up while making derogatory remarks about African Americans [See an image of Grayson: click on “browse this newspaper” and navigate to the February 5, 1944 edition, page 11].

Shortages Continue to Occur

The operator shortages continued to occur throughout 1944 with the company delaying, making excuses, but not outright refusing to hire African Americans. Throughout this time, the FEPC never acted to enforce an order to desegregate transit in Washington.

Appeal for More Women Operators: 1943

Operator Edna Cobb (center) often acted as a recruiter of women. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Apparently believing they could recruit more (white) women by a makeover of the current operators, Capital Transit opened a “charm school” in May, 1944, for the 55 women streetcar and bus operators. Classes taught make-up, hair styling and skin care. Hannah Sherman, school director, said, “We don’t want any you-hooing on buses and streetcars, but we want to make the girls feel pretty and important,” according to the Post.

By February of 1945, the company had 150 buses idled for lack of drivers and was 450 operators short. Still refusing to hire African-Americans, the company began advertising for both men and women part-time operators. The number of women peaked at about 70 after the introduction of part-time employment.

Post World War II

The war in Europe ended in May and in Japan in September.  Post-war propaganda had already begun calling for women to “return to the home.” Merrill estimated that only 25 women remained as operators or conductors at the end of 1945.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Streetcar operator Thelma Hodges speaks at a union meeting during a 1945 strike. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Wages had been held down during the war and the pent up demand resulted in two unauthorized strikes by Capital Transit workers in November 1945. Thelma Hodges, a streetcar operator, told co-workers at the Turner Arena during a strike meeting that “The men ought to make enough pay so their wives could stay home.”

No additional women were hired after World War II ended. By 1948 there were only ten remaining women operators. When streetcar operator Harriet Smith died in September, six of the remaining women acted as pallbearers wearing their Capital Transit uniforms. The six were Bernice Harding, Elizabeth Mann, Martha Blanton, Ethel Drake, Katherine Snyder and Mary Small.

Last of the DC Streetcar Women Operators: 1961

Last of the D.C. WW2 women streetcar operators (2nd row) in 1961. From ATU Local 689.

In 1955, Capital Transit finally desegregated its operator ranks. The company was sold after a two-month strike later in 1955 and it was renamed D.C. Transit.

Two women can be seen in a 1961 group photo of D.C. Transit operators in front of the U.S. Capitol, but by 1962 streetcar service had ended in the nation’s capital–and with it, women transit operators.  By one account, the few remaining women streetcar operators were offered the choice of clerical jobs or retirement.

First Female Bus Operator for DC Transit: 1967

Sarah Owens, first African American woman bus operator hired by D.C. Transit is shown in a screen capture of a 2007 ATU Local 689 video.

After a six-year interlude, the next woman employed as an operator by the D.C. Transit system was Sarah B. Owens, an African American. Owens was turned away at the company employment office in 1966, but filed a complaint with the District government. A year later Owens began her career as a bus operator in June 1967. Owens went on to operate the Metrorail trains as well after that service began in 1976.

This time, employment of women in the D.C. transit industry grew rapidly.  Today hundreds of women operate buses and trains for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the successor company to the D.C. Transit and Capital Transit companies.


Want to see and read more?

For more images related to the World War II era D.C. women transit operators.

For an article on the desegregation of the Capital Transit Company.

Do you know more about these women? Comment below or e-mail us at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com


Author’s Notes:

Sources include The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star, the Washington Post, The Afro American, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by 1939 Marian Anderson Concert

14 Mar
Marian Anderson Sings at the Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 6

Marian Anderson arrives in Washington, D.C. for her 1939 concert. Photo: Scurlock Studio.

By Craig Simpson
3rd in a series

The Lincoln Memorial became the symbolic focal point for civil rights in 1939 when over 75,000 people attended a Marian Anderson concert there after she was barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s (DAR) Constitution Hall and from the all-white public Central High School in Washington, D.C.

Most versions of the story focus on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt dropping her membership in the DAR and President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes arranging for the concert to be held on federal parkland. But the struggle to desegregate theaters in Washington was much more complex. It began long before Anderson’s 1939 concert and did not end in victory until long afterwards.

This was a struggle led primarily by the African American elite in the city and at times was a microcosm of the tensions inherent between the struggle to uplift all and the quest for individual achievement.

Segregation in the city

Segregation in public accommodations in the District of Columbia had actually been prohibited since Frederick Douglass’s son, Lewis H. Douglas, successfully introduced a bill into the District of Columbia Legislative Council in 1872.

But while that law was not repealed, it was removed from the published city code in the early part of the 20th Century, when many gains achieved during the Civil War and Reconstruction were reversed.

Laws were passed mandating segregation in public schools and parks, but attempts at mandating Jim Crow on streetcars, housing and other areas were defeated. However, even without segregation laws, businesses were imposing the practice throughout the city by the 1920s.

Many theaters for the performing arts in Washington required Jim Crow seating arrangements, often relegating African Americans to the upper balcony. Some barred admission to African Americans altogether or staged separate performances for blacks and whites. A very few venues barred African American performers altogether. A minority of theaters, mostly those oriented toward African American audiences, permitted mixed seating.

No Jim Crow for Civil War Vets: 1922

Civil War vets have the only integrated seating at the 1922 Lincoln Memorial dedication.

Lincoln Memorial Dedication

The African American elite in the city looked forward to the dedication of the “great emancipator” Abraham Lincoln’s memorial on May 30, 1922.  President Warren Harding took office as a Republican the year before and there was great expectation that he would reverse the policies of his Democratic predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, who had introduced segregation into the federal government and fired hundreds of black workers.

They believed that the President might announce new civil rights initiatives at the ceremony. But when they arrived on a blazing hot day to their reserved seats in Section 5, the invited African Americans discovered they had been roped off from the rest of the guests in Jim Crow seating by Lt. Col. Clarence O Sherrill, Director of Public Buildings and Parks in the city.

Shelby Davidson, president of the Washington, D. C. NAACP wrote afterward,

Platform seats reserved for white were in chairs and within distance of the speakers that might be called reasonable, considering the crowd, while back of those seats were those reserved for colored roped off from those occupied by the white and placed about a block away from the Memorial in the grass and weeds with rough hewn benches with no backs or supports.

The Harding administration did not invite any activists to address the crowd and instead asked Booker T. Washington protégé Dr. Robert Russa Moton, principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to speak on behalf of African Americans, and required Moton to submit his speech for approval in advance.

Dr. Moton Speaks at Lincoln Memorial Dedication: 1922

Dr. Robert Russa Moton speaks during Lincoln Memorial dedication in 1922.

After a brief exercise by an integrated group of Civil War veterans, Moton spoke perhaps more forcefully than Harding expected. Moton departed from his prepared speech, according to published reports, pointedly saying, “among 30,000 persons convicted of disloyalty during the last [Civil] war, not a single one was colored.”

Moton went on to call on the country to fulfill

the task imposed upon it by the martyred dead: that here it highly resolves that the humblest citizen of whatever color or creed, shall enjoy that equal opportunity and unhampered freedom…

But Harding ‘s own speech downplayed issues of race discrimination and did not mention the Dyer anti-lynching bill pending in Congress. He praised the South and credited Lincoln not for the Emancipation Proclamation but for saving the union.

The African American press castigated the ceremony after the event with one headline summing it up, “Opened But Not Dedicated Stands Memorial to Lincoln.”

Refuse to Perform

The fight against Jim Crow performing arts theaters and concert halls in the District of Columbia began in the 1920s and was waged in the city by the NAACP and other African American rights groups for more than a dozen years before the Anderson concert.

National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune: 1930 ca

Mary McLeod Bethune circa 1930.

One of the first organized actions occurred on May 5, 1925, when more than 200 African American artists refused to take the stage at the newly opened Washington Auditorium at 19th & E Streets, NW, in a protest over segregated seating.

The “All American Music Festival,” sponsored by the International Council of Women, had given written assurances to Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women, that there would be no Jim Crow seating at the event.

However when singers from the Richmond Treble Clef, the Howard University Glee Club, the Hampton Institute Choir and the Howard University Choral Society arrived at the hall, they found all black people in the audience seated on the left side of the hall and in the balcony.

The groups walked out of the hall and refused to perform. African American members of the audience followed the singers and left the theater.

Roland Hayes

Singer Roland Hayes circa 1925

Seating at Roland Hayes Concerts

The fight over Jim Crow continued at tenor Roland Hayes’s concerts.

Hayes first achieved fame in Europe when career avenues were shut to African Americans in the United States. In the 1920s he returned to the U.S. and took the country by storm.  He was the most famous African American of his time.

A 1925 Atlanta, Georgia concert ignited a firestorm of criticism of Hayes when he performed before a Jim Crow audience in the city.  He was scheduled for a concert on January 5, 1926 at the Washington Auditorium and the District’s African American rights organizations swung into action.

The NAACP, Equal Rights League, National Race Congress and ministers throughout the city began bombarding the hall and the promoter with telephone calls, telegrams and letters protesting the planned Jim Crow seating.  The local NAACP’s head of the “Ladies Service Group,” Beatrice Francis, coordinated the campaign.

Hayes, unsure of how to proceed, called promoter Katie Wilson-Greene who agreed to arrange to mix the tickets.  Hayes performed without incident. The next night, however, protests failed to change Jim Crow seating at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore.  Hayes delayed taking the stage for 32 minutes before relenting and performing before a segregated audience.

Roland Hayes Blasted for Jim Crow Performance: 1926

Afro covers Hayes on front page January 9, 1926

Hayes Blasted by Activists

In a debate that continues today over the role of prominent African Americans in the civil rights struggle, there was fierce criticism and impassioned defense of Hayes within the African American community as he continued to perform before Jim Crow audiences.

“From a popular hero, acclaimed because of his European and American success, Mr. Hayes became overnight an outcast, who betrayed his race for gold,” the Afro American wrote in 1925.

Dr. Kelly Miller, a Howard University professor, responded in his weekly Afro column, “He [Hayes] will serve his race to better advantage if we permit him to function before the world as an artist, and not as a professional Negro agitator.”

Hayes was confronted with the issue again in another Washington concert in 1928. Hayes sang before a segregated audience where African Americans were relegated to the back rows of the balcony at Poli’s Theater.

Neval Thomas, president of the local NAACP, said, “Mr. Hayes could make it far easier for us in the campaign we are conducting if he would end his policy of silence.” Thomas added, “Upon Mr. Hayes’ last appearance in Washington, we urged him to condemn the Jim Crow seating arrangement and his only reply was that, ‘I make my speech from the stage,’” according to the Afro.

Hayes continued to have defenders with one reader of the Afro writing, “I could agree with you [the Afro] in blaming a Garvey or DuBois or Trotter for tolerating race conditions in Washington, but surely not a Hayes or Marian Anderson.”

NAACP criticism of Hayes became more muted when Hayes agreed to perform a number of benefit concerts for the organization, including an April, 1930 event at the Belasco Theater in Washington.

Constitution Hall Desegregated

The DAR opened Constitution Hall in 1929, and the Wilson-Greene Agency booked Hayes for a concert on January 31, 1931. African American leaders again sought assurances that the audience would not be segregated. This time Wilson-Greene, which was responsible for ticket sales, agreed to sell tickets to African Americans in any area of the hall.

Howard University Professor Kelly Miller

Howard University professor Kelly Miller defended Hayes. Photo undated.

Accounts of what occurred that evening differ. Immediately after the event, The Afro American reported that the concert went off without incident and that there was no Jim Crow seating. The paper also reported that there were few black people in the audience.

Fred Hand, the hall manager who ultimately initiated Jim Crow policies, ten years later related that Hayes refused to sing until a large group of African Americans seated together were dispersed in the crowd, although he said Hayes relented and performed.

Following the Hayes concert, the Hampton Choir performed on March 21 at Constitution Hall. After the concert, the Washington Daily News blasted the DAR for its treatment of African Americans:

The DAR management ruled that only two blocks of seats, those on the corners of the surrounding tiers, might be sold to colored people…hundreds of colored people were turned away.  The turnout of Washington’s regular concertgoers was small…consequently the Hall was two-thirds empty. The seats assigned to colored people were packed; beside them were empty blocks.

The DAR didn’t take long to respond. They began including a “white artists only” clause beginning with all contracts starting on March 23, 1932.

Marian Anderson Rises in Fame

Meanwhile Marian Anderson’s career began to blossom. Anderson started as a young girl singing at neighborhood events for small amounts of money that began to grow larger over time. She was active at her church in the junior and, later, the adult choir in her youth. She gained attention in both church and other venues where she was often a featured singer.

The Philadelphia black community banded together and paid for private music lessons when she was refused admittance to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy.

She continued her studies in New York, where she booked to favorable reviews at several concert halls, including Carnegie in 1928. However, the opportunities for an African American singer were limited and like Hayes, she went to Europe where she became a star.

Anderson returned to the U.S. and the contralto began giving concerts, including one at New York’s Town Hall in 1935 that received highly favorable reviews. She was soon a star in the states and continued to give concerts in Europe and the U.S. throughout the late 1930s.

Singer Todd Duncan in undated photo

Singer Todd Duncan in an undated photo.

Desegregation Attempts Continue

The fight to desegregate Washington’s theaters continued into the 1930s. This time, however, high-profile African American performers would lead the effort.

Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the two leads of “Porgy and Bess,” announced their refusal to perform at the whites-only National Theater unless the theater admitted a fully integrated audience.

Howard University Professor Dr. Ralph Bunche: 1934 ca

Dr. Ralph Bunche circa 1934.

They were threatened with being fired from the show and fined by the actor’s union, but they held their ground and the rest of the cast backed them. Ralph Bunche, chair of Howard’s Department of Political Science Department and a leader of the Howard Teachers Union (HTU), rallied other labor groups and met with management, threatening to picket the theater.

The theater finally offered a compromise: blacks could sit in designated sections. The cast rejected this and held firm that they would not perform if there were any restrictions. The National Theater management gave in and the performance opened on March 16, 1936 with African Americans present in every section. The victory was short-lived, however, as the theater immediately went back to its whites-only seating.

Howard University Approaches DAR’s Hall

The same year, Howard University treasurer V. D. Johnson approached Hand about booking Anderson at Constitution Hall, perhaps thinking that the controversy then being generated by the dispute over “Porgy and Bess” would win the day for an acclaimed singer like Anderson.

Hand simply reminded Johnson of the “whites only” clause. Johnson let the matter drop and Anderson was booked in Washington at the public African American Armstrong High School in 1936 and 1937 and at the larger Rialto Theater in 1938, appearing in all cases before mixed audiences.

In 1939, with Anderson’s popularity outgrowing these theaters, Charles Cohen, chair of Howard University’s concert series that arranged Anderson’s performances in Washington, applied to the largest venue in the city—the DAR’s Constitution Hall. Three days later Hand wrote back that April 9 was already booked, and reminded Cohen of the whites-only performers clause.

Marian Anderson 1933

Marian Anderson 1933.

Eleanor Roosevelt Refuses to Help

This time officials at Howard balked at the refusal. The hall often booked more than one performer on a Sunday and there was no other suitable venue available.  In early February of 1939, Johnson reached out to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to rebuke the DAR. However, Roosevelt initially refused to do so.

Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok and Howard’s University’s Cohen scrambled to find another venue. They singled out the District of Columbia public whites-only Central High School’s large auditorium as being most suitable.

But on February 3, Superintendent Frank Ballou wrote back, “In the opinion of the school officers, it is not possible under the law for the Community Center Department to grant your request for the use of Central High School auditorium to present Miss Marian Anderson.”

Howard officials were ready to take the fight to the next level and turned to Walter White, executive secretary the NAACP and to Doxey Wilkerson, professor of Education at Howard, who was also one of the leaders of the HTU and of the local National Negro Congress.

Wilkerson presented the appeal to use Central High School at the February 15th meeting of the Board of Education.  The Board upheld Ballou’s decision to deny the use of the school.

Howard University Professor Doxey Wilkerson: 1940 ca.

Doxey Wilkerson circa 1940.

Protests Ignite

The American Federation of Teachers reacted first at a February 18th meeting at the YWCA, where they condemned the school board’s refusal to permit Anderson to sing and began circulating petitions.

The following day, Feb 19, Charles Edward Russell, chair of the citywide Inter-Racial Committee, convened a meeting that formed the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) composed of several dozen organizations, church leaders and individual activists in the city.

Among the groups were the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Washington Industrial Council-CIO, American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress. Some predominantly white citizens’ associations also joined.

By February 20th the group was picketing the board of education, the first time that the school system had been picketed since the Moen’s case drew thousands of African Americans into mass meetings and picketing in March of 1919.

The MACC collected signatures on petitions and planned a mass meeting February 26th and a mass protest March 1st at the next board of education meeting. MACC elected Charles Hamilton Houston as chairman, John Lovell, Jr. as secretary, and Bertha Blair as vice chair.

First Mass Protest

Fliers called upon Washingtonians to rise,

Marian Anderson is a Negro. Thus, even as in Naziland, superb art is here crucified upon the altar of racial bigotry. Shall we permit the DAR and the Board of Education to impose this unwholesome policy upon our community? Shall the people of Washington dictate, or be dictated to?”

Over 1,500 people crowded into the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church at 1701 11th Street, NW to hear Doxey Wilkerson,

We must note that … if it is legal to present a white artist in Armstrong Hall, for a considerable fee, as was done recently, before a mixed audience, then it is equally legal to present a colored artist in the auditorium of a white school before a similar audience.

The growing protest movement also caused Roosevelt to reconsider her earlier refusal to condemn the DAR. She sent a telegram to the rally saying, “I regret extremely that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marian Anderson, a great artist.” Unknown to the meeting, Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR the same day.

Roosevelt Announces Resignation

The next day, Roosevelt announced in her weekly newspaper column and at a press conference that she had resigned from a major organization to which she had “belonged since coming to Washington.” The Anderson situation turned quickly from one covered in the local newspapers and the African American press to one also covered by the white press across the nation.

DC School Board Member Col. West A. Hamilton: 1940 ca.

Col. West A. Hamilton circa 1940

Hundreds of Washington residents descended on the Franklin School on March 1st to protest the school board’s decision. Telegrams began pouring in to the school board from around the country and 3,000 signatures were presented at the board meeting.

Charles H. Houston, speaking for the NAACP, called the school board’s decision a “travesty on democracy.” Sidney Katz of the local CIO spoke for the Anderson committee, comparing her treatment to “the treatment of Jewish artists in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.”

Col. West A. Hamilton, one of two African American members of the school board, made a motion to permit Anderson to sing at Central, but failed to get a second. The board voted to defer a decision to a committee meeting the following day.

Board Sets Impossible Conditions

Fearing the consequences of an outright refusal, the school committee voted to permit Anderson to use the school on a basis that did not set a “precedent” and

only on the positive and definite assurance and agreement…that the Board of Education will not in the future again be asked to depart from the principle of a dual system of schools and schools facilities.

The full board upheld the committee decision on a 6-2 vote on March 3rd.

Charles Hamilton Houston & the Capital Transit Fight (Photo 3)

Charles Hamilton Houston circa 1940.

Houston was stunned by the decision, “I had expected Friday a real hearing by the Committee, and had obtained thru the Committee (MACC) new signatures on the petition, a file of newspaper comments, letters and telegrams of endorsement [and] resolutions.”

All rights leaders were appalled. They could accept the no-precedent language, but not a restriction on whether anyone could ever apply again. After considering their options, Cohen wrote that he would accept the auditorium, but not the conditions.

Superintendent Ballou withdrew the offer March 17, writing, “The responsibility for making the Central High School auditorium unavailable for the concert of Miss Marian Anderson on April 9 must be assumed by you and your associates of Howard University.”

MACC leaders vehemently denounced the board and scheduled another mass meeting. Houston summed it up best when he said after the school board decision, “I wanted Marian Anderson to sing in Central, but not at the cost of my dignity and self-respect.”

Scramble for a venue

While the fight with the school board was playing out, efforts were made to find other solutions.

Hurok surreptitiously discovered that April 8th and 10th were available at Constitution Hall and applied for those dates, but Hand responded on February 15th that, “the hall is not available for a concert by Miss Anderson.”

Options were growing narrower, since the Rialto Theater was closed for repairs and the National and Belasco theaters would not give definitive answers.

It is not clear who came up with the idea to stage the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The director of music at Howard, Lulu Childers, had said in exasperation in early January that Anderson would “Sing here—even if we have to build a tent for her.“

Hurok announced publicly in late February that Anderson would keep the April 9th concert date and sing “out in the open air in the park immediately in front of Constitution Hall. She will sing for the people of Washington and there will be no charge.”  NAACP Executive Director White, however, opposed holding the concert at that location, believing it would show weakness.

Venue discussions were taking place among Howard officials, Hurok, Houston and White in early March and they included ideas about outdoor concerts.  According to one account, White favored Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, early in the strategy sessions.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 5

Marian Anderson and Oscar Chapman 1939.

Lincoln Memorial

But by March 13th, White drafted a resolution adopted by the NAACP directors calling for Anderson to give her concert at the Lincoln Memorial. White approached Oscar Chapman, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, about the use of the Lincoln Memorial.

Chapman was a fervent New Deal Democrat who had previously worked on anti-lynching legislation. He had been active in a number of progressive causes and was even accused of being a communist in 1938 by Rep. Noah Mason (R-IL) because of his support for the loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War.

Chapman recalled in a 1972 interview that White approached him saying, “Oscar, wouldn’t it be a ten strike if we could have her sing at the feet of Lincoln, at the Lincoln Memorial?”

Chapman immediately agreed and contacted Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. Chapman recalled appealing to Ickes’ vanity saying,

We’ll build a platform on that low level of steps so cameras down here can take pictures of Lincoln right straight through from the platform we build for you and Marian Anderson who will be sitting there. And when she’s singing, they’ll be taking pictures; we can get the picture of Lincoln, you, and Marian Anderson all the time.

Chapman added after his recollection, “Well that pleased him.” Ickes quickly agreed to use the Memorial and contacted President Franklin Roosevelt who also gave his assent. With only days to prepare, Marian Anderson had a place to sing in Washington, D.C.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 2

Marian Anderson and the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial 1939.

The Marian Anderson Concert

While the parks department began site preparation, the NAACP began organizing buses to come to the concert. Nobody really knew how many people would turn out for the event and Anderson had never performed outdoors before.

Sunday, April 9 was a cold, blustery day and rain threatened throughout the day. Nevertheless, more than 75,000 people—black and white– showed up to hear Anderson, with no segregated areas. Millions more listened to the radio broadcast by NBC.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 3

April 9, 1939 crowd at the Marian Anderson concert

The DAR’s refusal of a concert hall to an African American performer turned into the largest affirmation of civil rights at that time. It marked an unofficial dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans. The battle for civil rights was far from over, but the concert also signaled a turning point in the fight against Jim Crow.

Anderson, who avoided political statements and claimed to know little about the battle over her concert venue in Washington, did her part that day. In a slight twist of words, she gave a new civil rights meaning to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” when she sang, “to thee we sing” instead of “of thee we sing.”

Battle Far from Over

While the concert marked a turning point, the long battle to desegregate theaters went on in Washington, D.C.

Picket at the National Theater: 1947 ca.

A picket at the National Theater circa 1947.

The fight continued at the National Theater, where picketing began in 1946 over the lessee’s refusal to admit black patrons.  The theater even employed a “spotter” in an attempt to bar anyone trying to “pass” as white.

President Harry Truman crossed the picket line in 1947 to see a performance of “Blossom Time,” but that only inflamed the protests led by the Committee for Racial Democracy chaired by Leon Ransom.  Later that year, the Actor’s Equity Association ultimately voted to ban performances until the theater desegregated.

Marcus Hyman, who held the lease, converted the theater to a movie house rather than desegregate and the landmark theater didn’t open its doors to African Americans until his lease expired and it was reconverted to a theater in 1952.

Desegregate Lisner Auditorium Pickets: 1946 # 1

Pickets at the opening of Lisner Auditorium in 1946. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Ingrid Berman Spat on At Lisner

The Lisner Auditorium opened at George Washington University in 1946, excluding African Americans.  Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, the star of the play “Joan of Lorraine,” said at a press conference the day before the show opened, “If I’d known black people weren’t allowed in, I’d have never set foot in this town.”

Bergman reported that pro-segregationists waited outside her dressing room and spit on her and called her an “n_____-lover.”

The Washington chapter of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare set up a picket line opening night October 29 demanding that African Americans be admitted. The cast of the production signed a petition denouncing the “deplorable and un-American practice of segregation.” A veterans group and other students at the school joined them in subsequent days.

In response to the outcry against segregation, the university voted to admit African Americans as patrons of university sponsored events in 1947. However, privately-sponsored events at Lisner continued to be segregated until 1954.

Protest Signs, Campaign to integrate Uline Arena, (1948-49)

Picket signs plastered on Uline Arena circa 1948.

The Warner Theater desegregated in 1953. Other battles, including picket lines at the Uline Arena and at movie theaters throughout the city, were waged continuously in the post World War II period.

Concert venues and theaters in the city accelerated desegregation in the wake of the 1953 Supreme Court decision reinstating Washington’s “lost laws” prohibiting segregation in facilities open to the public, and the Court’s 1954 Bolling vs. Sharpe decision outlawing segregated schools in the District.

Marian Anderson in D.C. after 1939.

Anderson was invited to appear at DAR Constitution Hall for a World War II relief benefit in January, 1943. Her representatives demanded that the audience be mixed and that the ban on black artists be lifted. The DAR agreed to a mixed audience, but refused to drop their “whites-only” performers clause, except on a case-by-case basis. Anderson ultimately sang, citing the need for wartime unity.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial: 1952 # 2

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in 1952.

She reprised her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 20, 1952 in a remembrance service for Harold Ickes. Over 10,000 came out to the event.

She performed again at DAR Constitution Hall in 1953—the same year the organization finally dropped its “whites only” performers clause—and appeared several other times at the hall in subsequent years.

Perhaps in triumph as she gazed out on the 250,000 gathered, she sang at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—again at the Lincoln Memorial.

Perspective

Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert was in many ways the symbolic beginning of the end of Jim Crow.  Though taking the form of a concert, it marked the first mass rally for civil rights, using the emblematic Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 1

Marian Anderson concert April 9, 1939.

Most accounts miss the symbolic dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans that took place with the 1939 Anderson concert. It stood in stark contrast to the segregation at the official dedication held in 1922.

The same accounts usually give most of the credit to President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Ickes for Anderson’s historic concert, but in 1939 local NAACP secretary John Lovell Jr. saw it a little differently when he wrote in The Crisis,

The spirit they [D.C. African Americans] showed this year was beyond the recollection of the oldest old-timer. They flooded the newspapers with letters, bitterly and skillfully written. They got their friends from outside to shower Congressmen with petitions. They hung from the rafters when the Board of Education met.

They demanded a picket line against the DAR national Convention and shouted for the opportunity of being the first to ride in the Black Marias [police paddy wagons], if the Black Marias were to materialize.

The national press put the credit for the furor upon Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary Ickes; but it was the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee which first notified Mrs. Roosevelt and which got her first response.

The 75,000 who heard Miss Anderson on Easter Sunday were a tribute to the fighting Negroes in the District of Columbia as much as to democracy and the preservation of art.


Watch and listen to Marian Anderson’s rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the 1939 concert:


This is the third part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The March that Wasn’t & a Renewed Focus on Washington

Read Part I, “Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington
Read Part II, “‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights”


Author’s Notes:

Central High School was the old name for what is now known as Cardozo High School.

Sources include The Washington Post, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Afro American, Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta World, New York Amsterdam News, Washington Daily News, Washington Star, Allan Keller’s “Marian Anderson: A Singers Journal,” Victoria Garrett Jones, “Marian Anderson: A Voice Uplifted,” The Crisis, and Howard Kaplan’s “Marian Anderson.”


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


DC Police Raid 1948 Fundraiser by Progressive Party Supporters

6 Mar
Demonstration Protests DC Police Raid on Veterans Dance: 1948

Civil Rights Congress protests police raids in 1948. Courtesy, DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

By Craig Simpson

In the fall of 1948, Washington police for the second time broke up an interracial gathering when they raided a political fundraiser at the Laborers’ Union Hall at 525 New Jersey Avenue, NW, and arrested seven people and detained two-dozen others.

About 350 people were attending the dance that began Saturday night October 9, and continued past midnight. It was sponsored by the United Negro and Allied Veterans of America to support the Progressive Party campaigns of Henry Wallace for President and Dr. John E. T. Camper for Congress in Maryland’s Fourth District. The election was a mere three weeks away when this raid occurred.

When the police entered the union hall, the band struck up “The Star Spangled Banner,” which momentarily halted the police. But when the last notes faded away, police began herding attendees into lines. The crowd responded by singing Progressive Party songs.

“They [the police] brought in a batch of index cards and police would copy the names down on the index cards and several times they would jot down the source of the identification papers,” according to the Washington Daily News.

About two dozen people refused to give their names and were detained, taken to police headquarters and eventually released after establishing their identity. The Washington Herald published their names and addresses in the next day’s newspaper.

It was almost two years into the post-World War II “red scare” and the dominos were falling at the local level.

Future Progressive Party Presidential Candidate Henry A Wallace: 1939

Henry Wallace in 1939. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Progressive Party Fights Tide

Henry Wallace’s third-party campaign for president was a reaction to President Harry Truman’s move to the right following Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II in 1945.  Wallace stood for peaceful relations with the Soviet Union, repeal of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, universal health insurance, and civil rights.

Wallace refused to appear in segregated halls in the south and was often attacked with eggs and vegetables during campaign appearances. When his opponents tried to shout him down at political rallies, supporters would drown them out with labor and civil rights songs.

Dr. Camper was an African American physician who devoted his life to racial justice in Baltimore. He organized a group of African American physicians into  MeDeSo (Medical-Dental Society), which helped provide the funding for many civil rights suits, including Brown v. Board of Education.

Baltimore Civil Rights Activist Dr. John E. T. Camper

Civil rights activist Dr. John E. T. Camper in an undated photo.

Along with Juanita Jackson Mitchell, he organized a 1942 march on Annapolis by 2,000 protesters demanding civil rights in Maryland. Dr. Camper was also a founder of the Baltimore NAACP.  He was chair of the Baltimore Committee on Non-Segregation, which picketed the whites-only Ford’s Theater in that city for six years until the playhouse desegregated in 1952.

Kicking off his Progressive Party campaign, Camper said in part,

To the workers of the Fourth District who have witnessed the bipartisan attack on our living standards…I say that we stand for repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, for real price control, for a dollar minimum wage, and for wage increases to meet the rising cost of living.

No resident aware of the shameful betrayal of the Jewish people…and of the callous disregard of the rights of the Negro people can fail to support…Wallace.

Political Motivation Charged

The police denied any political motivations in breaking up the Wallace/Camper fundraiser and said they were just conducting a raid where illegal alcohol was being served.

However, the invitations to the party were under the names of Henry Thomas, leader of Laborer’s Local 74, who had helped lead police brutality protests earlier in the decade, Edward Fisher of Cafeteria Workers Local 471 that had engaged in the 11-week strike earlier caused by Cold War politics, and William Johnson of Local 209 of the Cooks, Pastry and Kitchen Workers union and a long-time civil rights leader in the city.

Among those arrested at the Laborer’s hall were Winston Edwards, national chairman of the veterans’ organization and Sidney Goldreich, acting chairman of Veterans for Wallace.

Local Progressive Party chair Clark Foreman, who was also national treasurer of the organization, said police broke up “parties composed of white people and Negroes, apparently on the theory that any such party is subversive,” according to the Washington Post.

Civil Rights Congress Denounces DC Police Raid on Progressives: 1948

D.C. Civil Rights Congress leader Thomas G. Buchanan Jr. speaks at a rally against police raids in 1948. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The D.C. chapter of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) held a demonstration on October 18 where 150 people marched on police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave., NW, carrying a coffin that read “Don’t Bury American Freedom” and carrying signs reading “Give Storm-trooper Tactics Back to the Nazis” and “Civil Rights Congress.”

Thomas G. Buchanan Jr., executive secretary of the local CRC branch, put perspective into the arrests saying, “The lottery charge is based on the allegation that veterans organizations were raffling off small prizes to those attending the party as a fundraising measure,” according to The Washington Herald. Such raffles were “a common practice among church groups and organizations of all types,” according to the Herald.

The CRC called for a police investigation of the incident and of police Captain Howard V. Covell, who had led the two raids.  Covell responded, “There was nothing political about those raids,” according to the Post.

Earlier Raid on Interracial Party

But eight days earlier, Washington police raided an interracial housewarming party given by Julius Kaplan at his apartment. According to Kaplan, police showed up about 1 a.m. and pretended to be looking for a fictional person named “Mrs. Schwartz,” ostensibly to tell her about a refrigerator leaking gas.

An hour later, 20 police officers showed up saying there had been a report of a shooting in the apartment. By the time the police arrived, there was only one African American still present and police demanded to search him for a weapon, according to Kaplan.

Police arrested 14 people at the address and held them at the police station until 5 a.m. before releasing them.  Kaplan said when the parents of one of the young women called the station to find out why she was being held, a police officer allegedly told them, “Communists are being questioned.” No charges were made related to a shooting.

Protests to Truman & DC Commissioners

The Progressive Party sent a telegram to President Harry Truman and the District of Columbia commissioners protesting the raids, saying in part, “We note that [Police Commissioner] Major Barrett has given as a reason for the high crime rate in Washington that he does not have enough police. We should like to call your attention that…he used nearly 50 police to break up a veterans dance on the pretext that certain individuals were selling liquor without a license and holding a raffle…”

The Washington Post editorialized that “Despite the explanation of Washington police that there was no political significance to Saturday night’s raid, local authorities have shown enough indifference to rowdyism launched against the Wallaceites to arouse suspicion that the arrests at this meeting were not entirely accidental. The case is at best a flimsy one, and, as police well know, illegal sale of liquor in Washington is by no means confined to Wallace rallies.”

The words may have rung true, but the political climate was stacked against those arrested.

Red Scare Takes Hold

Headlines about “reds” and “commies” filled the daily newspapers. The “Hollywood 10” had been convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail for refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs.

Afro Devotes Full Page to Progressive Party Convention: 1948

The Afro American covers the Progressive Party convention in July 31, 1948 edition.

The U.S. government had instituted loyalty oaths for federal employees and indicted leaders of the Communist Party on the charge of advocating insurrection. They were scheduled for trial the day before the Presidential Election.

The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, among its many provisions, effectively barred alleged communists from holding union office.  It was used locally by a government-sponsored corporation to refuse to bargain with the cafeteria workers union, forcing an 11-week strike earlier in the year.

Wallace, a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Vice-President, and Secretary of Commerce, was personally attacked as a communist sympathizer. Baltimore-based, nationally known journalist H. L. Mencken wrote that Wallace and the Progressive Party were under covert control of the communists.

Wallace ended up finishing fourth in the presidential election with about 1.2 million votes, running slightly behind segregationist Strom Thurmond in the popular vote. John Camper won 10% of the vote in the Maryland Fourth District in a three-way race, despite evidence of vote rigging by the Pollack political machine in African American precincts.

Fight in Court Against Raid Arrests

Notwithstanding the minor charges growing out of the dance at the Laborers’ hall, federal prosecutors were determined to convict the men, while those arrested battled back in the legal arena.

Edwards and Goldreich had their arrests dismissed because no police officer had actually observed them selling liquor or “operating a lottery.” Instead, police had arrested them because they said they were in charge of the dance.

However, this victory was short-lived as both still ended up facing charges for the alleged alcohol sale and lottery operation. Separate trials were scheduled for the lottery and alcohol sales.

The “illegal lottery” trial took place January 5, 1949, with the assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur McLaughlin proclaiming that the four men arrested, including Edwards and Goldreich, acted in “open defiance” of the law.

When undercover police officers testified, the “open defiance” of the law that required 35 officers to suppress on a Saturday night turned out to be chances that were being sold for 25 cents each to win three prizes—one fifth of scotch, one fifth of bourbon and a Paul Robeson “Freedom Train” record.

Veterans for Wallace: 1948

1948 Vets for Wallace button.

Police Officer Suggested Raffle

When Edwards, the head of the African American veterans organization, took the witness stand and was being questioned by McLaughlin, he testified that undercover police officer Benjamin Chaplain was the person who suggested holding the raffle to raise money.

Police testified they seized $19.80 at the event as evidence, but when Edwards testified he said he counted over $200 in proceeds two hours before the raid. “I am wondering what happened to all the money,” he said on the witness stand.

In his closing statement, prominent civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston argued that the raffle was conducted for a “cause” similar to church bazaars and fairs where contributions were requested. Houston went on to say that criminal intent was absent.

All were found guilty and fined; three of them were fined $50 and one $25.

Those charged with illegally selling whiskey, including Edwards and Goldreich, had a trial that stretched over three days, from January 17-19.

Leon Ransom, another well known civil rights attorney, argued that the five men charged were accepting contributions, but not selling liquor. Nevertheless, all five were found guilty.

After the trial, juror Anne Mallory filed an affidavit stating that she and other jurors understood that they could find all five guilty or all five innocent. She further stated that she believed two of the men were innocent, but Judge Aubrey B. Fennell denied the motion for a new trial. Fennell imposed fines of  $200 on all five defendants in February.

Further court appeals for both groups were unsuccessful.

Breadth of Suppression

In the overall context of the post World War II “red scare,” this was a minor incident. Those who were jailed or lost their jobs during that period suffered worse fates.

However, it illustrates the depth and breadth of the suppression of the country’s left wing movement during the period, including the use of fear and apprehension at being even remotely connected to progressive, socialist or communist issues and campaigns.

Police and the FBI routinely made files of everyone associated with left-wing activists or events. In this instance, it was those who attended a housewarming party or a dance. Authorities prosecuted minor offenses and created arrest records for others. An undercover police officer urged an act that police later conducted arrests for. Proceeds from the fundraiser went missing after police seized them.

Newspapers during this period published the names, addresses and often the employer of people even if they were not arrested or convicted of any crime. In this instance, The Washington Herald published the names and addresses of people who were booked for “investigation” and not for any crime. All the local newspapers carried the names and addresses of those arrested for minor alcohol violations in this case.

It also illustrates how those affected continued to fight back. They campaigned in elections, held demonstrations and waged court battles. The message of “Don’t Bury American Freedom” carried during the protest of these arrests turned out to be one repeated many times during the next decade.


Author’s Notes:

Sources include the following newspapers: The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star and The Washington Herald.  Also consulted were “Hearings Regarding Communism in the District of Columbia” conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and “A Doctor’s Legacy: Dr. John E. T. Camper and the MeDeSo” by Jonathan Cahn.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Police Break Up Unemployed Protest at White House: 1930

26 Feb

Police at the White House broke up a protest by the unemployed on March 6, 1930. The demonstration was part of the first nationwide protest response to the Great Depression that had begun the previous fall.

Protests were held in Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, Seattle, Las Angeles and San Francisco among other cities. Demonstrations were also held on the same day in cities around the world.

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 1

Pickets arrive at the White House, March 6, 1930. Photo courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress.

The clash began when District of Columbia local Communist Party leader William “Bert” Lawrence stopped and began to speak to the crowd, police in street clothes attacked him. Uniformed police then assaulted the picketers and bystanders with tear gas and black jacks. Some the protestors fought back against the police.

Some reports said President Herbert Hoover watched the demonstration from the White House windows along with a delegation from the District of Columbia Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), while other reports had his wife watching along with the DAR.

The District of Columbia Communist Party and allied groups began preparations in the city for weeks before and police responded by arresting 10 people on April 30 for holding soapbox style speeches on the street corners near the Communist Party headquarters at 1337 7th Street NW. Similar meetings and police harassment took place at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union statue at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Unemployment Rally in DC: 1930

Meeting at 1337 7th St. NW prior to picketing, March 6, 1930. From the Library of Congress

The communists and along with others held a rally the night before at the Communist Party headquarters where speeches were given and signs were made for the next day’s demonstration. The main themes were demands for good jobs, against police brutality, Jim Crow schools in the District and lynching.

Among the organizers were Lawrence, Solomon Harper of the International Labor Defense and Edith Briscoe of the Young Communist League.

Briscoe was among those arrested at the White House picket line after she jumped on the back of a police officer he was getting ready to strike an African American demonstrator. Lawrence was detained and charged with speaking in a public place without permission.

Harper was arrested for disorderly conduct, but was acquitted. He still faced charges from an outdoor speech he gave the night before condemning the lynching of sixty-year-old Laura Wood at Barber Junction in North Carolina.

Tear Gas Quells Reds: Washington Post 1930

Jobless pickets are the lead story for the Washington Post, March 7, 1930.

Public demonstrations of this type were fairly infrequent at that time and public protests involving blacks and whites even more infrequent.

The picket in front of the White House was held with blacks and whites locking arms while picketing. Press reports estimated that several thousand nearby office workers came out to watch. The newspapers also indicate that 13 picketers were arrested with an unknown number of injured, but only one that required hospital treatment.

The demonstrations made front-page news and were the lead stories in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun and helped put the Communist Party at the forefront of the fight against unemployment and racial discrimination in the District for the next decade.


To see still photos of the March 6, 1930 demonstration, go to the Washington Area Spark Flickr site.

The photos in the short video are courtesy of the Library of Congress. The video clips were originally from Sherman Grinberg, but are believed to be in the public domain. The clips were misidentified as part of the the 1932 bonus march in a Newsreel production. The Library of Congress has mis-dated some of the photos to a period earlier than they actually were taken.

Note: This post was updated February 28.

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