by Craig Simpson
In 1941, a group of predominantly young African American activists organized to take on the challenge of integrating one of the most visible examples of job discrimination in the city: The Washington, DC Capital Transit public transportation system.
The 15-year campaign went through a period of highs and lows as the company, aided at times by the union representing its workers and the federal government, stubbornly clung to its racist practices before finally succumbing in 1955.
The District of Columbia never had Jim Crow seating on public transit (unlike neighboring Maryland and Virginia) dating back to fights Sojourner Truth and Sen. Charles Sumner waged in the 1860s, but almost everything else in Washington, DC was segregated, including schools, parks, swimming pools, movie theaters and restaurants. Perhaps even more important, good paying jobs were reserved for white men only, with few exceptions.
Prior to the US entry into World War II, a rapid expansion of the government and the related defense industry was bringing an end to the Great Depression.
A Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (leading African American members of the Socialist Party) organized a “March on Washington” movement to demand desegregation of government and defense jobs scheduled for July 1, 1941. President Franklin Roosevelt tried desperately to head off the march and ultimately created a federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) with oversight of the defense industry in return for cancellation of the march.
Following this development, a local campaign to desegregate employment spearheaded by a dynamic group of young African American activists who set up a “Washington Initiating Committee” of the National Conference on Negro Youth in the city in October 1941. The group initially planned to use direct pressure on companies and federal agencies.
Key participants included Thelma Dale (Washington Negro Youth Federation), Marie Richardson (United Transport Service Employees Union-Red Caps), Henry Thomas (United Construction Workers Organizing Committee) and Jewel Mazique (Delta Sigma Theta), all of whom became prominent African American organizers in the city.
The group selected as its first target the Capital Transit Company that provided streetcar and bus service throughout the District. The company refused to hire African Americans as operators with the management citing rampant racial prejudice in the city as an excuse. As many as 20% of the workforce were African Americans employed in the maintenance section of the company, but were concentrated in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.
The committee began by soliciting letters to the company by the local NAACP and other organizations. Foreshadowing the Montgomery bus boycott by a dozen years, sixty workers at the Cook’s Waste Paper Factory at 59 Pierce Street NE added their disapproval and agreed to take any action necessary, including walking to work.
Company president E. D. Merrill responded with a flat-out refusal to consider breaking the barrier and his response triggered a stepped up campaign. The group continued to gain endorsement of its goals and in April 1942, the campaign was given another boost when Walter White, national secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) condemned Capital Transit’s hiring policies.
In August, Amalgamated Association of Street & Electric Railway Employees Division 689 president J. G. Bigelow sought and received a letter from the union’s International president W. D Mahon that restated the union’s policy against discrimination. Bigelow, considered a moderate on racial issues by the standards of the times, defeated old guard president William F. Sims in 1940.
Mahon’s letter concluded, “I realize how some of your membership, being Southerners, feel on this mater, but you must take into consideration the fact that we are now engaged in a war in which the colored man is called upon to do the same line of duty that the white man is called upon to do, and any discrimination that would attract public attention at this time would be very detrimental, and especially coming out of Washington.”
The Fight Broadens
The issue began to take on national importance as African American newspapers across the country began covering the issue.
A broader group was organized August 15, 1942 as The Committee on Jobs for Negroes in Public Utilities by its chair, William S. Johnson (Hotel & Restaurant Employees Local 209) and other local African American union leaders and activists.
The committee set up shop at 2001 11th Street NW (currently occupied by a branch of the Industrial Bank) after initially holding meetings at the offices of the Afro-American and the International Workers Order.
Sponsors were solicited that included both local and national representatives ranging from Charles Hamilton Houston (former NAACP counsel), Ralph Matthews (Baltimore Afro-American), Mary McLeod Bethune (National Council of Negro Women) to Communist Party members like Doxey Wilkerson. Several members of Congress were also sponsors of the committee.
The broader committee shifted strategy and began organizing to pressure the federal FEPC to take action against Capital Transit and force the company to desegregate.
The expansion of government meant thousands of new workers in the city at a time when young men were being drafted into the armed forces. This resulted in a shortage of streetcar and bus operators and Capital Transit advertised daily for new operators. This provided an opening that the committee exploited by taking out a large advertisement in the Washington Post calling for the hiring of “qualified negro operators” and for a mass meeting Nov. 3, 1942.
The meeting was timed to precede hearings on Capital Transit hiring policies by the FEPC. Hundreds came out to hear Rev. Adam Clayton Powell (then city councilman in New York City), Houston (then in private practice) and Henry Rhine of the Washington Industrial Council, CIO and others speak at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, 1630 Vermont Ave. NW.
The FEPC held hearings Nov. 23 and issued an order Nov. 30 that Capital Transit bring its policies into compliance with federal guidelines. The company president E. D. Merrill again responded that the time wasn’t right because company operations could be disrupted.
However, on February 1, 1943 the company hired Bernard Simmons, an African American, as a streetcar trainee. When Simmons was assigned to the Benning Road barn (Trinidad Division once located at 15th & Benning Road NE) for on-the-job training, a white operator refused to train him. Fifteen other white operators threatened to turn in their traps (quit working), according to the company. The company offered Simmons a janitorial job and when he refused, they fired him.
Meanwhile, to address the shortage of operators, the company began training white women to operate streetcars and shortly afterwards put them into service.
The committee renewed its offensive in the spring of 1943 with a week of action beginning May 3 in advance of a new FEPC hearings scheduled later in the month. The week began by picketing the company headquarters at 3600 M Street NW with a “blue ribbon” group of prominent national leaders.
Other pickets were set up at busy intersections throughout the city and thousands of buttons that read, “I support” were also distributed (see offsite photos of Jewel Mazique leading pickets at 14th & NY Ave. and the protest march in the Afro-American newspaper archives. Click on “World Mourns King” icon on right of the page, then click on “Browse this Newspaper,” then navigate to May 15 1943, pages 1 & 13).
The wartime “March on Washington,” led by an Elks band, was held May 7th beginning at 10th & U St. NW and ending at Franklin Park (14th & I St NW). Estimates of the crowd ranged from 800 by police to 3,500 by the Afro-American newspaper.
Marchers heard Rep. Vito Marcantonio (ALP-NY) declare, “If colored people…can drive tanks right into the heart of battle in Tunisia, they can drive streetcars and buses here.” On Sunday, May 9 over 100 black and white ministers at congregations across the city condemned the company’s hiring policies in their sermons.
Although they didn’t know it, the decision to rely solely on pressuring the federal government would prove to be flawed.
Fair Employment Commission Stalls
The FEPC postponed the May 18 hearing after a challenge was made to its jurisdiction over Capital Transit. In July the full FEPC voted to tell the company that they “expected affirmative action” to end discrimination and would call a public hearing August 9 if the company did not comply. The company continued to stall while the FEPC tried to negotiate.
In January 1944, the company discovered it had hired an African American woman, Sarah Grayson of 2231 Ontario Road NW. It promptly fired her, despite her five months of unblemished service (See offsite photo of Grayson in the Afro-American newspaper. Click on “World Mourns King” icon on right of the page, then click on “Browse this Newspaper,” then navigate to Feb. 5, 1944, page 11).
“I made no effort to conceal my racial identity. The question just never came up,” Grayson said, according to the Afro-American.
Grayson found it amusing that her co-workers would make disparaging remarks about African Americans while trying to talk her into a date. She was discovered when a neighbor applied for a job at the company and was turned down. According to the Afro newspaper, the neighbor allegedly told the company, “I don’t see why you can’t hire me when you have a colored girl working for you.”
Hopes were raised in 1944 by two events, the integration of operators at the Philadelphia transit system at gunpoint by the federal government and the appointment of Houston to the federal FEPC.
Under orders by the FEPC, the Philadelphia Transportation Company began promoting African Americans to operators. In August 1944, white operators staged a seven-day wildcat strike protesting the promotions. Philadelphia contained vital defense plants and the federal government seized the company, ordered strikers back to work and threatened to strip any men refusing of the draft deferments and job availability certificates for the duration of WW II and backed it up with the US Army.
The Capital Transit management continued to stall—never outright refusing, continuing to “negotiate,” but never implementing any change. Meanwhile, in December 1944, Sims, campaigning against the possibility of African American operators, regained the presidency of the transit union by defeating Bigelow.
President Roosevelt died in April 1945 and vice president Harry Truman became president. As WWII drew to a close, the FEPC would also terminate with the end of the war and a campaign was undertaken to make the FEPC permanent.
(See offsite photo of Marie Richardson picketing for a permanent FEPC in the Afro-American newspaper. Click on “World Mourns King” icon on right of the page, then click on “Browse this Newspaper,” then navigate to Feb. 2, 1946, page 24).
Houston Quits in Protest of Truman Inaction
When Capital Transit workers staged wildcat strikes twice in 1945 over wage disputes, an opportunity presented itself to enforce the FEPC order. Truman ordered the seizure of the company November 21 to enforce arbitration of the wage issue. Houston drafted a directive to enforce the FEPC order to integrate the company while it was under federal control, but Truman countermanded it.
Houston was incredulous and demanded an explanation. When none was forthcoming, he resigned blasting Truman for maintaining, “…a persistent course of conduct on the part of the Administration to give lip service to the matter of eliminating discrimination in employment on account of race, creed, color or national origin since V-J (Victory in Japan) day, while doing nothing substantial to make the policy effective.”
The company had perhaps understood politics better than the protestors. Truman believed he needed support of southern Democrats and Washington, DC was not Philadelphia. Despite Truman’s mild support of a permanent FEPC, it was filibustered in the US Senate and died.
Red Scare Decimates Local Leaders
The next blow to Capital Transit integration came with the anti-labor, anti-communist Taft-Harley law in 1947 and the burgeoning “red scare” that began with Truman’s “Federal Employee Loyalty Program” in 1947 and continued through House and Senate hearings on the Communist Party where those named were accused of disloyalty and had their names and addresses published in newspapers. The McCarren Internal Security Act followed in 1950. Prosecutions began under the resurrected 1940 Smith Act.
The District of Columbia African American labor leaders and their unions that had been the backbone of the push to integrate Capital Transit were put on the defensive. The Cafeteria Workers union waged an eleven-week strike against Government Services Incorporated (GSI-a federal government-sponsored corporation that operated a majority of federal cafeterias) because GSI refused to bargain with a “red” union. They survived, but the president of their union, Richard A. Bancroft, resigned instead of signing a Taft-Hartley oath renouncing the Communist Party.
The United Public Workers (formerly United Federal Workers) union was expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations for “red” leadership and ultimately fell apart. Henry Thomas, president of the Laborer’s Local 74 AFL, turned on his allies and denounced them before Congress in an attempt to keep his leadership of the union. He was ultimately defeated anyway in the mid 1950s.
Doxey Wilkerson, chair of the transit week of action in 1943, was ostracized and Committee on Jobs for Negros in Public Utilities chairman William S. Johnson, who was also president of Hotel & Restaurant Local 209 AFL, was expelled by the national union for allegedly being a “red.”
Marie Richardson, another founder of the movement and former secretary of the District National Negro Congress and one of the first African American woman to hold a national office in a labor union (United Federal Workers) was ultimately jailed for over four years—convicted with the help of Thomas’s testimony. Her crime was lying on a federal application for a clerk’s position.
These casualties were the tip of the iceberg. The cumulative effect of the anti-labor and anti-communist campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s on the Capital Transit effort was to rob the movement of its organizers and base.
The broader effect was to decapitate progressive African American leadership among blue-collar workers in the District. It wasn’t until the black power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s that new leaders demanding social change began to arise in the workplace.
Effort Limps Along 1948-53
The remaining civil rights movement in the District concentrated on desegregating other facilities including theaters, cafeterias, parks and schools relegating the Capital Transit issue to the back burner.
However, the NAACP, Americans for Democratic Action, a now marginalized Communist Party and other activists continued to raise the issue at Capital Transit fare increase hearings before the District Public Utilities Commission from 1948-53. The Washington Afro-American also kept the issue alive through its columns and news stories.
The transit management continued to sing the same song that white workers would strike or quit and service disruptions would occur.
Background Conditions Changing for Company & Union
In 1949, financier Louis Wolfson bought Capital transit from the North American Co. that had resisted hiring black operators. The sale was forced by a Supreme Court decision because North American also owned the Potomac Electric Power Company.
In 1950, Walter J. Bierwagen, one of the leaders of the 1945 wildcat strikes, defeated Sims for president of the local transit union. Bierwagen was not a radical, but campaigned to unify the union. In 1951, he led a three-day strike that secured seniority rights during work reductions for maintenance employees.
In doing so, he earned the support of African American union members who were often laid-off in the post WWII period when transit was contracting despite having more seniority than white co-workers, according to contemporary union accounts.
And the tide was beginning to turn in the District on civil rights.
In 1953, the Baltimore Transit Company 30 miles north of Washington, hired its first African American operators.
In 1953, Washington, DC downtown movie theaters and restaurants began desegregating and parks and recreation facilities followed in 1954.
On May 17, 1954 the US Supreme Court ruled that the District’s segregated schools were unconstitutional in the Bowling vs. Sharpe decision. The Court handed it down on the same day as the famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
The Die Was Now Cast
The Capital Transit case had become an embarrassment to leading liberals. Members of the Senate District Subcommittee, Senators Wayne Morse (I-OR), J. Glenn Beall (R-MD) and Frederick Payne (R-ME), lashed out at the Capital Transit Company and the union at a September 1954 hearing.
“It is intolerable that the largest transit company operating in the Nation’s Capital, which carries thousands of Negroes daily on its runs should refuse to hire Negro platform workers,” a committee report declared.
The Afro-American newspaper conducted a survey of white operators and found only two out of 60 polled opposed hiring African Americans.
The Public Utilities Commission hosted a series of talks between the company, the union, the Urban League and representatives of the President’s Commission on Contracts to resolve the issue.
Bierwagen was now at the crossroads. Up until this point, he had taken the position that the union had nothing to do with hiring and accepted into its ranks anyone that the company hired. He testified on several occasions that while the union would oppose any type of job action, he expected the men would react.
His hands-off stance did not sit well with his African American supporters in the union. Bierwagen also faced what he likely considered bigger problems than the hiring of black operators.
The Capital Transit owner, Louis Wolfson, had bought the company in 1949 for $2 million and then quickly paid out $3 million in dividends to himself. Service was declining and Wolfson was claiming the company was broke and demanding fare increases from the Public Utilities Commission. Facing these conditions, Bierwagen’s union had a labor contract that was expiring in July 1955.
Public opinion was solidly against Wolfson, but without a resolution of the African American operator issue, the public could turn against the union.
Union Votes in Favor of Integration
John Bryan, a union ally of Bierwagen’s, said in a 2007 interview that Bierwagen agreed during the Public Utilities Commission meetings to get union support for integration and the management in turn agreed to promote African American maintenance workers to streetcar and bus operator positions before hiring off the street.
At the December 1954 union executive board meeting, “Bierwagen got a 5-3 vote” in favor on the executive board and had a voice vote at the next union meeting [January 4, 1955], according to Bryan. “A lot of fellows said that the nays had it, but Bierwagen banged the gavel and ruled the vote was in favor,” Bryan added.
On January 13, 1955 an agreement was announced that Capital Transit would initially promote African American applicants from within the maintenance department and the company would also begin to hire new operators from the street. Victor Daly from the US Labor Department was to review and select the first applicants from within the company. Bierwagen pledged the full cooperation of the union.
By March 1955 Robert S. Pettigrew was operating a bus and James Richard Russell was operating a streetcar. There were no work stoppages.
The struggle didn’t end there as District activist Julius Hobson threatened a bus boycott to increase African American hiring in 1962. There were long battles to integrate departments and diversify management within the company. However, the first Metrorail operator in 1976 was an African American, William “Pop” Saunders. In 1983 the union elected its first African American president, James M. Thomas Jr. The same year Carmen Turner, an African American woman, was selected Acting General Manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, often called Metro), a successor company to Capital Transit.
Additional images can be seen in the Flickr set “Fighting Capital Transit Racism: 1941-55”.
Notes: Most of the material from which this history is derived is from public sources such as the Washington Afro-American, Washington Post, Washington Star and other newspapers. Other material was gathered Congressional hearing documents. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 also made material available.
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 e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.