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DC’s fighting barber & the end of public school segregation

20 Aug
Boycott Browne school: 1947

The Consolidated Parents Group pickets the Board of Education in 1947.

By Daniel Hardin

It took an uprising by working class African Americans east of the Anacostia River to spark a Supreme Court decision to outlaw Washington, D.C. school segregation and break new ground in interpreting the “due process” clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

Gardner Bishop worked as a barber after moving to Washington, D.C. in 1930, living east of the Anacostia River. In 1947 his 14-year-old daughter Judine was enrolled in the District’s public schools.

The segregated school system was grossly overcrowded with inferior facilities and substandard equipment.

Bishop sought a transfer for his daughter to the elite African American Banneker School, but was turned down by the black school officials because he was only a barber and schools like Banneker were reserved for the children of lawyers, ministers and other professionals.

He tried to gain admittance for Judine to the nearby white Elliot Junior High where student vacancies existed, but was also turned down based on the city’s long-standing dual school system. Bishop termed this “double Jim Crow.”

Bishop reflected back on those times 30 years later and said,

Segregation was not only white against black, but it was also upper class blacks against the lower class. We were on the bottom shelf. I’m black and I’m poor, so I’m segregated twice.

 Already substandard, now half the education

The whites-only Elliot Junior High School had a capacity of 918 students but only 783 enrollees. By contrast, the African American Browne Junior High, the neighborhood school Judine was assigned to, had a capacity of 783 but an enrollment of 1,638.

Garnet C. Wilkinson, longtime DC school official: 1950 ca.

Garnet C. Wilkerson, asst. supt. of DC black public schools.

Browne students began the school year in double shifts. Garnet Wilkinson, the African American assistant superintendent in charge of black schools, devised a plan where Browne would end some of the double shifts by using the formerly white, but now unused Blow and Webb elementary schools as annexes.

Browne students’ parents were outraged. The double shifts effectively cut students education in half while the use of the elementary schools meant longer walks for students to facilities with no equipment and desks too small for the larger adolescents.

Wilkinson’s plan went into effect December 1st. Classroom assignments called for 1,146 students to “shuttle” between the Browne school at 24th Street and Benning Road NE, the Blow School at 19th Street and Benning Road NE and the Webb School at 15th and Rosedale Streets NE. At the same time 680 students would continue their part time status at Browne.

Bishop disdained the Browne PTA, calling them “handpicked.” According to Bishop they had property owners in the area, various civic association representatives and non-parents in leadership. When working class parents attended the meetings, they felt “passed over,” according to Bishop.

In response, Bishop organized Browne students’ parents who “worked two jobs and went to church on Sundays” to meet at the Jones Memorial Church where they voted to stage a student strike or “sit-out.” The group would come be known as the Consolidated Parents Group.

Enough is enough

DC rights leader Gardner Bishop: 1950 ca.

Consolidated Parents Group leader Gardner Bishop.

The day before the planned boycott, Bishop organized a cab caravan to transport students to the Board of Education meeting at the Franklin Administration Building at 13th & K Streets NW.

Without any warning, Bishop led 40 children into the meeting and announced, “These are children from the Browne Junior High School and there’s not going to be—not one of them—or anyone else—at that school tomorrow, so I just wanted to explain who’s doin’ it and why.”

Browne recalled the board initially denied him the right to speak, but relented. “They sat there like a bunch of fools not believing a word they heard.”

The boycott began December 3rd with all children staying away from school and with children picketing at the schools and parents at the Franklin building. The city’s newspapers picked up the story and ran sympathetic articles.

Consolidated organized itself further and Bishop came to rely on a core group of leaders composed of Marie W Smith and Burma Whitted, vice presidents; Unity T. Macklin, secretary; and James Haley Sr., Treasurer along with a dozen other member activists among the hundreds of members.

Down with DC school segregation: 1947

Consolidated Parents pickets the board of education at 13th & K NW in 1947.

By mid-December, under ferocious attack from more conservative elements in the black community, Consolidated partially ended their boycott by having children return to Browne but continue boycotting Blow and Webb.

Supplementary classes for children were set up by the group at Jones Memorial Church.

As the weeks wore on, the strike began faltering and some parents began sending their children to the annexes. Shortly afterward a settlement was finally reached whereby students returned to the classrooms February 3, 1948.

The issues that arose in the strike would be settled by two lawsuits. One sponsored by the Browne PTA asked that the Board of Education be enjoined from assigning black junior high students to elementary schools while there was space available in white schools. The other sponsored by Consolidated Parents challenged the unequal facilities of the segregated school system itself.

As part of ending the strike, the Board of Education agreed to house the students in five different self-contained school buildings and ended students “shuttling” between facilities.

Consolidated Parents bonds with Houston

Getting to a lawsuit was a big leap for Bishop. He was distrustful of “upper class Negroes” as were the other parent members of Consolidated. The “highfalutin” and “comfortable” blacks didn’t use tactics that Bishop believed would lead to results.

However as the strike continued without resolution in December 1947, they voted to have Bishop contact Charles Hamilton Houston, a former NAACP litigation director and former head of Howard University’s law school.

Houston Challenges Board over Marion Anderson: 1939

Charles Hamilton Houston before the Board of Education in 1939.

It was a decision born of desperation. Houston was seen as one of the upper class of blacks that had disparaged working class African Americans and helped to “hurt” the “little people,” according to Bishop. However, Bishop was willing to try rather than have the strike end in abject failure.

Houston was in private practice and was working to become appointed as one of the District of Columbia commissioners—there was no elected representation at that time.

Bishop went to a Houston for Commissioner rally in mid December and introduced himself. Bishop said Houston was “elated” to meet the leader of the strikers. Consolidated Parents met with Houston at his home at 3611 New Hampshire Ave. NW where the venerable civil rights attorney told them, “You got yourself a lawyer.”

Houston took two legal approaches—accusing the school board of failing to provide black facilities equal to those of white students and of perpetuating fraud by claiming that black children could receive as much education in one half day as white children in a full day.

Gardner recalled that Houston “never let up…never backed down…never ceased working…and never accepted a penny,” even paying the filing fees out of his own pocket. Houston enlisted help from Howard University professors and from other attorneys from the Houston law firm.

Consolidated Parents meeting: 1949

Consolidated Parents Group meeting flyer from 1949.

While the cases were winding their way through the courts, Bishop and other leaders of Consolidated held hearings, bombarded the school board with complaints about teacher/pupil ratios and filed suits on behalf of black children excluded from kindergarten, overcrowding at Cardozo High School and other manifestations of the separate and unequal school system.

Lawsuits dismissed

The court cases were dismissed in 1950. The PTA’s case of Carr v. Corning was turned down by the court of appeals because the double shifts and “shuttling” were ended before the suit was heard. In the other cases, the courts found that the District’s schools had been segregated since the 1860s and that the white and black schools were equal enough to meet the requirements of the 14th Amendment.

The outcome was not unexpected by Houston and Bishop. A report by George Strayer detailing the District’s systemic exclusion of black children from kindergarten, inadequate classroom space and facilities for African Americans and disparate teacher/student ratios was issued too late to be introduced as evidence.

In preparation for defeat, Bishop and Houston agreed to radically change their approach. They would directly challenge the so called “separate but equal” system itself, hoping to overturn the 1896 Supreme Court decision that established the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Plessy v. Ferguson.

James Nabritt: 1950 ca.

James Nabritt circa 1950.

In April 1950, Houston realized he was dying and called Bishop to his bedside. He asked Bishop to permit James Nabritt to take over as attorney for Consolidated Parents.

Bishop, Nabritt and Houston agreed that they wanted nothing to do with what Bishop called “the social club” NAACP suits that sought to equalize the separation. Instead they would attack Jim Crow head on. It was a risky strategy that carried the peril of upholding segregation.

Houston died days after their meeting and a giant of the early civil rights movement and a champion of African Americans in the District was gone.

Spottwood Bolling takes center stage

Fresh with victory in the Carr case, the DC school board continued to build segregated schools. They opened the white John Phillips Sousa Junior High in Anacostia on September 11, 1950 with a large auditorium, double gyms, seven basketball courts, a softball field and a number of empty classrooms.

Bishop escorted eleven black children to enroll on the first day of school.

Those black children walked in there and they saw the most beautiful school they had ever seen. All those wonderful typewriters, the laboratories, the great gymnasium…

While the principal of the all white school graciously took them on a tour, he refused to admit the students.

Victory in Bolling v. Sharpe: 1954

Spottswood Bolling in front of his home in May 1954.

One of the students was Spottswood Bolling Jr., whose mother was a bookbinder for the federal government. Bolling was assigned to Shaw Junior High on U Street NW, an overcrowded black school with no science equipment and no playground.

Nabritt enlisted another Washington, D.C. civil rights attorney, George E. C. Hayes, as co-counsel. They filed suit with Bolling’s being the first name on the document. The suit named C. Melvin Sharpe, the District’s school superintendent as the defendant.

Nabritt avoided citing the 14th Amendment that applied only to states and because it would be too easy to get an outcome that merely increased spending on black schools—or worse—found the schools equal enough.

Instead, Nabritt cited the due process clause of the 5th Amendment, a guarantee binding on Congress that in turn administered the District of Columbia.

Two years passed while the case moved through the courts when Nabritt received a telephone call from the clerk of the Supreme Court who indicated that the Court wished to consolidate the case with others challenging Jim Crow schools. Bishop was suspicious and insisted that the NAACP, which provided representation in the other major school suits, be excluded from the Bolling v. Sharpe team.

Nabritt filed the necessary petition to the Supreme Court to bypass the court of appeals. The Court granted the petition and arguments were heard December 9, 1952. The case was consolidated with four others and re-argued December 8th and 9th 1953.

Arguments to the Court

Nabritt and Hayes took turns presenting oral arguments to the Court in 1953.

George E C Hayes: 1948

Co-counsel George E. C. Hayes circa 1950.

Hayes opened saying,

The position we are taking with respect to these cases, that segregation, per se, is unconstitutional, and that without regard to physical facilities, without regard to the question of curriculum and that if, as a matter of fact, there is a designation that one must go to a particular school for no other reason than because of race or color, that that is a violation of the constitutional right; and as this Court has said, wherever the issue is raised with respect to color, then it is upon the Government to show that the reason for it, that there is a reason for it—that there is a reason that is a justifiable reason.

Nabritt strenuously argued the distinction between the 14th Amendment and the 5th Amendment.

The basic question here is one of liberty, and under liberty, under the due process clause, you cannot deal with it as a quantum of treatment, substantially equal. You either have liberty or you do not. When liberty is interfered with by the state, it has to be justified, and you cannot justify it by saying that we only took a little liberty You justify it by the reasonableness of the taking. We submit that in this case, in the heart of the nation’s capital, in the capital democracy, in the capital of the free world there is no place for a segregated school system. This country cannot afford it, and the Constitution does not permit it, and the statutes of Congress do not authorize it.

Victory

Washington Post leads with end of school segregation: 1954

Washington Post on the Supreme Court decision banning school segregation.

The court, led by newly confirmed Chief Justice Earl Warren decided unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs.

In his opinion, he noted that while the 14th Amendment, whose Equal Protection Clause was cited in the more famous Brown vs. Board in order to declare segregation unconstitutional did not apply in the District of Columbia, the 5th Amendment did in fact apply.

Warren held that “the concepts of equal protection and due process, both stemming from our American ideal of fairness, are not mutually exclusive.” While equal protection is a more explicit safeguard against discrimination, the Court stated, “…discrimination may be so unjustifiable as to be violative of due process.”

Referring to the technicalities raised by the case’s location in the District of Columbia, the Court held that, in light of their decision in Brown that segregation in state public schools is prohibited by the Constitution, it would be “unthinkable that the same Constitution would impose a lesser duty on the Federal Government.”

The Court concluded: “racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia is a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the 5th Amendment.” The Court restored both Bolling and Brown to the docket until they could reconvene to discuss how to effectively implement the decisions.

Bishop and Consolidated Parents had their victory for working class African Americans in the only major school case decided without counsel from the NAACP.

After the Court’s decision, Bishop stepped down as head of the Consolidated Parents Group. Bishop continued to hold his own court in his B&D Barbershop near 15th & U Streets NW where he worked until he retired in 1985. He died November 25, 1992.


Postscript

White students terrorize Anacostia black students: 1954

White students at Anacostia High chase black enrollees October 4, 1954.

Conservatives have consistently attacked the specific Bolling v. Sharpe decision through the years as going beyond the bounds of reasonableness.

Implementation of the Court decision was not without resistance. White students, with backing by some parents, staged walkouts and confrontations with newly enrolled black students on the first day of District of Columbia school integration October 4, 1954.

Students at McKinley, Eastern, Chamberlain Vocational high schools and McFarland and Taft Junior high schools staged demonstrations in the days following. Attendance at schools across the city was down after calls for a student strike by white students.

In the most egregious incident white students at Anacostia High School attempted to attack black students in October 1954 and staged student rallies and marches in opposition to integration, including one that drew hundreds of students and parents.

Integrated students at Anacostia High School: 1957

Integrated class at Anacostia High School in 1957.

Court ordered integration did not solve the problem of equal opportunity and quality education.

Community activist Julius Hobson filed suit in 1967 to end a tracking system by the District’s schools that put working class African Americans on a vocational “track” denying them the opportunity afforded to white students and black children from professional parents. A 1968 decision was awarded in Hobson’s favor that abolished the District’s tracking system.

However, the issue of providing a quality education to the District’s working class African Americans is an ongoing one that has not as yet been resolved in the 21st Century.


Author’s notes:

Gardner Bishop in his barbershop: 1974

Gardner Bishop in his barbershop at 15th & U Streets NW in 1974.

Gardner Bishop held an abiding disdain for all—black or white—that behaved in a condescending or uncaring manner toward the issues of working class African Americans.

An example of Bishop’s sharp tongue occurred in 1937 when he passed a “whites only” park where his four-year-old daughter wanted to get on the swing set. As Judine was swinging back and forth, a police officer came up and pointed out the “whites only” sign.

Bishop responded, “She can’t read.” The remark cost Bishop a $10 fine for disorderly conduct.

Given this incident, it was no surprise that the Consolidated Parents Group also fought for equal recreation facilities.

When a 14-year-old African American boy died after swimming after hours in the segregated Rosedale pool at 17th & Gales Streets NE in June 1952, Consolidated joined other groups in picketing the playground and the board of recreation. The ongoing picketing culminated in a number of arrests.

In September, over 100 children climbed over the fence of the whites-only pool and entered the swimming area. The recreation staff closed the pool, but the following day the children returned and by shear numbers integrated the pool. One police officer said, “I can’t arrest these children. They’re having such a good time.”

The pool closed for the season shortly afterward and the recreation board opened the Rosedale playground to all. Before the pool opened in the spring, the board voted to integrate the pool as well.

Bishop’s legacy may be more than his victory over segregation. His determination to fight and form new forms of organization to challenge what others said couldn’t be challenged may be equally important. It’s a lesson that was learned in the 1960s with the formation of SNCC and the transformation of CORE and with the attempts today to form organization out of the struggle in Ferguson.

Sources include the Afro American, The Washington Post, The Daily News, The Washington Star, The Pittsburgh Courier, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights by Genna Rae McNeil, Jim Crow’s Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision by Peter Irons, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School by Alison Stewart.


Want to see and read more?

Additional images of the fight for DC school desegregation

Images of the fight for DC parks and recreation integration in the 1940s and 1950s

Images of a 1919 mobilization by DC school parents

Images of a 1930s boycott movement to end segregation at DC stores

Images of the fight to integrate theaters and performance venues in DC

Images of the fight to integrate employment at the Capital Transit Company

Images of the fight against racism at the Library of Congress

The story of the fight to integrate theaters and performance venues in DC

The story of the fight to integrate employment at the Capital Transit Company


Strike Wave at Washington, DC’s Capital Transit: 1945

10 May
Transit Union Members At Pythian Temple:

Union members outside Pythian Temple Nov. 6, 1945.

By Daniel Hardin

“Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands.”

Walter H. Vanstavern

Nearly 4,500 workers on the Washington, D.C. Capital Transit streetcar and bus system went on a wildcat strike November 6, 1945 to demand higher wages, despite a no-strike provision in the contract between the Amalgamated Association of Street Electric Railway Employees (the Amalgamated) Division 689 and the company.

The strike ended briefly with a truce, but a second wildcat strike took place two weeks later that ended when the U.S. government seized the company and threatened to operate the system with U.S. troops.

Post-War Turmoil

The Capital Transit strike was part of perhaps the greatest strike wave in U.S. history–during 1945-46–that involved upwards of 4.5 million workers across the country.

DC telephone operators leave union meeting at Turner's Arena in 1946

DC telephone operators leave union meeting at Turner’s Arena before strike in 1946..

As GIs returned to the U.S. and sought employment, workers’ hours, and thereby their take-home pay, were cut in nearly all industries. Pay demands were also pent up due to relatively small raises granted during the war years of 1942-45 where many unions entered no-strike pledges. The companies also began pushing elimination or weakening of seniority and other work rules designed to protect employees.

The strike wave involved workers in the auto, meatpacking, steel, coal, railroad, mining and oil industries, among others. The government responded by seizing the railroads, threatening to seize other industries and to draft strikers into the army.

Division 689

Division 689 of the Amalgamated was established after a one-day strike in 1916 at the Capital Traction and the Washington Railway & Electric companies. A year after the settlement WRE president Clarence King sought to break the union when he fired key union supporters and refused to negotiate a new agreement, instead offering individual contracts to workers.

Crowd Blocks Scab Streetcar During Transit Strike: 1917

Workers & supporters halt a scab WRE streetcar at 9th & F St. during a 1917 strike.

Capital Traction settled the day before a scheduled strike. The union called a strike against the larger WRE, but the company operated with strikebreakers and broke the union. The unionization of city lines wasn’t completed again until Capital Traction merged with the WRE to become Capital Transit in 1933 and applied the union contract to all workers.

The defeat at WRE in 1917 loomed large over the union leaders for the next two decades and as a result they pursued a policy of accommodation with the company. The old guard was defeated in 1940 by upstarts calling for a more militant approach, but former president William F. Simms recaptured the position by defeating Jonathan G. Bigelow in 1944 by accusing him of being soft on resisting de-segregation of bus and trolley operators.

Segregation

The transit companies in Washington, D.C. had no practice or law requiring Jim Crow seating like those south of the Potomac River, but the D.C. companies had long refused to hire African American operators or conductors.

In 1940 a group of young activists began undertaking a campaign to integrate the Capital Transit operator ranks through education, pickets, lobbying and demonstrations. The federal government had the power to integrate the company during World War II through a Fair Employment Practices Commission; however, despite repeated promises they had failed to do so by 1945.

Jonathan G. Bigelow, Transit Union Division 689 President: 1940

Jonathan G. Bigelow, union president 1940-44.

While Bigelow was union president, he took the position of the Amalgamated’s International Union that the union accepted anyone who was hired. Indeed, he pointed out that hundreds of maintenance employees were African Americans. But he warned that bus and streetcar operators might not accept black drivers and would likely strike if they were employed. Simms was not so reticent He vowed to oppose any attempt to hire African Americans.

Against this background of pent-up wage demands, talk of strikes opposing integration, the end of World War II and the beginning of a new general labor militancy, the Capital Transit workers gathered at a union meeting to consider their situation.

 The Strike Begins

In October 1945, Capital Transit rejected the union’s wage demands. To put pressure on the company, Simms called for a “continuous union meeting” to begin at midnight at the Gayety theater near 9th & E Streets NW. It was attended by around 2,500 workers.

The strike effectively began at 2:30 am on November 6, 1945 when the first trains and buses were due to leave their barns and workers were still in their meeting.

Idol is Idled by Streetcar Strike: 1945

A man listens for a streetcar on the 2800 block of 14th St. in the early hours of the first 1945 strike.

The strike left heavily-streetcar-dependent Washington paralyzed. Over 500,000 passengers normally made between 1.2 and 1.5 million trips per day.

Without any preparations for the strike, the federal government opened on time, but closed two hours early. Downtown department stores closed at 4:30 p.m. All district government employees except firemen and police were let out at 3:30 pm.

The Washington Post wrote, “Scenes on the Capital’s streets included: a naval officer pedaling a bicycle with a government stenographer in a basket on the handlebars; a Negro riding to work on horseback, and a youth zigzagging down Sixteenth Street on roller skates he obviously hadn’t used for years.”

“Among the hundreds of thousands affected by the strike were delegates to President Truman’s labor-management conference called to write a national peace formula for industry and labor. They had to depend on scarce taxicabs or private automobiles,” the Washington Post reported.

The rolling union meeting shifted to the Pythian Temple on 9th Street between L Street and Massachusetts Avenue in the morning and still later to Turner’s Arena at 14th Street and W Street. NW, where 3,000 union members showed up.

Capital Transit Union Leaders in mid-20th Century

New negotiating committee (l-r) W. H. Van Stavern, Walter J. Bierwagen, R. E. Hanna with transit union president William F. Simms.

The raucous meeting was divided into two points of view—one urging a return to work and the other wanting to continue to exercise their newfound power. An early sign of how the meeting was to go came when a new negotiating committee was elected composed of a more militant trio, Walter Bierwagen, R. E. Hanna and Walter H. Vanstavern.

Simms, the Amalgamated’s International secretary-treasurer Sam Berrong, and federal mediator Richard W. Goodrick all urged a return to work.

“The company is more than willing to enter negotiations with the union. But the company insists that the terms of the contract, which requires that ‘service shall not be interfered with’ be honored. Go back to your jobs and I am sure that you and the company officials can get together,” Goodrick told the crowd

 Compromise or Unusual Manner?

Vanstavern, newly elected to the negotiating committee spoke next: “Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands. We regard the sentiments of our International leaders and our own president with considerable deference. But this is an unusual controversy which must be handled in an unusual manner.”

Transit Union Strike Meeting: 1945

“Continuous meeting” of DC transit union at Turner’s Arena on 14th St. NW

Vanstavern’s words were met with 10 minutes of shouting, foot stamping and applause by supporters of the new negotiating committee. The workers voted to continue the strike.

E. D. Merrill, president of Capital Transit, responded that the company would lose $2.5 million annually if the workers were awarded their demand of a $0.30 per hour raise to all workers. Instead he offered to incorporate the $0.07 per hour bonus that was already being paid into the basic rate—the same offer he had made in October—well before the strike.

Government Intervention

The federal government immediately reacted to the strike. More than 500 military MPs at Ft. Myer were put on alert. Labor Department Secretary Lewis B. Schwellenbach and Sen. Jennings Randolph, chair of the House District Committee, met the union leaders and the company during the morning of Nov. 7th.

DC Transit Union President Confers with Mediator: 1945

Simms (right) confers with federal conciliator Richard Goodrick (center).

Randolph made the implicit threat of government seizure when he said that President Truman had told him to “step in and help end the dispute that had seriously impeded the government of vitally needed Government employees.”

The National Negro Congress issued a statement calling for granting the wage increase to the workers, but urged the company to desegregate its operators at the same time.

The company issued a statement refusing to bargain, citing a “no interruption of service” clause in the union’s contract.

 Union Demands

The union demands centered on increasing pay to $1.25 an hour as a basic wage for operators and to which other classifications were tied. The current wage was $1.02 per hour that consisted of $0.95 cents basic wage and $0.07 an hour wartime bonus. Mediation in October 1945 had recommended no increase beyond incorporating the $0.07 bonus into the basic wage, a proposal the union rejected.

Workers in most departments, including bus and streetcar operators, had been working an average of 48-hour work weeks that were threatened with cut back to 40 hours as members of the armed services were released from duty. In order to make up for the lost pay, the strikers were demanding the wartime bonus be incorporated and an additional $0.23 be added to make up for lost earnings plus a nominal increase in take-home pay.

Company President Refuses to Hire Black Operators 1941

E. D. Merrill, Capital Transit Co. president

“E.D. Merrill, president of the Capital Transit, said that if the workers were paid the 30 cent an hour increase they are demanding, the company would have to raise car and bus fares to meet the added operating costs,” the Washington Post reported.

“To raise the fares charged now the company would have to petition the District Public Utilities Commission and show cause why they should be raised,” said Merrill.

“To do that would result in a long dragged out rate case that would probably take months to settle. And there’s no way you can charge bus and streetcar passengers retroactively for underpaid fares. No one can say exactly how much it would cost the company,” Merrill stated, according to the Washington Post.

 Capital & Labor

The union adopted a position that was later cemented during the 1955 strike and continues to underpin the union’s position on wages and benefits today.

Streetcar Union Members at Pythian Temple: 1945

Transit workers outside the Pythian Temple during “continuous union meeting.”

It can be summed up as follows: that the workers have value and needs independent of the company’s profit (or later the government’s funding) and in a society of tremendous wealth—those needs must be met.

But even without the union adopting that position, Capital Transit owned outright nearly all its facilities and equipment, had little debt, good operating profits, and large cash reserves.

Truce

The union’s negotiating committee reconsidered their bargaining position and entered into a temporary truce calling for a 14-day cooling off period.

At the same time the truce was reached, taxicab drivers of Local 953 of the Taxicab Operators Union were meeting to consider joining the strike.

The 1:00 pm meeting of about 3,000 seesawed back and forth between speakers calling for a continuation of the strike and those who urged backing the negotiating committee. In the end, the union members voted nearly unanimously to ratify the agreement. It contained three points:

  1. That the prestrike status quo be restored
  2. That all employees be returned to work without discrimination or penalties against strikers or the union.
  3. That negotiations proceed for a 14-day period before a special three-man Conciliation Service panel.
Sam Berrong, Transit Union Official During DC Strike: 1945

Sam Berrong, the Amalgamated’s International representative during the strike.

After the ratification vote, Berrong told local union leaders that; “I want to congratulate you on your decision. I happen to know that if you hadn’t decided to go back to work, the Army was prepared to take over at 2 o’clock,” according to the Washington Post.

Transit service began to be restored at around 1:30 pm and was completely restored by 9 pm November 7th.

Negotiations over the next two weeks moved slowly but the agreed-upon deadline was moved up just prior to Thanksgiving. On Tuesday Nov. 20th a tentative agreement was reached and a union meeting was called for midnight at Turner’s Arena.

Wildcat Strike

Union president Simms presented the proposal that called for arbitration to resolve the pay dispute. In no uncertain terms, the 3,000 assembled rejected the proposal and voted to strike in the early morning hours of November 21st. Simms then recessed the meeting until 1:00 pm.

Service was crippled on the day before Thanksgiving and the federal government reacted quickly.

Office of Defense Transportation (ODT–a World War II agency) director of highway transport Guy A. Richardson appeared before the 1:00 pm union meeting and announced President Harry Truman’s decision to seize the company and operate it.

Berrong, the representative of the Amalgamated’s International union, and Simms both denounced the strike and pledged cooperation with the federal government to end it.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Union member Thelma Hodges speaks out at Turner’s Arena during the strike.

Union members rushed to the microphones and shouted out a motion to continue the strike that Simms in turn ruled out of order. Union members called for Simms’ impeachment, but he ignored them.

Some of the assembled workers began to drift out of the meeting while others debated the next course of action. Someone ordered the lights cut at 5 pm and the debate continued out on the street.

Truman Denounces Strike

President Truman issued his formal seizure order at 3:00 pm, saying the work stoppage “strikes…at the very roots of orderly government” and vowing that, “The federal government will not permit this kind of action to interfere with its processes either in the capital or any part of the nation.”

Seized Trolleys, Buses Begin Operating: 1945

President Truman seizes Capital Transit and activates the U.S. Army.

As Truman spoke, thousands of troops in the Washington Military District were placed on alert. Brig. Gen. Robert N. Young, the commanding general of the district, announced, “We are prepared to do anything that ODT requires,” and said he had “more than 4,000 men who can serve as bus or streetcar operators—or as military police.”

While the union members continued to debate at Turner’s Arena, others headed back to work.

The first streetcar left the Southern Division barn at Maine Ave. SW at 3:07 pm and the first bus left the Trinidad Division at 15th & Benning Road NE at 6:10 pm Most service was restored Thanksgiving Day, and Friday, November 23 saw a complete restoration of service.

Aftermath

Following the strike, Capital Transit fired a number of men who were accused of urging a continuation of the strike at the Brookland Division near 10th St. and Michigan Ave. NE.

Idled Streetcars During 2nd Strike: 1945

Idled streetcars Nov. 22, 1945 while striking workers begin to return to work.

One of those discharged, Ernest M. Hatfield, said “I didn’t attend the continuous meeting of the union either November 7th or last week, In fact I didn’t know about the first strike and reported to work as usual. The company refused to give me my equipment that morning when I showed up for work,” according to the Washington Post.

“I have worked seven days a week for months. I have a wife and two small children. My hours at work were from 6 am to 10 pm. Every day but Sunday. Sundays I worked from noon to 9:30 pm. The only hours I got to see my kids when they weren’t asleep was before noon on Sunday. I tried to do my bit for the company during the war. I can’t understand their action yesterday. I have had only two days off since August 12—more than three months,” Hatfield declared.

A month later, the union settled the grievances of the nine terminated men to return them to work without back pay.

Congressional Reaction

While union power was being demonstrated across the country, many Congressional leaders were denouncing the workers’ actions, and particular ire was directed at the Capital Transit strikers.

The Washington Post reported that “Congress…reacted to the Washington transit, General Motors and Chicago telephone strikes with a whole series of moves aimed at organized labor.”

Representative Eugene E. Cox (D-Ga.) declared, “The goons have the country at bay,” and labeled it “an assault of organized outlaws.”

Senator Alexander Wiley (R-Wi) called the strike, “intolerable and outrageous.”

Representative Charles a Halleck (R-Ind.) offered, “The transit workers are out today in violation of their contract and the company is entirely without recourse.”

Caravan to Oppose Taft-Hartley Act: 1947

A union caravan in Washington, D.C. urges a veto of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

Representative Roger C. Slaughter (D-Mo.) suggested the transit workers could be sued for damages under the terms of a bill he supported.

Despite having the greatest number of workers involved in militant action in the history of the U.S labor movement during 1945-46, labor leaders were unable to consolidate their gains. Instead a coalition of Republican and Democratic legislators acted to pass the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947—severely restricting union and individual rights.

Segregation

Activists in the five-year fight to desegregate Capital Transit were buoyed by the opportunity presented by the federal seizure of the company. The wartime FEPC had repeatedly found against the company, but had not enforced their order to desegregate.

Transit Union Members at Pythian Temple (African Americans): 1945 # 1

Capital Transit barred African American transit union members (shown at Pythian Temple)  from operating buses and streetcars.

In August 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the seizure of the Philadelphia Transit Company during a wildcat strike and enforced the integration of operator ranks. However, in the case of Capital Transit Truman refused to do so. Charles Hamilton Houston, a longtime civil rights leader serving on the FEPC, resigned denouncing the government’s lip service to desegregation.

The Capital Transit Company’s operators were not desegregated until 1955 while the union prepared for another showdown with Capital Transit.

Pay issue Arbitration

The three member arbitration panel (one company, one union and one neutral) voted 2-1 January 2, 1946, with the company dissenting, to increase the basic wage for operators to $1.14 per hour and to guarantee a 48-hour week until the expiration of the current contract in June 1946. The increase made the union members the highest paid on the East Coast.

However the company refused to comply until the Wage Stabilization Board acted, although wage board and company agreed that its action was not necessary. Ultimately the company relented and paid the increases.

The new insurgent forces within the union were satisfied. They felt the strikes had served their purpose and they would never have received the increases without demonstrating the seriousness of their demands though the strikes.


Union President With Members After Strike Ends: 1955

Walter Bierwagen (right) relaxes with members after the vote to end the 1955 strike.

Author’s Notes:

Walter Bierwagen, a member of the 1945 negotiating committee, cut his teeth in the 1945 wildcats and went on to defeat William Simms in the 1950 Division 689 elections. He applied the lessons learned during the 1945 wildcats—that increasing the amount of public support and a united membership would be essential to outright winning a strike. Further, that stage must be set so that government intervention was on the side of the strikers—not the company.

Dependent on African American support for his election, he led the union in a 1951 strike that established seniority rights for track and maintenance departments where many African Americans worked, and ultimately forced a resolution through the union’s executive board and membership endorsing desegregation in 1955.

Congrats to First DC Transit Union African American Officer: 1974

Walter Bierwagen (right) congratulates first ATU Local 689 African American officer Rodney Richmond at a 1974 installation of officers..

He made a very public case in 1955 that Capital Transit’s owners had looted the company at the public’s expense. He led a two-month strike in 1955 that won a small wage increase but firmly established a principle that workers had value independent of the way the company was run.

During Bierwagen’s tenure as head of the local transit union, pension and health and welfare benefits were established. He was elected a vice president of the international union, where he played a crucial role in protecting transit workers’ bargaining rights as public entities took over private transit companies.

The strike wave of 1945-46 was a missed opportunity for workers. Failure to consolidate gains directly led to the crippling Taft-Hartley Act. In turn that has in large part resulted in the past 60 years of defensive battles by workers while union density declines.

Sources include The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Afro American, and surviving records of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 among others.


Postscript: Early D.C. Transit Union Organizing

Amalgamated Associated of Street & Electric Railway Employees Division 689 (currently named Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689) was established in the Washington, D.C. transit system after a one-day strike March 5-6, 1916. It was settled when District government officials stepped in and brokered an agreement to arbitrate disputes not settled. The ad-hoc agreement was for one year.

Knights Street Car Union President: 1895

Earlier efforts at organizing transit workers in Washington, D.C. met with brief successes, but ultimate defeat. The Knights of Labor established a Street Railway Protective Association in the 1880s that waged several strikes against street railway companies and achieved some success in improving wages and working conditions under the leadership of Thomas J. Lawrence before falling victim to the weaknesses in the Knights’ organization around the turn of the century.

There was a brief strike on the Metropolitan Railroad in 1900. Division 161 of the Amalgamated was established by 1901 and achieved early success on uniform issues. However, by October 1901 the Capital Traction Co. fired union president John McCrackin and the union lapsed shortly afterward.

Organizing efforts continued with attempts to establish the Amalgamated in 1907 and 1909, before Division 689 was established in January 1916.

The union currently represents 13,000 active and retired, bus and rail employees of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as well as some paratransit workers at private companies.

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Want to see more images of the transit union or other unions 1945 strikes?

Want to read more about the battle to desegregate Washington, D.C.’s transit system?

Want to see more images of the transit union in 1916-17, 19551974, 1978, WWII, Desegregation of the transit system?

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A Million & Counting…

15 Feb

One million photo views and counting on our Flickr site. We’re frankly surprised at the interest in the history of the struggle for social and economic justice in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Each photo has a short description. Groups of related photos are organized into albums. Each album–sometimes a specific event and sometimes a group of related images–have a longer description that puts the images in context. We also publish this blog for a deep dive look behind selected images.

You can see our photo stream organized by date the image was uploaded or check out individual albums. Check out our in-depth blog posts that are organized by the decade (on right of this page or simply scroll down).

Some of our most popular photo albums are:

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 2D.C. Protests Against Unemployment:

The first nationwide response to the Great Depression occurred March 6, 1930, including a picket line at the White House in Washington, D.C. Looking for more unemployment protests? 1935, 1937, 1940, 1973, 1977.

 

Harassment at Arlington, Virginia Sit-In: 1960

1960s Civil Rights Protests in the D.C. Area:

District of Columbia public accommodations were largely integrated in the mid 1950s but the surrounding suburbs remained bastions of segregation. Arlington, Rockville, Bowie, Glen Echo, Bethesda, College Park, Silver Spring were but a few of the towns that saw sit-ins, pickets and arrests demanding equality. Read a brief biography of one of these pioneers, Dion Diamond.

Klan Protests Black Minister In Camp Springs MD: 1966The Fight Against the Klan and Nazis in the D.C. area:

The Ku Klux Klan was active throughout the 1960s opposing civil rights and antiwar efforts (one person’s experience). So too was the American Nazi Party. See photos of confrontation in Arlington, Glen Echo, Mt. Ranier, Camp Springs, Frederick and Rising Sun.

 

 

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)The Washington, D.C. Area Transit Union:

Interest has been high in the struggle to desegregate Washington’s transit system (background story), women streetcar and bus operators during World War II (background story), and in strikes conducted by member of the Amalgamated Transit Union in 1974 and 1978. As the 100th anniversary of ATU Local 689 approaches, check back in the coming year as we post images from early efforts in 19th century to form a union and strikes in 1916, 1917, 1945, 1951 and 1955.

Increasingly Viewed

Negro Congress Pickets Bilbo: 1946

Civil Rights Struggles before 1960: 

Little known today, they helped lay the groundwork for the mass demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets and other forms of protest that broke down the worst aspects of segregation in our area: 1922 Anti-Lynching Protest (background story), 1933 March for Scottsboro (background story), 1936 Police Brutality Protests (background story), 1940 Gone with the Wind pickets, 1941 Police Brutality Protest (background story), Integration of D.C. Theaters (background story), The Fight for Fair Employment, The Fight Against the Poll Tax, 1946 Protests Against Sen.Bilbo, 1946 Anti-Lynching Protests, the effort to Free Willie McGee and the Martinsville 7, Mary Church Terrell, the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, among others.

U of MD Ignites: 1970 # 1

Anti-Vietnam War Demonstrations:

The movement against the Vietnam War involved hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Check out the first mass marches on D.C in 1965, The march on the Pentagon in 1967, The Counter-Inaugural in 1969 (background story), University of Md protests in 1970 (background story), 1971, 1972, Mayday protests to shut down the government in 1971 – May 1, May 2, May 3, May 4, May 5, a 1972 march on the Pentagon and 1972 rally downtown, the 1973 Counter-Inaugural and the last demonstration against the Vietnam War in D.C. in 1975. See earlier 1941 and 1958 antiwar protests.

Background

We felt there was historical gap between the internet era and the print era in the struggles for social justice.

We started by publishing photos and negatives that had been improperly stored from the 1972-1975 Montgomery Spark, Washington Area Spark and On The Move tabloid newspapers.  We followed up by researching images available from various sources including the Library of Congress, the D.C. Public Library, the National Archives and auctioned photographs. And occasionally we publish longer blog posts that give a more detailed look.

See all the images in albums or in the order they were posted.

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


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 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.


A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson

19 Nov
Marie Lucinda Richardson (Harris)

Marie Richardson, a labor & civil rights leader in the 1940s, was imprisoned during the McCarthy era for 4 1/2 years. Photo D A Harris, ©Afro American Newspapers.

By Craig Simpson

Marie L. Richardson (Harris) was a leading organizer for civil rights and labor unions in the District of Columbia from the late 1930s until 1950.

Her pioneering work helped to organize the predominately African American Washington red caps union and their women’s auxiliary while still a teenager. She was a leader of the early fight to integrate Capital Transit operator jobs.  She was an active member of the National Negro Congress and served as the executive secretary of the local branch.   

According to the Afro American newspaper, she was the first African American woman to hold national office in a major labor union. In her role as national representative of the United Federal Workers, CIO she helped lead the union’s organizing drives and battles against discrimination inside the federal government in the District.

The price she paid for her leadership was four and a half years in a federal penitentiary, a victim of  McCarthy-era persecution.

Fighter In Her Youth

Marie Lucinda Richardson was born September 4, 1920 to Mattie and Griffin Richardson in Washington, DC and grew up in a row house at 1638 Florida Ave. NW along with her brother Thomas “Tommy” Richardson.  She attended the segregated District of Columbia schools, graduating from Morgan School in 1932, Garnet-Patterson Junior High School in January 1935 and Cardozo High School in January 1938.

DC Red Caps Union: 1938

Griffin Richardson (back row, 2nd from right) with Washington red caps union in 1938. Photo: Scurlock, courtesy National Archives.

Her father had been a baggage handler at Union Station since it opened in 1907 and was an officer in an early association of red caps. On July 5, 1933, he was a founder of the Washington Terminal Station Porters, a red caps unit fighting for better working conditions.

While still in high school, Marie Richardson helped her father organize the group into a union. The effort inspired red caps in other cities and in January 1938, they banded together to form the International Brotherhood of Red Caps later renamed the United Transport Service Employees.

In 1939, Richardson helped organize the women’s auxiliary of the union and was chosen as a national officer of the auxiliary in January 1940.  She was re-elected in 1942.

Youth Organizer and Early Work

After graduating from high school, Richardson attended Howard University and Terrell Law School and during that time worked at the dean’s office at Howard for two years. From 1940-42, she worked at the Office of War Information as a messenger and the Naval Gun Factory at the Washington Navy Yard as a machinist, where she was also active in the United Federal Workers (UFW), CIO.

Cardozo High School Class: 1938

Marie Richardson (3rd row, middle, surrounded by those in white) with Cardozo High School 1938 mid-year class. Photo: Scurlock, courtesy National Archives.

In 1941, Richardson was an organizer for the National Conference of Negro Youth and served as acting secretary of the “Washington Initiating Committee” of the conference.

She led the organizing of the three-day November conference of the organization enlisting the support of prominent civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, popular entertainer Fats Waller and arranging for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to speak at the conference.

In her role as youth organizer, she began fighting to desegregate government and industry in the District. “Our purpose is to give special attention to Negro young people who have been discriminated against in Washington or who have been working at jobs not commensurate with their qualifications,” she said in a statement.

Richardson’s committee began the early work on ending Jim Crow hiring at Capital Transit by soliciting letters and petitions from groups and individuals in support of hiring African American streetcar and bus operators. This work laid the groundwork for the eventual integration of operator ranks at the company in 1955.

First Black Woman National Representative at Major Union

She was selected national representative of the United Federal Workers (UFW), CIO in the Spring of 1943, becoming one of the first (perhaps the first) African American women to serve at that level in a major labor union.

Richardson worked to organize federal workers and the cafeteria workers employed by quasi-private contractors in federal and defense department cafeterias.  She helped lead the UFW organizing efforts and fights against discrimination at Freedmen’s Hospital, teachers at Howard University, the Bureau of Engraving, Federal Security Agency and US Treasury Department.

During the World War II years she also volunteered for the Office of Civilian Defense where she received two commendations for her work as a sector air raid warden.

Executive Secretary of DC National Negro Congress

Richardson had been active in the local chapter of the National Negro Congress (NNC) since the late 1930s.  The NNC was a broad civil rights organization based in the black working class that emphasized direct action in contrast to the legal strategy of the NAACP.

She was selected as executive secretary of the District of Columbia unit of the NNC in 1945 where she continued work on police brutality, voting rights for District of Columbia residents and desegregating the operator jobs at the Capital Transit Company.

When Charles Hamilton Houston resigned from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) in protest of President Harry Truman’s thwarting an order forcing the transit company to hire African American operators, Richardson drafted a letter from the local NNC blasting Truman.

The letter charged that Truman’s actions were “in substance, a declaration of support of the Jim Crow laws in operation” in the District. “Your letter [Truman’s] is a cynical welcome for colored veterans returning to their homes in Washington looking for fair employment without discrimination,” the letter continued.

Marie Richardson at Home at Her Desk

Marie Richardson at Florida Ave NW home in 1946. Photo: D. A. Harris Jr.©Afro American Newspaper.

While at the NNC, Richardson led the local campaign to pass a bill for a permanent federal FEPC. Despite the Capital Transit debacle, the FEPC had helped to desegregate some of the defense related industry during World War II.  When a filibuster was conducted in the U.S. Senate to stop the bill, Richardson led picketing at the home of each Senator blocking the bill (see photo of Richardson picketing here, click “browse this newspaper” & navigate to Feb 2, 1946 edition, page 24).

The bill ultimately died in the Senate. However, President Truman issued an executive order in 1948 prohibiting employment discrimination in the federal government.

She organized an outdoor anti-lynching rally in July 1947 that drew 500 people where Savannah Churchill, a popular singer, declared that “people must unit themselves to stop the terrible crimes” of lynching. As organizer of the event, Richardson offered resolutions adopted by the group in support of federal anti-lynching legislation and condemning discrimination in the District of Columbia.

In late 1947, the NNC merged into the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a group that had originally been created to pursue legal and legislative strategies.

Richardson’s work with the NNC spilled over to the CRC and she helped build support for the strike over wages and benefits by Local 471 of the United Cafeteria Workers (UPW, CIO) union in 1947 and again in 1948 when the union waged an 11 week strike after a government-sponsored corporation refused to bargain with a “red union.”

In 1948, she took a job as campaign manager for Joseph Rainey, Progressive Party candidate for Congress in Philadelphia.  Rainey’s grandfather was the first black congressman during Reconstruction and Rainey had been elected magistrate in Philadelphia and had served as president of the Local NAACP chapter. Rainey lost, but out-polled Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace in the district.

After returning to Washington, Richardson assisted Henry Thomas’s Building Laborer’s Local 74 in their one-day strike in June 1949.  In the post WWII years, Richardson was also active with the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Council of Women and the Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax.

In 1950, Richardson moved to New York City with her husband, Rev. Benjamin Harris who became the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia in Long Island.  The two operated a dry cleaning establishment to make ends meet.

Federal Loyalty Oath

In March 1947, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order requiring loyalty oaths of all government employees.  Current and prospective employees were required to pledge they were not members of the Communist Party and to disclose, in writing, current and past membership in organizations deemed “subversive” by the Attorney General.  It was the opening salvo in a series of actions that drove most communists and other left-wing activists out of jobs in government and private industry and out of the labor and civil rights movements.

The initial “subversive list” was published in the federal register March 20, 1948 and included the National Negro Congress, the Civil Rights Congress and the Communist Party.

The order did not provide criminal penalties, but set up “loyalty boards” to fire employees it deemed guilty of disloyalty.

Shortly after the order went into effect in 1948, Richardson applied for and was hired for a temporary clerical job at the Library of Congress where she worked for three months.  In May 1949, she re-applied and was hired again for a clerical job at the Library where she worked for several months before her move to New York.

Markward Infiltrates Communist Party

Long before the loyalty oath, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was spying on left-wing organizations, including the Communist Party.

Mary Markward Testifies Before HUAC: 1951

Mary Markward testifies before HUAC. Her testimony helped convict Marie Richardson and send her to prison. World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The FBI approached Mary Stalcup Markward in March 1943 to infiltrate the District of Columbia Communist Party after the FBI determined that several of her beauty shop customers were associated with the group.

Markward worked diligently at routine Communist Party tasks and was elevated to local treasurer and a member of the governing board of the Maryland-DC state party. Markward was in charge of membership, including the collection of dues from District of Columbia party members.  During this time Markward made regular reports to the FBI.

In June 1951, Markward began testifying in secret before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) about communist activities in the Washington area, ultimately naming over 200 people as members of the Communist Party.  In July, Marie Richardson and her father Griffin were named in newspapers as members of the Communist Party identified by Markward.

Richardson Indicted, Faces 40 Years

By November 1951, it was the height of the Korean War where the US sent troops against communist-led forces. Eleven national unions had been expelled from the CIO labor federation for alleged communist ties, along with numerous members of individual AFL and CIO unions. Julius & Ethel Rosenberg had been sentenced to death for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

Leaders of the US Communist Party were jailed under the Smith Act and many more members and left-leaning activists were under investigation or facing trial.  None were convicted for any specific alleged acts to overthrow the government, but were instead jailed for alleged communist beliefs or membership in the Communist Party.

Some were jailed for contempt when they refused to answer questions in Congressional hearings about their beliefs, organizations they belonged to or people that they knew or may have known. Others had their names and addresses published in newspapers, were fired from their jobs and blacklisted.

Richardson was indicted November 30 for “false and fraudulent statements” stemming from her signed loyalty oaths and her job applications for the library clerical jobs in 1948 and 1949.  She faced a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for each of eight counts that charged she had not revealed past membership in “subversive organizations.”

Critics of loyalty oaths contended that they accomplished little and the government was determined to prove them wrong.  Richardson’s imprisonment would show that the loyalty oath program worked.  Further, jailing Richardson who no longer lived in the area or worked for the federal government would bolster the message that anyone who was affiliated with left-leaning unions and civil rights organizations were not safe unless they renounced other members and the organizations.

William Hitz, Assistant United States Attorney sent out a chilling message that, “he expected there would be many more [indictments] here and elsewhere.”  He made a point to say that Richardson was “uncovered” during a “routine” FBI loyalty check, although authorities were well aware of Richardson for years.

Among the organizations Hitz cited in support of the indictment were Richardson activities with the National Negro Congress, American Youth Congress, Americans for Peace Mobilization and the Americans for Democratic Action along with the Communist Party.

Arraignment & Suppression of Defense Committee

At Richardson’s December 14 arraignment, she was released on $1,000 bond pending trial set for January 17, 1952.  Before she could leave the courthouse, Richardson was detained by US Marshals who demanded the names of those who had helped her with bail money.  Richardson refused to answer their questions.

Ralph Powe, a prominent CRC attorney from New York, represented her at the arraignment and charged that it was “…another attempt on the part of the government to silence outspoken colored leaders.”

If anyone doubted the government’s desire to make an example of Richardson, that notion was quickly dispelled.

Committee to Defend Marie Richardson Pamphlet: 1952 ca

Committee to Defend Marie Richardson pamphlet, 1952 ca.

January 13, 1952, police raided a party to raise money for Richardson.  Twelve police officers broke up the party attended by about 60 persons and arrested one for selling whiskey without a license.  According to the Afro-American, police seized an envelope marked “Marie Richardson Defense Committee” containing $980 as evidence.

Richardson was detained, but not arrested by police.  However, police took the names and addresses of all persons at the party “in case witnesses were needed,” and confiscated the list of contributors.

The drive to sandbag defense efforts later resulted in the 1953 attorney general listing of the Committee to Defend Marie Richardson  as a subversive organization.

Trial and Conviction

Powe put together a strong legal defense team for Richardson.  James A. Cobb was a former municipal court judge and a vice-dean of the Howard University law school. George A. Parker founded the Robert H. Terrell School of Law in 1931 and later was appointed as a federal judgeBarrington Parker was law partner with his father, defended Paul Robeson and W. E. B DuBois and was later appointed by President Nixon as a federal judge. George E. C. Hayes was the lead attorney on the Supreme Court case that desegregated Washington, DC public schools in 1954.  Powe was a veteran civil rights attorney.

However, the team was only able to obtain a brief postponement to prepare and the trial began February 18 before Judge James R. Kirkland and a jury of eight whites and four blacks

The short time between arraignment and trial resulted in long hours for the defense team.  Barrington Parker told the Afro-American newspaper that most of each night was spent in research, resulting in little sleep for any of them.

The government’s called only three witnesses.  The first, Leon W. Seidner, chief of operations at the Library of Congress, testified Richardson denied communist affiliations in applying for clerical jobs in 1948 and 1949.

The legal case against Richardson hinged on the testimony of Markward and that of Henry Thomas, the laborer’s union president who quit the Communist Party in 1949 and denounced those he alleged to be members to HUAC in 1950.

Thomas testified that he had known Richardson since 1939 and had been at meetings of the Young Communist League with her. Thomas further testified that he and Richardson had been at a number of different meetings with high profile Communist Party leaders over the years.

DC Home of Marie Richardson: 2012

DC home of Marie Richardson where she grew up and stayed during her trial shown in 2012.

Under cross-examination defense attorneys quickly had Thomas back peddling on a number of assertions.  He recanted numerous dates and places of meetings when challenged and admitted that he or his wife had invited many of the communist leaders to the meetings, some of which had been meetings of the NAACP. At times Thomas was uncertain whether Richardson had even been present.

Markward’s testimony was more crucial, given her job as keeper of the Communist Party membership records.  Markward testified she [Markward] filled out Richardson’s membership card in her own handwriting in 1946. However, Markward said that Richardson never picked up the card. Markward further testified that she kept the card in her own possession. The card was entered into evidence by the prosecution.

Under cross-examination Markward admitted that she saw no documents signed by Richardson indicating that she was a party member, “I have never seen Mrs. Richardson fill out a party card,” Markward acknowledged.

In other evidence, Markward testified that Richardson once gave a report on the local National Negro Congress of which Richardson was then executive secretary.  Under cross-examination, Markward admitted the aim of the Congress was to “better the status of negroes,” but also testified that the organization received support from the Communist Party.

Defense attorneys challenged her motivation and branded her as a paid informant, but Markward said her work was “without compensation” and denied receiving any funds from the FBI, other than incidental expenses, and said her motives were patriotic.

When the trial ended after more than a week, no Communist Party membership card in Richardson’s writing or dues payment records with Richardson’s name were produced and defense attorney Hayes told the jury there was “no evidence anywhere that Mrs. Richardson ever joined the Communist Party.”

Hayes went on to say that Richardson’s long association with the National Negro Congress only showed that she “dedicated herself to do something for a race of people with which she was identified.”

The jury began deliberations late February 28 and the elder Parker expressed the belief that a hung jury would result.

However, after six hours of deliberations the jury returned to the courtroom. Each juror stood and read his or her verdict on each count.  Two of the African American jurors hesitated for a long moment before softly saying guilty, but Richardson was convicted on all counts. The anti-communist hysteria of the day was ultimately too much to overcome.  Kirkland refused bond and remanded Richardson to jail pending sentencing.

Sentence & Further Degradation

On March 7, Kirkland sentenced Richardson to a prison term of 28 months to 7 years and fined her $2000.  Kirkland gave gushing praise to Markward saying, “she gave valiantly of her services. She deserves to take her place alongside of Molly Pitcher, Barbara Fritchie and Clara Barton.”

He blasted Richardson and admitted he was sentencing her for her beliefs, “Your teachings at your mother’s knee and your American father should not have permitted you to embrace such false doctrines.  You, a highly educated woman, have brought this upon yourself.” Kirkland again refused to set bond during appeal and remanded her to jail.

In another apparent attempt to degrade her and send a message to others, she was hauled before a grand jury investigating drug trafficking almost immediately after sentencing.  When Richardson said she wanted to consult a lawyer, she was not questioned, but the incident was publicized by the local newspapers. Assistant United State Attorney Thomas Wadden, Jr. declined to state to the Washington Post why he was calling Richardson. Richardson was never recalled to testify.

Appeals and Prison

Richardson’s defense team eventually secured her release on $5,000 bail.  David Rein and Joseph Forer, attorneys with extensive experience defending accused communists, assisted with the appeal. A number of grounds for overturning the verdict were raised, but most significantly that Markward had misled the jury on a key point.

After the trial, documents were discovered that showed Markward had been paid a little over $24,000 by the FBI–which equates to about $207,000 in 2012 dollars or about $30,000 per year—at odds with the small-reimbursed expenses Markward claimed during trial.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that “the contentions made by [the] appellants are insubstantial.  There is no reversible error and the judgment of conviction and the order denying the motion for a new trial must and hereby are affirmed.”

Richardson’s attorneys appealed back to Judge Kirkland for a reduction of sentence and sought a US Supreme Court review.  They were turned down on both counts.  In July 1954, Richardson was ordered to jail and sent to Alderson Federal Penitentiary in West Virginia.

Richardson’s Release

Richardson was denied parole several times and served four years before a group of African American ministers persuaded the parole board to reconsider their decision.

Appearing before the parole board on Richardson’s behalf were Rev. Ct. T. Murray, pastor of the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, The Rev. N. H. Travis, Salem Baptist Church; the Rev. Andrew Fowler, president of the Baptist District Convention, the Rev. J. H. Randolph, chairman of the Fraternal Council of Churches and the Rev. Wendell C. Somerville, representing the Baptist Ministers Conference.

Richardson was finally released from prison in October 1958.

Richardson died without fanfare March 6, 1987. Richardson’s final viewing was held March 12, 1987 at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC and her final resting place is in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, MD.

Author’s notes:  Richardson’s contributions to the District of Columbia labor and civil rights movements were lost in the anti-communist frenzy of the 1950s. Her pioneering stint as perhaps the first African American woman to hold a major national trade union office receives scant attention in labor, civil rights and women’s histories. The injustice of four and a half years in prison related to a loyalty oath that was overturned by the Supreme Court years later has also been forgotten.

Most information for this article came from the Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta Daily World, Washington Post, Washington Star, Ginger & Christiano’s “The Cold War Against Labor,” court documents and HUAC transcripts.

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 washington_area_spark@yahoo.com. 

The Fight Against Capital Transit’s Jim Crow Hiring: 1941-55

14 Oct
Thousands rally for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 17)

Hundreds rally in Franklin Park May 7, 1943 against Capital Transit’s refusal to hire African-American streetcar and bus operators. Photo by Paul M. Schmick, courtesy DC Library, Washington Star Collection ©Washington Post.

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.

Background

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.

Jewel Mazique: A founder of the Capital Transit Fight (Photo 1)

Jewel Mazique, a founder of the Capital Transit campaign, at a United Federal Workers meeting in 1942. Photo by John Collier, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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.

Initial Campaign

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

Fighting Jim Crow at Capital Transit: 1942 (Photo 2)

Committee on Jobs for Negroes in Public Utilities Dec. 1942.William S. Johnson, chair (center) & Ralph Matthews from the Afro (leaning over).  All rights reserved © Afro-American.

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.

Crowd at Rally for Integrating Capital Transit 1942 (Photo 10)

Hundreds rally to demand Capital Transit hire African American streetcar & bus operators, Nov. 3, 1942. Photo by Gordon Parks, courtesy of the Library of Congress

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.

Streetcar operators relaxing on the steps of Capital Transit’s Northern Division in June 1943

Women streetcar operators shown at 14th St. barn, June, 1943. Photo by Esther Bubley, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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.

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)

Marching for hiring African American streetcar & bus operators, May 7, 1943. Photo by Paul Schmick, courtesy DC Library, Washington Star Collection ©Washington Post.

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

Truman refuses to Act on Capital Transit; Houston Resigns from FEPC: 1945 (Photo 20)

Charles Hamilton Houston quits FEPC & blasts Truman for halting Capital Transit desegregation.  Dec. 8, 1945 Chicago Defender.

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.

Transit Union Head Confronts Change: 1954 (Photo 21)

Walter Bierwagen (front row with dark suit holding gavel), president of the transit union, shown in an undated photo. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

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

Union Member John Bryan Describes Desegregation Decision: 1954-55 (Photo 22)

Union member John Bryan shown in 1949 with Georgia Ave./7th St. streetcar. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

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.

Robert Pettigrew: First African American Bus Operator for Capital Transit: 1955 (Photo 24)

Robert Pettigrew (2nd row with glasses), the first African American knowingly hired by Capital Transit as a bus operator, 1955. Image cropped from a 1961 group photo. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

James Russell: First African American Streetcar Operator for Capital Transit: 1955 (Photo 25)

James Russell, the first African American knowingly hired by Capital Transit as a streetcar operator, 1955. Image cropped from a 1961 group photo. Courtesy of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, all rights reserved.

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 washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.