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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


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.

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. 

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