Tag Archives: segregation

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


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

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

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

By Craig Simpson
3rd in a series

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

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

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

Segregation in the city

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

But while that law was not repealed, it was removed from the published city code in the early part of the 20th Century, when many gains achieved during the Civil War and Reconstruction were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

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

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

No Jim Crow for Civil War Vets: 1922

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

Lincoln Memorial Dedication

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Moton Speaks at Lincoln Memorial Dedication: 1922

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

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

Moton went on to call on the country to fulfill

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

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

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

Refuse to Perform

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

National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune: 1930 ca

Mary McLeod Bethune circa 1930.

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

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

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

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

Roland Hayes

Singer Roland Hayes circa 1925

Seating at Roland Hayes Concerts

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

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

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

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

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

Roland Hayes Blasted for Jim Crow Performance: 1926

Afro covers Hayes on front page January 9, 1926

Hayes Blasted by Activists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constitution Hall Desegregated

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

Howard University Professor Kelly Miller

Howard University professor Kelly Miller defended Hayes. Photo undated.

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

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

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

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

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

Marian Anderson Rises in Fame

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

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

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

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

Singer Todd Duncan in undated photo

Singer Todd Duncan in an undated photo.

Desegregation Attempts Continue

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

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

Howard University Professor Dr. Ralph Bunche: 1934 ca

Dr. Ralph Bunche circa 1934.

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

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

Howard University Approaches DAR’s Hall

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

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

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

Marian Anderson 1933

Marian Anderson 1933.

Eleanor Roosevelt Refuses to Help

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

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

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

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

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

Howard University Professor Doxey Wilkerson: 1940 ca.

Doxey Wilkerson circa 1940.

Protests Ignite

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

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

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

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

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

First Mass Protest

Fliers called upon Washingtonians to rise,

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

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

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

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

Roosevelt Announces Resignation

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

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

Col. West A. Hamilton circa 1940

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

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

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

Board Sets Impossible Conditions

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

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

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

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

Charles Hamilton Houston circa 1940.

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

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

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

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

Scramble for a venue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 5

Marian Anderson and Oscar Chapman 1939.

Lincoln Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 2

Marian Anderson and the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial 1939.

The Marian Anderson Concert

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

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

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 3

April 9, 1939 crowd at the Marian Anderson concert

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

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

Battle Far from Over

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

Picket at the National Theater: 1947 ca.

A picket at the National Theater circa 1947.

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

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

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

Desegregate Lisner Auditorium Pickets: 1946 # 1

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

Ingrid Berman Spat on At Lisner

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

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

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

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

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

Picket signs plastered on Uline Arena circa 1948.

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

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

Marian Anderson in D.C. after 1939.

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

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial: 1952 # 2

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in 1952.

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

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

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

Perspective

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

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 1

Marian Anderson concert April 9, 1939.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Note: This post was updated March 14, 2016 to clarify that while there were not explicit laws requiring segregation of public facilities such as theaters, housing and restaurants; the courts upheld the “right” of individuals and businesses to impose Jim Crow. Further, restrictive covenants requiring houses to be sold only to whites were upheld by the courts)


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


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

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


Author’s Notes:

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

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


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


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