Politics & Government

Obama's new home was slow to accept integration

The Lincoln Memorial and Smithsonian Castle on the Mall are landmarks in Washington DC.
The Lincoln Memorial and Smithsonian Castle on the Mall are landmarks in Washington DC. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Not too long ago, Barack Obama would have found when he moved his family to Washington that his daughters couldn't attend the same schools that white children could. They couldn't try on clothes or shoes at most local department stores or eat at downtown lunch counters. They couldn't see a play at the National Theatre or a movie just a block or two from the White House.

If a family pet died, it would have to be buried at a blacks-only cemetery.

"The owner stated that he assumed the dogs would not object, but he was afraid his white customers would," said a 1948 report on "Segregation in Washington."

Washington was largely a segregated city until the mid-1950s, a place where new students at Howard University were "briefed on what we could and couldn't do," recalled Russell Adams, who's now a professor emeritus of Afro-American studies.

"If you go downtown, don't try to eat," he said. "And don't try to buy stuff you didn't need, like shoes."

The major reason for the segregation was less geography than politics and custom. Congress ruled the city, and the key committee chairman or members were often white Southerners who boasted back home about their ability to keep the races separate. Sen. Theodore Bilbo, D-Miss., a member of the Ku Klux Klan and the author of "Take Your Choice, Segregation or Mongrelization," headed the District of Columbia panel from 1945 to 1947.

Washington didn't have the widespread Jim Crow laws that ruled much of the Deep South; in fact, when the district briefly had home rule after the Civil War, laws gave blacks equal rights in public places. The laws were forgotten, however, and the city "operated as if there were Jim Crow laws," said Jane Freundel Levey, a historian for Cultural Tourism DC.

Blacks could get served at lunch counters and cafeterias, but they had to stand to eat. At the leading department stores, clerks "turn their backs at the approach of a Negro," the 1948 segregation report found. Most downtown hotels wouldn't rent rooms to blacks.

Some laws and rules separating blacks and whites were on the books. Schools were segregated. The segregation of federal offices — as well as restrooms and cafeterias — became widespread during the Woodrow Wilson administration, starting in 1913. In some post offices, partitions were erected to keep the races apart at work.

Union Station, National Airport and the city's streetcars and bus lines were integrated, however.

Housing covenants barred blacks from many neighborhoods, often squeezing them into substandard housing. A survey included in the 1948 segregation report found that black families were nine times as likely as whites to live in homes that needed major repairs.

The Washington Real Estate Board Code of Ethics put its view in stark terms in 1948: "No property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised or offered to colored people." The Supreme Court declared such restrictive covenants unenforceable that year.

The barriers began to break down in the years after World War II, but slowly.

Actors' Equity pressured its members not to perform at segregated venues, such as the city's historic National Theatre.

"We state now to the National Theatre — and to a public which is looking to us to do what is just and humanitarian — that unless the situation is remedied, we will be forced to forbid our members to play there," the group, which represents thousands of actors and stage managers, announced in 1947.

The National, the city's premier live stage, closed in 1948 rather than integrate and showed movies instead. It reopened as a live theater four years later, under new owners who were willing to desegregate.

Up the street, blacks couldn't go to many movie houses. First-run films were screened in a strip of theaters along or adjacent to F Street Northwest, then the city's major commercial street, while theaters on U Street Northwest, the heart of the black community's commercial district, showed the same films to black audiences.

Many hotels welcomed blacks only if they were from other countries.

"Our visitor's best chance (to get a hotel room) would be to wrap a turban around his head and register under some foreign name," the 1948 segregation report said. "This maneuver was successfully employed not long ago at one of the capital's most fashionable hotels by an enterprising American Negro who wanted to test the advantages of being a foreigner."

Things began to change in 1950, triggered when 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell, a civil rights activist, tried to get served at Thompson's Cafeteria on 14th Street Northwest, about two blocks from the White House.

In an affidavit, Terrell recalled her experience:

"The manager told us that we could not be served in the restaurant because we were colored," she said, and she left the restaurant along with three friends and went to court. Terrell targeted other restaurants, and she won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 1953 that segregated eating-places in Washington were unconstitutional because the "lost laws" of the Reconstruction era were still in force.

Still, blacks often were made to feel unwelcome.

Carolivia Herron remembered going to Woolworth's lunch counter as a little girl, and the server immediately asked her whether she wanted some watermelon. No, Herron replied, she wanted a grilled cheese sandwich.

A black woman who wanted to try on a hat in a department store would be given a hairnet first; whites wouldn't. Blacks weren't allowed in fitting rooms and usually couldn't try on shoes.

Blacks and whites attended separate and supposedly equal schools until the Supreme Court's May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Patricia Tyson went to the all-black four-room Military Road School, five miles from the White House.

Teachers signaled the start of class by ringing handbells, and the students were in awe of what Tyson recalled was an "electric bell" up the road at the white school.

The racial barriers gradually collapsed, though two glaring exceptions remained.

Glen Echo Park was the region's premier amusement park, where people could take the long streetcar ride on a hot summer day, swim in the Crystal Pool and dance the night away. Blacks were excluded until 1961, however.

Sports stadiums weren't officially segregated, and baseball's Washington Senators got their first black player in1954, seven years after the sport was integrated. The owner, though, was seen as cool to black players.

The Senators moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season, and owner Calvin Griffith reportedly told a local Lions Club in 1978 that he'd chosen that location "when we found out that you only had 15,000 blacks here." And, he said, "We came here because you've got good, hardworking white people here."

Football's Washington Redskins didn't have a black player until 1962, and the team's fight song, "Hail to the Redskins," included a line urging the players to "fight for old Dixie."

Today, fans are urged to "fight for old D.C."


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