How One Woman Helped End Lunch Counter Segregation in the Nation’s Capital

Mary Church Terrell’s court case demanded the district’s “lost laws” put an end to racial discrimination in dining establishments

color mary church terrell
A portrait of Mary Church Terrell in 1946 by Betsy Graves Reyneau Mary Church Terrell by Betsy Graves Reyneau in 1946; Oil on canvas National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Thompson’s restaurant once served up fast, cheap meals—everything from smoked boiled tongue to cold salmon sandwiches. Today, there’s nothing in downtown D.C. to show that the popular restaurant chain even had a location at 725 14th Street Northwest in the 1950s. The space is now filled by a CVS drug store. Across the street, there’s an upscale barbershop, and on the corner at the intersection of 14th and New York Avenue, a Starbucks is currently under construction.

The establishment's quiet fade into history parallels the little-remembered Supreme Court case that began there 63 years ago this week that forced an end to lunch counter segregation in Washington one year before Plessy v. Ferguson was repealed.

On February 28, 1950, 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell invited her friends Reverend Arthur F. Elmes, Essie Thompson and David Scull to lunch with her at Thompson’s. Only Scull was white, and when the four entered the establishment, took their trays and proceeded down the counter line, the manager told the group that Thompson’s policy forbid him from serving them. They demanded to know why they couldn't have lunch in the cafeteria, and the manager responded that it was not his personal policy, but Thompson Co.’s, which refused to serve African Americans.

The group left without their meals. But the ill-fated lunch date was no accident. As chairwoman of the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws, Terrell was setting up a test case to force the courts to rule on two “lost laws” that demanded all restaurants and public eating places in Washington serve any well-mannered citizen regardless of their skin color. Over three drawn out years, a legal battle followed, which ultimately took their case all the way to America’s highest court.

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Mary Church Terrell oil on vanvas painting by J. Richard Thompson; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Phyllis Langston

Terrell had made her mark on history long before she turned her attention toward discriminatory dining practices. Born in 1863, the year President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the towering figure in social and educational reform was one of the first African-American women to graduate from college. An Oberlin College alumna, she not only gave a speech titled “The Progress and Problems of Colored Women” at the 1898 Annual Convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association, but also served as a delegate at the International Council of Women in Berlin in 1904. Decades before she took a tray and stood in line to pay at Thompson’s, her fight to end race and gender discrimination led her to become the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), as well as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

When Terrell first moved to Washington, D.C. in 1889, she began her career as a high school teacher, and soon after became the first African-American woman to be appointed to the D.C. Board of Education. While she stopped working soon after she married a lawyer named Robert Heberton Terrell, she never closed her eyes to the injustices happening around her.

Then again, how could she? In a speech she delivered at the United Women’s Club of Washington, D.C., in 1906, she explained the indignity of being denied the ability to purchase a meal in the capital.

“As a colored woman I may walk from the Capitol to the White House, ravenously hungry and abundantly supplied with money with which to purchase a meal, without finding a single restaurant in which I would be permitted to take a morsel of food, if it was patronized by white people, unless I were willing to sit behind a screen,” she said.

That hadn’t always been the case in the district. During Reconstruction, the D.C. Legislative Assembly—a mix of popularly elected officials and President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration appointees who governed the city—had actually passed two nearly identical laws, in 1872 and 1873, that prohibited restaurants, hotels, barbershops, bathing houses and soda fountains from refusing to sell or serve any “well-behaved” customer, regardless of race or color.

The short-lived assembly was abolished in 1874, and with the start of Jim Crow segregation laws three years later, the rules were disregarded, and then left out of D.C. Code laws. However, the “lost laws,” as the 1872 and 1873 pieces of legislation would become known as, were never repealed. Instead, they remained, mostly forgotten about, until after World War II, when President Harry Truman’s committee issued a 1948 report titled Segregation in Washington, highlighting the extent of injustices that African Americans faced in the nation’s capital. Civil Rights activist Marvin Harold Caplan’s first-hand account of the era includes the comments of Kenesaw Mountain Landis II, one of the authors of the groundbreaking study:

“Some people say that the time is not ripe for colored people to have equal rights as citizens in the Nation’s Capital and that white people are ‘not ready’ to give them such rights. But in 1872...the popularly elected Assembly of the District passed a law giving Negroes equal rights in restaurants, hotels, barber shops and other places of public accommodation. Stiff penalties were provided for violation. As late as 1904 this civil rights law was familiar to a correspondent of the New York Times."

Annie Stein, the chairwoman of the Anti-Discrimination Committee of her local chapter of the Progressive Party, noticed Landis' passage and devoted herself to learn more about this 1872 law. She enlisted the help of her friend, Joseph Forer, a lawyer and chairman of the District Affairs Committee of the D.C. Lawyers Guild, who began researching the law and its validity. Realizing she also needed public support to rally around the cause, she created the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws in 1949, and reached out to Terrell to see if she would become the chairwoman of the committee.

The timing was auspicious. As Joan Quigley, author of a new book on Terrell, Just Another Southern Town, explained in a conversation about the life of the civil rights activist on C-SPAN in March, Stein’s offer came just after Terrell had been denied water at a pharmacy that had served her in the past, and “noticed a hardening of racial attitudes in department stores." The year before, in 1948, a District of Columbia judge had also upheld the right for the local branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a club of college-educated women, to reject Terrell's application for reinstatement based on her skin color, even though the national organization’s only requirement for membership was a college degree.

Terrell, who was finishing up one of her life goals, publishing her 1950 memoir, A Colored Woman In A White World, felt compelled to act. “She basically embraced the tradition of agitation going back to Frederick Douglass,” Quigley said. “She said, it’s my duty to send a message to the country, to the world that we are no longer patient with being pushed around.”

After the national convention of the AAUW used Terrell’s case as a rallying point to vote 2,168 to 65 to reaffirm that all university graduates, regardless of “race, color or creed,” had the right to join the club, Terrell turned her attention toward the Stein's Anti-Discrimination Committee coordinating committee.

As chairwoman, Terrell soon attracted over 1,000 supporters, who “rallied behind the spirited leadership of Mrs. Terrell,” according to Al Sweeney, a journalist for the Washington Afro-American.

The committee made noise by picketinig and boycotting dime store establishments throughout D.C. One of the leaflets they distributed, which asked citizens to “stay out of Hecht’s”, a department store with a basement lunch counter, featured a photograph of Terrell, and quoted the then-88-year-old chairwoman, saying: “I have visited the capitals of many countries, but only in the capital of my own country have I been subjected to this indignity.”

When faced with pressure from the petitioners, some stores desegregated on their own (including Hecht's, which changed its policy in January 1952, after a nine-month boycott and six-month picket line), but the committee came to the conclusion that to integrate the rest, legal action would be necessary.

That brought Terrell to Thompson's. Of all the restaurants that refused to serve African Americans, the committee targeted Thompson’s cafeteria because it was right next to the offices of the lawyers who would be taking the case to court, according to a 1985 Washington Post article.

But that first lunch in late February proved unsuccessful. After Terrell, Elmes, Thompson and Scull took their case to court the municipal court judge dismissed it, under the reasoning that the lost laws were “repealed by implication.” For technical reasons, the committee could not repeal that decision, so instead, they were forced to create another new case.

So, once again, Terrell found herself picking up a tray in Thompson’s in July. She was joined by Elmes and also was accompanied by a woman named Jean Joan Williams. Once again, the manager denied them service based on Terrell and Elmes’ skin color. However, this time, the municipal judge didn’t hold another full trial. That allowed the corporation council of the District of Columbia representing Terrell and company to appeal the decision. From there, the case moved to the Municipal Court of Appeals, which declared the lost laws valid. In a 5-4 decision, the Federal District Court, however, ruled the lost laws invalid. Then, the Supreme Court picked up the case.

The court had yet to overturn the “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy, but Terrell’s case, formally titled District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., relied only on jurisdiction in the district, which meant it did not touch Plessy. Due to its narrow scope, the court was able to issue an unanimous 8-0 decision in 1953, historically ending segregation in all Washington, D.C., establishments.

In an interview with Ethel Payne for the New York Age, Terrell said that after the verdict she called up the other defendants and invited them to lunch once more at Thompson’s. “We went and we had a glorious time. I took a tray and got in line and received my food. When I got to the end of the line, a gentleman walked up to me, took my tray and escorted me to a table and asked me, ‘Mrs. Terrell, is there anything else I can do for you?' And who do you think that man was? Why, it was the manager of the Thompson restaurants!”

Never one to stop her advocacy work, Terrell spent her 90th birthday that year testing Washington, D.C.’s segregated theater policy. She and her three guests were all admitted to see The Actress at the Capitol Theater without any trouble. Washington’s movie theater managers, unwilling to have their own Supreme Court case on their hands, had gotten the message. As Dennis and Judith Fradin wrote in Fight On!: Mary Church Terrell’s Battle for Integration, within the next few weeks “virtually all of Washington’s movie houses had opened their doors for everyone.”

Terrell would live to see the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, which ended racial segregation in public schools. She died just a couple months later on July 24, 1954.

Today, while 14th Street NW bears no physical trace of Thompson’s history or the work of the coordinating committee, the site can be found on D.C.’s African American Heritage Trail, which gives a deserving nod to the location's importance in breaking down discrimination by breaking bread.

Editor's note, March 20, 2019: Due to an error in source material, an earlier version of this story referred to Mary Church Terrell being thought of as the "female Booker T. Washington," when in fact that label was used instead for Nannie Helen Burroughs, another prominent activist in Washington, D.C. The reference has been removed from the story.

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