A marriage license is probably not the type of artifact or document that draws visitors to museums. But a document on display at the D.C. Superior Court’s Marriage Bureau in the Moultrie Courthouse is the one big exception. Rachel Kurzius at DCist reports that the Bureau is displaying the marriage license application of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, the interracial couple whose union led to the Supreme Court ruling striking down miscegenation laws, giving interracial couples the right to marry throughout the U.S.
In July 1958, the Central Point, Virginia, residents decided to get married. But laws in the state of Virginia prevented the two from wedding because 24-year-old Loving was white and 22-year-old Jeter was Native American and black, reports Michelle Norris at NPR. So the couple traveled to Washington, D.C., which did not have miscegenation laws, to get hitched, filling out the marriage license that is now on display.
Soon after, the Lovings returned home to Caroline County. That October, the Caroline County grand jury indicted them for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, a 1924 law that said anyone with a “single drop” of black ancestry was not allowed to marry someone categorized as white. The couple pled guilty, and were sentenced to a year in prison, though that sentence was suspended as long as they agreed to leave the state and not return for 25 years.
The Lovings relocated to D.C. where Richard worked as a bricklayer and Mildred took care of their three children. In 1963, missing home, they contacted a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge their conviction. The original judge in the case, Leon Bazile, wouldn’t budge, saying, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
They Lovings appealed the decision. “They just were in love with one another and wanted the right to live together as husband and wife in Virginia, without any interference from officialdom. When I told Richard that this case was, in all likelihood, going to go to the Supreme Court of the United States, he became wide-eyed and his jaw dropped,” Barnard Cohen, the ACLU lawyer who headed the case tells Norris.
The case did eventually make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1967 the Loving Decision legalized interracial marriage throughout the U.S.
The ruling to allow interracial marriage didn’t change things over night, Lily Rothman at TIME points out. It took a decade of lower court challenges before officials stopped enforcing miscegenation laws. Alabama didn’t officially expunge the laws from its state statues until 2000. As late as 2009, a justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, refused to marry an interracial couple, eventually resigning after a civil rights suit was filed against him.
All the more reason to learn why the Lovings case matters. The display also includes marriage licenses for Woodrow Wilson, former D.C. mayors Walter Washington and Marion Barry as well as presidential daughters Patricia Nixon and Alice Roosevelt. There's also the 1886 marriage license of Grover Cleveland, the only U.S. President to marry while in the White House, and his longtime ward Frances Folsom. But that's another story entirely.