Segregation

Local Activists, Backed by District’s Black Churches, Led the Fight for DC School Desegregation

Integrated classroom at Anacostia High School

The history of school desegregation in the District is rooted in civil disobedience. The story is one of a grassroots organization of parents that challenged the institution of legalized segregation to guarantee better schools for their children. Throughout the seven-year struggle, the activists were supported by the District's Black churches, and their mission was grounded in the principles of faith and social justice.

"Belair at Bowie": Segregated Suburbia

Karl Gregory tries to buy a home in Belair at Bowie

By 1963, “Belair at Bowie” was thriving. Since its opening in 1961, over 2,000 houses were occupied. But its prosperity hid an uncomfortable truth. William Levitt’s vision of the perfect neighborhood included attractive homes, affordable prices, comfort, and community — but only one type of neighbor. From the moment Levitt arrived in Washington, local activists — and even the government — became aware of the developer’s racist policy: none of the homes in Belair could be sold to people of color.  

Wishing in a Fountain: The Protest for more D.C. Pools

Children splash in the fountain at Columbus Circle to protest a shortage of pools in Washington, D.C.

In the early 1960s, the Evening Star called the Columbus Circle fountain in front of Union Station “a ready made swimming pool with ledges, platforms, and friendly statues. It is a grand place to wrestle and splash during the heat of the day, to get the shivers, and to finally recapture the heat by stretching full length on the warm bricks of the surrounding walk. Columbus looks on — pleased and noble.” However, as inviting as it was, swimming in the fountain was technically against Park Police regulations ... which made it the perfect place to protest Washington’s shortage of accessible swimming pools.

Eat Anywhere! Mary Church Terrell, the Lost Laws, and the End of Segregation in D.C. Restaurants

Washington Afro American headline from June 9, 1953.

On Friday, January 27, 1950, Mary Church Terrell met three friends for a late lunch in downtown Washington. Terrell, then 86, entered Thompson’s Restaurant on 7th Street NW around 2:45 pm with Rev. William H. Jernigan, Geneva Brown and David Scull. Their party was integrated – Scull was white while the others were black – however, Thompson’s Restaurant was not. Like most other D.C. eating establishments at the time, it was whites only.

As the group went about selecting entrees along the cafeteria line, Manager Levin Ange emerged and informed them that Thompson’s did not serve “colored” people. Terrell clarified, “Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” When Ange confirmed that was the case, the group left the restaurant.

The chain of events was, of course, entirely expected. As a leader of Washington’s civil rights movement for half a century, Mary Church Terrell was well aware of Thompson’s policy. But she and the others didn’t go to the restaurant to be served. Rather they went with the expectation of being turned away – the necessary, if also demeaning, first step toward bringing a new sort of legal challenge, which they hoped would topple segregation in the nation’s capital.

Photograph of Mary Church Terrell as a young adult.

Impressions of Washington: Mary Church Terrell’s Activism

Educator, author, and activist Mary Church Terrell was the first president of the National Association for Colored Women, the first African-American woman elected to a major city school board, and a founding member of the NAACP. A lifelong advocate for equality, Terrell participated in sit-ins well into her eighties. But out of all of her activism, one 1906 speech stands out as an insightful and damning critique of racial dynamics in the nation's capital.

"The Whitest Huddle of Any Team in the League"

The Washington football team in 1961. (Image source: RedskinsCardMuseum.com)

At the start of the 2020 season, D.C.'s football team took the field as the Washington Football Team after prolonged protests over the team name. Sound like a familiar situation? That’s because today’s name-change controversy echoes the situation over 50 years ago when the Redskins were the last all-white team in the NFL. By 1952, every other team in the league had African-American players, but Washington team founder and owner George Preston Marshall refused to integrate and dragged his feet for ten more years until his hand was forced.

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