The Jim Crow laws enforced segregation, or separation, for over a century in the United States. The laws and practices were enforced through laws and customs such as the ‘one man, one woman’ rule, where marriage was reserved for white people only, and denying blacks access to public places and events.

The city of Washington, D.C. is one of the most segregated places in the United States. There are many communities within the United States that have been largely separated for decades by segregation, and D.C. is one of them. However, there are some signs of hope that the city may be moving away from its segregated past.

In Washington D.C., the city where the federal government is located, the D.C. Council has passed a bill that prohibits employers or landlords from banning a person from wearing a head scarf, such as the hijab or the kufi. It also bans employers and landlords from refusing to hire, or evicting someone, for wearing religious clothing.

An old woman is turned away from a Washington, DC restaurant in 1950 because she is black. The court case she starts creates the groundwork for desegregation to be abolished. Joan Quigley narrates the story of Mary Church Terrell, an unusual civil rights hero whose life spanned the Emancipation Proclamation and Brown v. Board of Education in Just Another Southern Town.

What was the context in which Mary Church Terrell lived? Mary’s narrative is a complex mix of ethnicity, gender, and social status. And her socioeconomic status explains why she spent so much of her life pursuing better medical care. Robert Church, her father, was the child of a slave mother and a white owner. Robert was given a job working on Mississippi riverboats by his father. In Memphis, he established himself as an entrepreneur. Louisa, who was the daughter of a slave and a master, had a particular relationship with her father.

What were Mary’s mother’s expectations for her? Louisa wanted Mary to receive a good education. Because it wasn’t an option in Memphis, Mary was sent north to school, possibly as early as the age of six. Her earliest years of education were spent at Yellow Springs, Ohio. She attended high school and college in Oberlin, Ohio.

What was it like for her to live there? This Ohio locale was a hotbed of transplanted New England abolitionism, which provided chances for a young black woman. Mary was a member of a Congregationalist church choir and lived in a leased room at first. She grew up in Oberlin, both the town and the college. Oberlin College was unique in that it was coeducational and allowed African-Americans practically from the beginning in the 1830s. Mary shared a dorm with other women and mingled with both black and white students.

Please tell us more about her hubby. Robert Terrell’s parents were former slaves from Virginia who immigrated to Washington, DC following the Civil War. Robert finished high school and moved to Boston, where he worked as a waiter at Harvard’s dining hall. He was persuaded to enlist by his peers. He was picked to make a commencement address after he graduated in 1884. He graduated from Howard University with a law degree and went on to become a DC justice of the peace in 1901, a prestigious position that did not come with a lifetime tenure. He and other Washington city judges had to be renominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate every four years. Robert was reappointed by every president for the rest of his life, including southern sympathizer Woodrow Wilson.

He and Mary had to take it slowly. Robert’s fate was in the hands of the political system. There was a conflict between Mary’s desire to bring attention to the cause of racial equality and her husband’s need for and desire to keep his work.

Why did Mary decide to become a lecturer? Lecturing provided her with a platform and an opportunity to generate awareness and funds for subjects she was passionate about. She was a magazine writer and a self-improvement speaker on the Chautauqua circuit.

What was it like to live in DC in the early 1900s? Segregation became more rigid. Mary asked a white guy to transfer her suitcase on a Washington streetcar in 1908. He wasn’t going to do it. She slapped him across the face. She was unable to obtain service at a soda fountain.

She figured out how to take charge. The National Association of Colored Women was created in 1896, two months after Plessy v. Ferguson, and Mary was the first president.

What about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)? Mary joined the organization as a charter member in 1909, but she had no other role.

What happened to her when Robert died in 1925? A Colored Woman in a White World was her memoir. She applied to the local organization of the American Association of University Women based on her Oberlin degree. She was turned down by the branch. She filed a lawsuit. The federal appeals court in Washington, DC, ruled with the branch in June 1949. In Congress, civil rights legislation was blocked. Segregation was practiced in churches and schools, department stores, companies, movie theaters, and drug stores in DC, with the exception of streetcars, Union Station, and government cafeterias.

Plucking Out Jim Crow in the Nation’s Capital

Mary Church Terrell, a young woman who was a vocal opponent of Jim Crow, is depicted in this painting. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

 

What was her strategy for dealing with Jim Crow? On January 27, 1950, four activists meet at Thompson’s, a café near the White House at 725 14th Street NW. Mary Church Terrell is an 86-year-old woman. William Jernagin, a minister at Mount Carmel Baptist Church, is in his eighties. Geneva Brown of the Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers Union and David Scull, a white Quaker, are their friends.

So, what happens next? Thompson’s can’t serve the four because they’re “hued,” according to the manager. “I can’t be served because my face is black?” Jernagin asks. “It’s not you, it’s business policy,” the manager says.

That was the purpose of their visit. Restaurants in DC were prohibited from discriminating against people of color under Reconstruction-era regulations at the time. Mary and her associates were attempting to resurrect such laws. The denial allowed them to file affidavits that would be used to challenge discrimination in Washington restaurants. Mary and her allies lost at every level of the lawsuit, from the DC municipal court to the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, which had heard oral arguments in the Brown v. Board of Education case group in December 1952. Brown was a case that the Justices were unable to resolve. Thompson, however, appeared in April 1953. The supreme court took the case on an expedited basis, scheduled oral arguments right away, and announced its ruling on June 8, 1953.

Explain how the legal system works. Thompson, unlike the Brown trials, was not a constitutional issue. The 14th Amendment and the equal protection provision were not required to be decided by the Justices. Mary and her companions’ argument was limited to DC and its obscure old rules. Their case allowed the court to deliver a clear 8-0 message that Jim Crow was abolished, paving the way for Brown. Thompson’s decision went into effect right away.

What exactly did Mary do? She went to Thompson’s, queued up, and ordered her dinner. Her tray was taken by the manager and carried to the dining area.

What significance does the decision have for her? It’s all she’s worked for, a declaration from the country’s top court that she deserves to be treated equally to everyone else.

Did she mention it in her writing? Mary was 89 years old and beginning to show her age. She survived long enough to see Brown, but she died not long after.

  1. Brown, what did he mean? Brown drew the nation’s attention to the unfinished business mentioned by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. This ruling restored Jim Crow’s backsliding and fulfilled the promise of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. 

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