Brown v. Board of Education is one of the most identifiable civil rights cases in our nation’s history. While most scholarship begins with Brown, Just Another Southern Town by Joan Quigley recounts the battle for civil rights before Brown, culminating with District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., a unanimous 1953 decision by the Supreme Court invalidating restaurant segregation in the nation’s capital. In this slideshow, Joan Quigley weaves together the success of this case with other landmark civil rights moments in Washington, DC, creating a timeline of the struggle for racial justice in our nation’s capital.
April 16, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln signs the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which frees 3,100 slaves in Washington, nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation liberates slaves in the Confederacy.
Image Credit: Abraham Lincoln by Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
1867 - 1878
Congress has jurisdiction over Washington under the Constitution. In 1867, during postwar reconstruction, Congress grants suffrage to the capital’s black men (a privilege white males already enjoyed). Between 1869 and 1873, local Washington legislators pass a series of antidiscrimination laws. The measures ban discrimination in public accommodations in the capital, including restaurants. By 1878, Congress has disfranchised all Washington voters – black and white – and dismantled the city’s local government, installing three presidentially appointed commissioners.
Image Credit: The Capitol, Washington, D.C. by J.W. & J.S. Moulton. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
At a national convention of African American women in Washington, the National Association of Colored Women forms. Mary Church Terrell is elected its first president.
Image Credit: Before graduating from Oberlin College in 1884, Mary Church posed for a portrait in a local studio. Neither of her parents attended her graduation ceremony. Courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives.
The administration of President Woodrow Wilson segregates federal employees.
Image Credit: Woodrow Wilson at his desk in the Oval Office by Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
May 30, 1922
Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft presides over the dedication ceremony for the Lincoln Memorial. Also in attendance are President Warren G. Harding and Robert T. Lincoln, the son of the former president. African American guests are assigned to a segregated seating area. About 20 of them walk out in protest.
Image Credit: Taft, Harding, Robert, Lincoln by National Photo Company. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
April 9, 1939
On Easter Sunday, Marian Anderson, the African American contralto, performs a free twilight concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Her performance was arranged after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her access to Constitution Hall because of her race.
Image Credit: Marian Anderson, Lincoln Memorial by U.S. Information Agency. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
January 27, 1950
Thompson’s Restaurant, a cafeteria located a few blocks from the White House, refuses to serve 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell and two of her colleagues because they are “colored.” She takes the matter to court, seeking to enforce Washington’s Reconstruction-era antidiscrimination laws. During his annual State of the Union address three weeks earlier, on January 4, 1950, President Harry S. Truman had promised to support federal civil rights legislation – a pledge he first made in 1948.
Image Credit: President Truman delivering his State of the Union Address to joint session Congress by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
February 2, 1953
In his first State of the Union Address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower vows to end segregation in Washington, D.C. He receives tepid applause.
Image Credit: Dwight D. Eidenhower by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
June 8, 1953
The U.S. Supreme Court unveils a unanimous decision in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., invalidating segregation in Washington restaurants. Justice William O. Douglas writes the opinion for the Court. The justices also schedule Brown v. Board of Education and four companion cases, including one that arose in Washington, for a second round of oral argument in the fall.
Image Credit: Justice William O Douglas by Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
May 17, 1954
The Supreme Court releases its unanimous Brown decision, invalidating school segregation. A separate opinion, Bolling v. Sharpe, strikes down segregated public schools in Washington.
Image Credit: Warren Court 1953 by United Press International telephoto. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Feature Image: US Capitol Building by FSP Vintage Collection. Public Doman via Free Stock Photos.