D.C. restaurant list is relic from a painful past

John Kelly
Columnist October 5, 2011

I first heard of The List during a sermon at my church, Bethesda’s Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist.

The List, explained then-pastor Roger Fritts, had been compiled in the early 1950s by the Rev. A. Powell Davies, pastor of All Souls Church on 16th Street NW. And it was that church that I called in my search for The List.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But the volunteer archivists at All Souls couldn’t find The List. I despaired of ever seeing this relic from Washington’s past.

Then I got a call from Hayden Wetzel, a local tour guide and historian who thought I might be interested in something he’d come across in the archives of the Friends Meeting over near Dupont Circle. He said he’d put a copy in the mail.

I’m looking at it now. In capital letters at the top of two neatly-typed columns is the heading “RESTAURANTS IN THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA.” But it is the phrase typed directly beneath these words that gives The List its resonance: “which are reported to serve meals to well behaved persons irrespective of race.”

The List is a list of restaurants in Washington at which blacks and whites could eat together. It appears to have been aimed at whites. It must have grown out of a sermon Davies gave Feb. 1, 1953, in which he said he would no longer “knowingly eat a meal in any restaurant in the District of Columbia that will not serve meals to Negroes.” He invited “all who truly believe in human brotherhood” to follow suit.

The List was important for people such as Paul E. Nelson Jr., a professor from Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Nelson had taken students on a class trip to Washington. Among them was an exchange student from the Gold Coast, what we today call Ghana. The student “encountered some problems” while in D.C., Nelson wrote to the Quakers here. The trip was an educational experience for the white members of the group, he wrote, “the kind of educational experience that is unfortunate, particularly to encounter it in the nation’s capital.”

Such an experience wouldn’t have surprised Earl Telfair, who grew up in Adams Morgan and now lives in Hyattsville. “We all knew our place, and we stayed in our place and left it alone,” said Earl, who is 82 and African American. “We all knew where we could go and where we couldn’t go, so we didn’t bother.”

The List includes the YMCA and YWCA, the restaurant at the National Zoo and “All Federal building cafeterias.” There are such long-gone favorites as Harvey’s and the Jade Bowl. But it is primarily composed of lunch counters at pharmacies, department stores, and five-and-dimes: Hecht’s, Lansburgh’s, Murphy’s. That dates it to post-September 1952. By that time, Mary Church Terrell and others had picketed Hecht’s and Murphy’s and ended segregation there. But it’s before the summer of 1953, when the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co. Inc.

Civil rights activists in Washington were convinced that laws barring segregation passed in the 1870s still applied in the city, even though they hadn’t been followed since the turn of the century. To test these so-called “lost laws,” Terrell went with a group to Thompson’s Restaurant, a cafeteria at 14th and New York NW. They were not allowed to eat, though a white member of their party was.

“These are not rabble rousers,” Maurice Jackson, a professor of history at Georgetown, told me. “These are ladies in white hats.”

In June of 1953, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the white-hatted ladies.

Professor Nelson had a better time on his second visit to Washington. We have The List because he wrote to the Quakers — who must have gotten it from All Souls — thanking them and including a note about one restaurant he visited: New Smorgasbord at 2641 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Nelson wrote that New Smorgasbord had served the mixed-race Denison group “as an experiment. It was the first time they had served a negro, although orientals were served without question. As far as we could tell, nothing unusual developed. However, before going here with a negro guest it might be best to call in advance.”

This was 58 years ago, not really all that long.

To see a copy of The List, look at my column online at washingtonpost.com/local.

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