John Kelly's Washington: An Old Racial Stain on D.C. Area Restaurants

By John Kelly
Thursday, April 2, 2009

The MetropoList is a popular feature in these pages, tasty tidbits of nostalgia about a vanished Washington. The brief paeans to local restaurants, bars and stores are, a reader recently wrote me, "universally evocative of happy times."

But they often don't tell the whole story.

"I have some other memories," this reader wrote, recalling an incident from around 1958. "The garden of the Roma Restaurant was a beautiful place. One evening I was with friends waiting to be seated. The African American couple directly in front of us was turned away, being told that the garden was closed. They left, but they must have seen that the owner directed us to the entrance to the garden.

"Years later I can't believe that most people, like me, observed that behavior without showing our disapproval by also leaving."

She asked that I not publish her name, perhaps still feeling, 50 years later, embarrassed by her reticence.

The Washington area was in no way unique when it came to discrimination in public places, though the fact that the city was meant to symbolize the lofty principles of freedom made the segregation more ironic. And the fact is, many of the restaurants, hotels and stores that evoke such warm feelings in some Washingtonians evoke the exact opposite feeling in others.

Take Sholl's Cafeteria, for example, where in 1950, according to The Washington Post, "10 white persons and three Negroes" were arrested after refusing to leave when they were denied service. The owner of the cafeteria also happened to be vice president of the Washington Restaurant Association.

In 1957 teams from the NAACP visited 18 restaurants in Montgomery County and were turned away from six, including the Little Tavern in Silver Spring and the Hot Shoppes, Toddle House and Woodward & Lothrop restaurants in Bethesda and Chevy Chase. A Hot Shoppes spokesman told The Post, "Our policies are dictated by the customs in the area."

Much the same explanation was given by the manager of Toddle House, which would serve the NAACP team only from the carry-out window: "We won't refuse service to anyone but we have very few Negro customers and the majority of our white customers complain if we serve them."

A spokesperson from Woodies was blunter: "We do not serve Negroes at the Chevy Chase store. No explanation is necessary." The black patrons had been told they could eat in an employee dining room.

In 1960, biracial teams of community leaders in Arlington and Fairfax counties brokered desegregation deals. Establishments such as Howard Johnson, Peoples Drug, McCrory's and Hecht's agreed to integrate their restaurants and lunch counters. There remained at least one holdout: The operator of the cafeteria in the basement of the Fairfax County Courthouse said he planned to continue his segregation policy. Black jurors would have to eat somewhere else.

I asked Lillian Patterson, curator at the Alexandria Black History Museum, which white-owned restaurants her family couldn't eat at when she was growing up in Alexandria. She laughed. "All of them," she said.

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