When George Washington selected the site of the capital in 1791, there were already blacks--slaves and a few free blacks--living on the land that was to become Washington, D.C. Nearly two centuries later, blacks are a majority in the city's population and government.
But the passage from bondage to full civil and human rights for blacks in Washington has been far from smooth.
This is the final installment of a review of the landmark developments of Washington's two centuries of black history. This week covers the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. 1933--The New Negro Alliance was formed by a group of younger black Washingtonians, including William Hastie, later a federal judge; Charles Houston, famous a decade later as special counsel of the NAACP; and Robert Weaver, who was to become the first black U.S. Cabinet appointee. They organized to picket and boycott businesses that discriminated in employment, using the slogan, "Buy where you work." Their first target was a hot-dog stand on U Street NW, which relented and hired blacks a week or two later. The next year, the A&P grocery chain hired a few black clerks in stores in black neighborhoods. 1936 -- Catholic University admitted a black student to its School of Social Work, breaking the color line in higher education. Several months later, the faculty of American University's graduate school voted unanimously to admit blacks, although its undergraduate college, as well as George Washington and Georgetown universities, still refused to admit blacks. 1938 -- The Supreme Court overturned an injunction that had prohibited the New Negro Alliance from organizing boycotts against the Sanitary Grocery Co., later renamed Safeway Inc. Sanitary, which had a 95 percent black clientele in the city, had won the injunction in a suit against the alliance in U.S. District Court. 1939 --When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall, citizens requested the use of the auditorium at all-white Central High School. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who had begun integrating recreation facilities in Rock Creek and West Potomac parks, offered the use of the Lincoln Memorial where 75,000 people gathered to hear Anderson's Easter Sunday concert. 1941 --Eugene Davidson, a founder of the New Negro Alliance, and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, along with NAACP leaders, called for a massive march on Washington in July to protest job discrimination. The march was averted at the last minute when President Roosevelt signed his Order on Fair Employment Practices, prohibiting discrimination in plants with defense contracts and in all federal offices and agencies. It was the first presidential order protecting the rights of blacks since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. 1948 -- President Truman made clear his support for civil rights in a February message to Congress and July executive orders on nondiscrimination in government and in the military.
The National Committee on Segregation in the Nation's Capital issued its report, "Segregation in Washington," documenting the inequality of black life. The committee, a group of notables, including actress Helen Hayes, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, emphasized that the pattern set in the nation's capital on race relations would shape the policy of every community in the nation. 1949 -- Sixty-one civic, religious, labor and charitable organizations set up a biracial Coordinating Committee for Enforcement of the District Antidiscrimination Laws in response to the "Segregation in Washington" report, which had drawn attention to antidiscrimination laws passed in the 1870s and still in effect. The committee sought to test those laws by suing Thompson's Restaurant at 14th and E streets NW. Thompson's had refused to serve a group of blacks, including civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell. The group lost the case in Municipal Court but won on appeal. Thompson's and other city eating places subsequently served blacks. 1952 -- Nearly 200 educators and lawyers from across the country met at Howard University to discuss school integration cases pending before the Supreme Court. The conference decided that when suits reached the court, it would attack the unconstitutionality of all laws requiring segregated schools rather than simply pleading that separate systems produced inequities in certain instances.
Because the Supreme Court had several similar school desegregation cases pending, it proposed that the District Bolling v. Sharpe case, which had not been heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals, bypass that step and be argued with the other cases. 1954 -- On May 17, the Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision, ordering that states proceed to desegregate schools "with all deliberate speed." That evening the District recreation board signed a statement stating all public recreational facilities were to be available to everyone.