Gone from 14th Street in downtown Washington, obliterated by a People's drugstore that stands on the spot where it once stood, is a landmark of social revolution: Thompson's Restaurant.
Most Americans would probably date the start of racial desegregation in our time from 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Brown school case. Few recall that the court signaled its readiness to endorse such social change a year earlier in a ruling that ended racial discrimination in the eating places in Washington. That ruling gives Thompson's its significance.
If the chain is remembered today, it is not for its food, but for its refusal to serve it.
Thompson's four restaurants were known among Washingtonians as places where you could dine cheaply. During the '30s, for instance, they sold ham and egg sandwiches for 5 cents apiece.
Thompson's reluctantly took its place in history on a January afternoon in 1950, when four citizens entered the cafeteria together, took up trays and made their way along the food counters.
The group was considerably more prestigious than Thompson's usual clientele. Most times the restaurant was visited by footsore shoppers, secretaries with 20 minutes for lunch, tourists looking for an inexpensive meal and men down on their luck, who came in on a cold day to sit and warm their hands on a mug of coffee.
One of the two men in the party was the pastor of a local Baptist church, the other was a government worker active in the civil rights programs of the Society of Friends. The two women were the secretary-treasurer of the local cafeteria workers union and, best known of the four, Mary Church Terrell, an international leader in the women's rights movement.
When the four of them with their laden trays reached the checkout register, they found the manager waiting. He took one look at two unmistakably dark faces and told the interracial group grimly, "We don't serve colored."
Terrell's light complexion did not automatically identify her as black.
Why did they chose Thompson's? Because it was practically next door to the offices of Joseph Forer and David Rein, two lawyers who wanted to use a denial of service because of race as the basis for a test case. Armed with the sworn affidavits of the testing party, they were ready to go before the D.C. Corporation Counsel the legal department of the city government and argue that it was the city's duty to prosecute Thompson's for violating the criminal code -- specifically, for violating two laws that were no longer in the code.
These two statutes were enacted in 1872 and 1873, shortly after the end of the Civil War, by the Legislative Assembly that Congress had created to govern the District. They required restaurants, hotels, "ice-cream saloons," barbershops and certain other places of public accommodation to serve "any respectable, well-behaved person without regard to race, color or previous condition of servitude" or face a $100 fine and a loss of their license for a year.
In 1901, the two antidiscrimination laws were omitted from a recodification of city laws and segregation set in.
An organization with the cumbersome name of "The Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws" was formed in 1949, with Mary Church Terrell as its chairman, Annie Stein, its secretary and a coalition of 61 civic, religious, labor and social groups.
In 1950, at the age of 86, Terrell, a tall, white-haired woman of regal bearing and possessed of an orator's eloquence, was nearing the end of a life rich in public service and honors. She had taught in District schools and served on the school board and became one of the city's leading black civil rights advocates. Her husband was Robert H. Terrell, a judge of the Municipal Court, for whom a Northeast junior high school is named.
Stein grew up in New York City, in a poor Jewish family. Her parents were radicals who had long ago substituted social protest for religious affiliation. A graduate of City College, trained as a statistician, Stein was always deeply involved in political action.
It took three years for the Thompson's Restaurant case to work its way through the courts. The coordinating committee was there at every step, keeping the issue before the public and often dramatizing refusals of service with picket lines.
The visit that Mary Terrell and her three friends paid to Thompson's Restaurant was a desperate measure. It came after repeated failures to get the District's corporation counsel to even examine the "lost laws," let alone consider a suit aimed at reinstating them.
As chairman of the District Affairs Committee of the D.C. chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Joseph Forer, after much research, wrote an opinion that the laws had never been repealed and remained in effect. The opinion was signed by six other lawyers including Charles H. Houston, then dean of Howard University Law School, and Margaret A. Haywood, who became a Superior Court judge.
In May 1949, the guild opinion was submitted to the corporation counsel, who announced that he would take the matter under study. It was this laggard attitude that stirred the coordinating committee, in 1950, to prod the counsel by presenting him with evidence of a specific violation of the lost laws.
The city finally took the case to court. Faced with this challenge, the Washington Restaurant Association sent a letter to its members urging them to continue to refuse to serve colored persons and asking them to contribute at least $25 to a defense fund that the Washington Afro-American newspaper estimated would eventually amount to $100,000. The Washington Board of Trade joined the association in the suit as a "friend of the court."
Arrayed against these powerful forces was the coordinating committee. The committee's meeting hall was the storefront headquarters of the Laundry Workers Local 471, at 1015 M St. NW. It has since been razed and replaced by a parking lot . The committee's office was Annie Stein's two-bedroom apartment in Southeast Washington, which she shared with her husband and her young son and daughter. She kept the committee's records in a filing cabinet in her bedroom; that was also where she kept the committee's mimeograph machine. Her dining-room table was often pressed into service for stuffing and mailing parties and for evenings devoted to the lettering of picket signs.
Given the widespread segregation, the coordinating committee was surprised to find upon sending out interracial testing parties that there were restaurants in Washington, other than federal cafeterias, Union Station and one or two organizational eating places like the YWCA and the dining room in the American Veterans Committee's club house, that were willing to serve anyone who came in.
Once the District's suit against Thompson's was filed, a few more restaurants began serving everyone. The committee was able to persuade a few more to serve through negotiation. Then came the first picket line, set up in front of Kresge's on Seventh Street.
In eight weeks, Kresge's trade was so seriously hurt, the store capitulated. The pickets were invited in to have a cup of coffee and to sit at the lunch counter that had denied black customers service for so many years.
The Kresge victory convinced the coordinating committee of the power of picketing. The technique was used twice while the Thompson's Restaurant case was moving through the courts: once against the Hecht Co. on Seventh Street and once against the G.C. Murphy store on F Street.
Hecht's unwittingly invited the coordinating committee's attention. In February 1951, during World Brotherhood Week, the store ran a full-page ad in the local newspapers featuring a message that called on everyone to work to build "bridges of brotherhood."
But when Mary Terrell and Annie Stein asked the Hecht's manager to integrate its basement lunch counter, he said the lunch counter would continue to be reserved for white customers only.
After the store broke off several months of negotiations the picket signs came out. For six months, from a tropical Saturday in July 1951, on through a slushy Christmas season, the coordinating committee kept a line going in front of the store's main entrance on Seventh Street every Thursday night, every noon hour on Friday and all day Saturday.
It was one of the best-dressed picket lines ever because the lost laws required service of "any well-behaved person." Men in coats and ties and women in smart hats and dresses and silk stockings marched even during Washington's oven-summer days.
One Saturday in January a black porter came out to sweep the pavement and casually mentioned to one of the pickets that the store had changed its policy. The following Tuesday, a black picket leader went to the lunch counter and found that instead of being ignored or rebuffed, her order was taken and she was served by a white waitress who seemed to pay no attention to her color.
Scarcely a word about the breakthrough or the picketing was reported in the the city's four daily newspapers. Hecht's, after all, was a major advertiser. A day or so later, Mary Terrell, Annie Stein and three black women reporters from major black-owned newspapers went to Hecht's for lunch. They also were served.
When the reporters asked Hecht's about the change, they were each told that the store had never discriminated against black customers. A short while later, Hecht's removed the counter stools. Apparently the management decided that if customers had to eat, it would get fewer complaints if whites and blacks stood rather than sat next to each other.
The G.C. Murphy store on F Street was next. The coordinating committee appealed to Murphy's home office and was told that such policy questions were left to the discretion of individual managers.
The picketing was initiated in May 1952 and continued throughout the summer. At the time the picketing began, two other Murphy stores in Washington had already dropped their exclusionary policy. But the manager of the F Street store refused to even discuss the matter.
Suddenly one day in September, the manager telephoned Mary Terrell and invited her to drop by. She came immediately, accompanied by Annie Stein. After a discussion that lasted several hours, in which they were able to reassure him that his business would not suffer, the manager agreed to open the store's restaurant to all its customers. He inaugurated the new policy by personally conducting the ladies to the lunch counter and treating them to pie and coffee.
Meanwhile, the Thompson's Restaurant case zig-zagged through the courts. On July 10, 1950, Judge Frank Myers of the Municipal Court had ruled that the laws were no longer in effect because of their omission from the District Code. He was reversed by the Municipal Court of Appeals on May 25, 1951, but on Jan. 22, 1953, after a year's deliberation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled 5 to 4 that the lost laws were invalid.
Under great pressure, the District appealed the federal appellate decision to the Supreme Court. The court heard arguments in April and on June 8, 1953, in a unanimous eight-man ruling with one abstention upheld the lost laws.
Four days after the Supreme Court ruled, Mary Terrell and the three other original complainants went back to Thompson's. Joe Forer followed them in.
As he recalls the moment, the manager, himself, came over and personally, even obsequiously, carried Mary Terrell's tray to the table.
She was quoted in the press around that time as saying, "I will be 90 on the 23rd of September and will die happy that children of my group will not grow up thinking they are inferior because they are deprived of rights which children of other racial groups enjoy."