Ask someone about the Lost Laws, and you'll likely get a blank stare. They are laws enacted in 1872 and 1873 by the District of Columbia territorial legislature -- indeed, there once was such a body -- that outlawed segregation in restaurants and similar businesses.
Alas, over the years, as the form of local government changed, the laws were omitted from the D.C. Code, and hence were "lost." Finally, in 1953, the Supreme Court ruled that they remained valid, and the last major de jure vestige of segregation -- other than the school system -- toppled in this capital. School segregation was outlawed the following year.
The legal archeologist who unearthed the Lost Laws, Joseph Forer, died the other day at 75, and we can all thank him in retrospect for defusing what was seriously threatening to become an explosive apartheid issue. A left-wing lawyer, he took the case of three blacks, Geneva Brown, the Rev. W.H. Jernagin and the Rev. Mary Church Terrell. On Feb. 28, 1950, they were turned away from Thompson's Restaurant at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Bassin's later occupied the premises, and the J.W. Marriott Hotel now stands on the site.
There was no question, in the words of legal documents of the day, that the three were "well-behaved" and "respectable," but custom, if not the laws, dictated that they be turned away. (This was in a period, longtime Washingtonians will recall, when the National Theatre refused to admit black spectators, and the capital's only legitimate theater, incredibly, was the Gayety, ordinarily a burlesque house on lower Ninth Street.)
It took three years for the Thompson's Restaurant case to move through the courts, involving progress and reversals at various stages. The Eisenhower administration ultimately supported desegregation.
This Lost Law ultimately upheld by the high court is embedded in today's D.C. Code. But it's interesting and even a bit amusing to read it in its original but abridged form:
" . . . Any restaurant keeper or proprietor, any hotel keeper, proprietor, proprietors or keepers of ice cream saloons or places where soda water is kept for sale, or keepers of barber shops or bathing houses, refusing to sell or wait upon any respectable well-behaved person, without regard to race, color or previous condition of servitude . . . or who refuse under any pretext to serve such a person in the same room, at the same prices . . . shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor."
The three plaintiffs visited Thompson's three days after the Supreme Court handed down its decision. "We were treated very nicely," said Jernagin at the time. "We have no complaint at all." Happy Days Continued
Metro Scene's favorite soap opera drama of the classified advertising pages continues to unfold -- or is it about to fold? Yesterday's latest chapter:HAPPY DAYS
LML -- Phase 3. And off to the Cape. Picture This
And if it weren't for the Post's conflict-of-interest rules, here's a classified ad that Herblock might successfully respond to. Our Metro transit authority says it wants: "Sealed bids . . . for . . . 1 Lot Folded Cartoons, assorted sizes."