The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new book charts the early years of Washington’s NAACP chapter

Archivist and historian Derek Gray. In his new book, “The NAACP in Washington, D.C.: From Jim Crow to Home Rule,” Gray explores the civil rights movement in the nation's capital from 1912 to the early 1970s. (Farrah Skeiky)
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When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in New York City in 1909, it was inevitable that there would eventually be a branch in Washington.

After all, said archivist and historian Derek Gray, the District had a sizable African American population and there was “a very robust Black middle- to upper-middle class in the city: attorneys, educators, entrepreneurs. Howard University and M Street High School were centers of Black quality education.”

But what sort of branch would it be?

That’s the question Gray addresses in his new book, “The NAACP in Washington, D.C.: From Jim Crow to Home Rule,” published by the History Press.

The national NAACP office was founded and run primarily by White progressives. Washington was the fourth U.S. city to have an NAACP chapter — Chicago and Boston came before it — and, said Gray, was basically the first to have Black leadership. Mary Church Terrell was among the first officers and John Milton Waldron, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, served as the branch’s first president.

The members had a unique responsibility.

“New York was a powerhouse, but D.C. was the center of power,” Gray said. “The branch had two dual roles: to serve the interests of the city’s Black community, but also to monitor what was going on in Congress in terms of legislation that would negatively affect African Americans all over the country.”

As with so many fledgling organizations, the early days of the NAACP in Washington were challenging. The city’s newspapers were dismissive. You might expect that from White-owned papers such as the Evening Star and The Washington Post, but Gray found even the Black press was less than supportive.

“That was very fascinating to me,” Gray said.

A leading paper for the African American community at the time was the Washington Bee, led by the firebrand editor William Calvin Chase.

“He immediately dismissed the NAACP when it was first formed,” Gray said. “He was of the mind-set that any movement that brought together African Americans and Whites just would not work. For a long time he just ignored it.”

Chase thought that the slow, careful academic approach to race relations was a waste of time.

“Chase was like, no, you need activism,” Gray said.

That dichotomy — prudence vs. activism — was emblematic of the organization’s early years.

Gray’s book is a good primer on the civil rights issues facing the country in the early 20th century. The candidacy of Woodrow Wilson “really galvanized the branch,” Gray said. “Wilson, he talked a good game. He basically portrayed himself as a liberal southerner. He condemned lynching from the start and impressed the NAACP, including the Washington branch.”

The NAACP endorsed Wilson — D.C. chapter president Waldron was a big fan — confident that the Democrat would be an ally in the White House. He turned out to be the opposite, segregating federal departments and hobbling a rising Black middle class in Washington.

In 1915, Wilson attended a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House. The film was sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and NAACP chapters across the country were trying to prevent it from being shown.

“Some branches were able to get scenes deleted or get it banned altogether,” Gray said.

For the District, the issue was a perfect illustration of the tension between moderation and militancy. Gray writes that at a monthly meeting of the District NAACP chapter, “a member suggested a radical solution. If all else failed, then the chemists of the city, of which he was one, ‘should get together and prevent the showing of the play by the use of explosives.’ ”

That didn’t happen. Said Gray: “Direct action — picketing and boycotts — was not the appetite of the branch. They looked at that — they called it the ‘rowdy element’ — and decided, ‘We’re going to be careful, we’re going to be cautious.’ ”

In the end, “The Birth of a Nation” was shown at the National Theatre without incident.

The chapter had more success with the so-called Mammy Monument, a statue of a Black woman tending to White children that had the support of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Gray said even some male NAACP members had no problem with the proposed sculpture.

“The women of the branch were actually responsible for that monument not coming to be,” Gray said. “Women like Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Virginia McGuire — all these powerful sisters — said, ‘You know what, fellas? Step aside. We’ll take care of it.’ ”

When we think of the civil rights movement, we tend to think of the sit-ins, marches and speeches of the 1950s and 1960s. Gray hopes his book will remind readers of earlier battles and the people who fought them.