The late 19th century was not a good time to be an oyster in Washington. You were going to get eaten. It was just a question of when and how.
Odds were that you were going to be steamed or fried and then consumed at Harvey’s, the leading oyster house in a city full of them. In 1866, according to John DeFerrari’s “Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.,” Harvey’s was serving 500 wagonloads of the tasty bivalves a week.
Located at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Harvey’s was an establishment restaurant, a place for Washington’s lawyers, politicians and businessmen to meet and eat. And it was where Emanuel Molyneaux Hewlett decided to go for a meal on Dec. 5, 1887.
E.M. Hewlett was pretty established himself. He was the son of the first African American instructor at Harvard University, Aaron M. Hewlett, who oversaw the college’s state-of-the-art gymnasium. He was the first black graduate of the Boston University School of Law and had a busy D.C. legal practice. He was a leading citizen in Uniontown, as Anacostia was called then, and his sister Virginia was married to Frederick Douglass’s son Frederick Douglass Jr. (with whom, it must be said, he feuded).
On the evening in question, the 36-year-old Hewlett stopped at Harvey’s to dine with a Dr. Curtis of the Bureau of Pensions, who was also black. The pair chose a table on the first floor, then sat for about 10 minutes as several waiters passed them. Hewlett finally stood and approached a waiter and ordered fried oysters.
Another 10 oysterless minutes passed. Finally, Hewlett went up to William Harvey, nephew of the restaurant’s owner.
“My God,” Harvey said. “I can’t stand that. What do you want here?”
Hewlett replied that he wanted oysters.
“You can’t get them here. Get out of here.”
Hewlett filed a complaint against Harvey’s, claiming it had violated the Equal Services Acts of 1872 and 1873, which forbade racial discrimination in D.C. restaurants. After hearing the evidence, Judge William B. Snell did as he had done in earlier cases: He imposed a $100 fine against Harvey’s. The restaurant vowed to appeal.
And it did, choosing to focus on the section of the civil rights laws that said restaurants were compelled to serve “any well-behaved and respectable person.” Hewlett, Harvey’s attorney said, was not well-behaved.
The defense attorney produced a story from the Washington Evening Star recounting a trip Hewlett had taken two months earlier to French’s, a lunch room in the Center Market, located where the National Archives are now.
Hewlett had ordered three eggs, a cup of coffee and some biscuits, for which he was charged 50 cents. This was three times what the meal should have cost. He asked for the price list — restaurants were required to post one, to prevent black patrons from being gouged — and was told there was none.
Hewlett left, or tried to. John French had ordered the exit doors locked. The black attorney had to climb out a window, then walk along a balcony before entering another room that had access to an elevator.
This proved, Harvey testified, that Hewlett was a known check-skipper. Knowing that, what restaurant would serve him?
Harvey’s attorney managed to strike the lone black member from the jury, which after deliberating for seven hours announced that it was deadlocked. The case wasn’t settled until June 1888, when it was nolle prossed, meaning it was dropped by the prosecution.
Hewlett tried to find solace in the fact that at least he had publicized the laws, but it was hard to see the outcome as anything other than a defeat. It conclusively showed, the black-owned Washington Bee wrote, “the prejudice of white men against a colored man.” The newspaper mused that it was only a matter of time before “white people will attempt to prohibit the colored people from attending church services.”
The Evening Star editorial struck a different tone. “The inexorable Hewlett will not relent,” it began. If restaurants were to be integrated, it asked, what was next? Mixed schools? (“The Star believes that the mass of our colored people favor separate schools.”)
The editorial concluded that “no self-restrained and self-respecting man, whether white or colored, will, merely to vindicate his legal right to do so, go where he is not wanted, with no necessity pressing and without advantage to himself except notoriety.”
And that, the paper concluded, was what Hewlett was after: notoriety.
Hewlett achieved notoriety’s more congenial cousin, fame, carving out for himself the best career a black attorney could hope for in 19th-century Washington. In 1890, he was confirmed as a justice of the peace. From 1899 to 1903, he served as a judge in Municipal Court. He was involved with 10 cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.
E.M. Hewlett died in 1929 and is buried at National Memorial Park Cemetery in Hyattsville, Md. Long before then, his hopes for a truly integrated District must have died. In the end, the laws of 1872 and 1873 had proved worthless.
But nearly 70 years later, it turned out they still had a little life left in them.
Tomorrow: The Lost Laws are rediscovered.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.