Thompson’s restaurant, at 14th and New York NW, was never a place to go in search of fine dining in Washington. Nor was it the place to go if you were in search of fair dining. As with many of the city’s white-owned businesses in the first half of the 20th century — its theaters, its department stores — African Americans were not welcome as customers.
Well, “not welcome” is putting it mildly. “Forbidden” is more accurate. As a Thompson’s supervisor explained when a group of black diners slid their trays up to the cashier on Feb. 28, 1950: “[You] cannot be served because that is the rule.”
That may have been a Thompson’s rule, but was it allowed by Washington law? That’s what those diners were there to find out.
The trio included Mary Church Terrell, then 88. In 1906, three years before co-founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Terrell had said this in a speech to the United Women’s Club: “As a colored woman I may walk from the Capitol to the White House, ravenously hungry and abundantly supplied with money with which to purchase a meal, without finding a single restaurant in which I would be permitted to take a morsel of food, if it was patronized by white people.”
Forty-four years later, and she was going through the same stuff.
Terrell’s trip to Thompson’s on that winter day was not accidental. She would actually visit the cafeteria several times in 1950, in small, mixed-race groups that had planned their actions carefully. They expected to not be served. Being denied a meal would allow civil rights boosters to test in court a seemingly ridiculous notion: Since at least 1872, it was illegal for a District restaurant to refuse service on the basis of race.
Thompson’s restaurant, Terrell’s lawyers argued, had violated something called the Equal Services Acts of 1872 and 1873.
The 1873 law required that “the proprietor or proprietors, keeper or keepers, of any licensed restaurant, eating-house, barroom, sample-room, ice cream saloon, or soda fountain shall sell at and for the usual or common prices . . . to any well-behaved and respectable person who may desire the same, or any part or parts thereof, and serve the same to such person or persons in the same room or rooms in which any other well-behaved person or persons may be served or allowed to eat or drink in said place or establishment.”
Such facilities, the law stipulated, had to be open for “any respectable, well-behaved person without regard to race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
In other words: Restaurants in Washington were legally obligated to serve everyone. The penalty for violating the law was a $100 fine and the forfeiture of the business license. It seemed that D.C. restaurants were already legally integrated and had been for the past 77 years.
To which opponents of integration said: Who ever heard of such a thing?
They meant that literally: Who had even heard of these mysterious laws? They weren’t in any current law book. The D.C. Code did not mention them, at least no D.C. Code since 1901.
The two statutes became known as the “Lost Laws.” Several local figures are credited as being the legal Columbus who (re)discovered the laws — shelved in the Howard University School of Law Library, in one account; at the Library of Congress in another. The laws’ reemergence formed the legal basis of what became District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co.
Opponents of integration mobilized to quash the case. The Washington Restaurant Association took up a collection in support of Thompson’s and directed its members to continue their segregation policies until a court ordered them to do otherwise. The Washington Board of Trade indicated it would also back the restaurant.
In Municipal Court, the Thompson lawyer, Ringgold Hart, said the laws were “unreasonable.”
“Is it unreasonable to serve colored people?” responded Clark F. King, the city’s assistant corporation counsel. “Or is it unreasonable for persons in this courtroom to have to walk to U Street or Union Station to eat? . . . These laws were passed after the Civil War in the furtherance of the aims of the war. It seems to me we’ve been pretty slow in carrying them out.”
The case would spend nearly three years working its way through the judicial system, turning not so much on whether segregation was bad but whether the Lost Laws had been repealed or were still in effect.
Rep. John E. Rankin, a Mississippi Democrat, decided it wasn’t worth taking the chance that the Equal Services Acts still applied. He filed a bill in Congress to repeal the 1872 and 1873 statutes. Leaving the laws on the books, he insisted, “will only mean race trouble here.” Said Rankin: “The laws were never enforced for 75 years. Why should they break with custom now?”
Was that true? Had the laws never been enforced? Or were black Washingtonians in the 19th century just as eager to exercise their rights as their mid-20th century counterparts would be?
The answer was yes.
Tomorrow: Testing anti-discrimination laws in Gilded Age Washington.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.