Martin Luther King Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
He could have added: “eventually, and after plenty of detours.”
In 1872 and 1873, two laws were passed in Washington that forbade racial discrimination in the city’s restaurants. Then, somehow, the laws vanished.
Just imagine the reaction when they were “rediscovered” in the 1940s. It must have been as if someone had opened a vault sealed when Ulysses Grant was president and found an airplane inside, a television, penicillin ... .
Could Washingtonians from 70 years ago really have been so advanced? What had happened to those people?
What amazed me when I looked into the events of the 1870s and 1880s was how similar things were to the Jim Crow era. Restaurateurs used some of the same excuses for refusing to serve African Americans: Black customers were “boisterous,” white patrons would stay away, the government shouldn’t meddle.
To fight discrimination, black activists used methods that are familiar to us now. Lawyer E.M. Hewlett deliberately visited restaurants to see if he would be served. Hewlett looked to see if owners had posted price lists, as required by law to prevent black customers from being gouged. When he spotted a violation, he took the establishment to court.
In the end, none of it did any good. Why?
“During Reconstruction, D.C. was really on the leading edge of racial change in America,” said Chris Myers Asch, co-author, with George Derek Musgrove, of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.”
Said Asch: “D.C. was a very progressive city. You had remarkable progress being made toward racial equality in a very brief space of time. Black men in D.C. were the first black men in the country to be granted the right to vote after the Civil War.”
Such efforts, Asch said, were a priority for radical Republicans in Congress.
“The backlash from white conservatives is really substantial,” Asch said. “First you eliminate self government all together in 1874. Then you slowly roll back those Reconstruction-era gains. This is part of a regionwide effort to enforce white supremacy. By 1901, when city commissioners decide to compile the D.C. Code, they simply don’t include those Reconstruction-era statutes.”
They didn’t include them, but they didn’t repeal them. The Lost Laws were not dead. They were like a long-dormant seed, ready to spring to life after a refreshing rain.
I don’t know who found them. Asch thinks it was A. Mercer Daniel, who oversaw the library at Howard University’s law school. They gained fame in 1948 with the publication of “Segregation in Washington,” a scathing report that mentioned the laws.
Civil rights activists wondered: Could the laws be used to fight segregation?
Annie Stein, a white woman from Southwest D.C. who was a member of the Progressive Party, invited Mary Church Terrell to chair the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws of 1872 and 1873. When Terrell, the octogenarian co-founder of the NAACP, was denied service at a downtown cafeteria called Thompson’s in 1950, it set the stage for a test case.
District of Columbia vs. John R. Thompson Co. went first to the old Municipal Court, where Judge Frank Myers ruled that the Lost Laws had “been repealed by implication” and, thus, could no longer be enforced.
Terrell and company appealed. In May of 1951, the Municipal Court of Appeals ruled 2-to-1 that the anti-bias laws were still valid. Among the points raised by Judge Nathan Cayton was that another so-called lost law had been enforced in 1908, even though it, too, had been omitted from the 1901 D.C. Code.
It was an animal cruelty law. Animals, it seemed, had more rights than black Washingtonians.
The game of legal ping-pong continued. The next stop was the U.S. Court of Appeals. In a 5-to-4 decision, it ruled that the laws of 1872 and 1873 could not be enforced.
One judge, Barrett Prettyman, wrote the statutes were “neither mentioned again nor enforced for a period of 75 years.” Thus the laws “must be deemed by the courts to have been abandoned.”
If you’ve been reading my columns this week, you know that wasn’t true. African Americans did mention them and did try to get them enforced.
In April of 1953, the case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Chester H. Gray of the District’s corporation counsel’s office asked the court not to blame his staff. They hadn’t known of the laws until someone found them in the corporation counsel’s safe.
“You mean you have to go to a locked safe to find laws of the District of Columbia?” Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson joked.
In June, the court ruled unanimously that the laws were still in effect. Laws passed by long-dead Washingtonians had helped their descendants.
Five days after the Supreme Court ruling, Terrell went to eat at Thompson’s with the mixed-race group who had been denied a meal three years earlier. They were treated, Terrell said, with courtesy.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.