A fascinating new law review article by Prof. Ross Davies, in the Green Bag 2d. An excerpt (some paragraph breaks added):
According to Justice Felix Frankfurter, in 1946 “the secretaries initiated a Christmas party in conjunction with the Justices’ law clerks as hosts to which the Justices and the various offices of the Court and their secretaries were asked.” But when the “proposal to have such a party was made again” in 1947, “the law clerks — some of them, or rather most of them — felt strongly that at least some of the colored employees in the Court should also be asked. It seemed to the law clerks not to do so was not only drawing the color line, but drawing the color line by the Court, or in relation to the Court, charged especially with the duty of not drawing the color line.”
The clerks’ proposal met, however, with “opposition among the secretaries — professedly at least — and probably genuinely as to some — not on the score of racial discrimination but for social reasons as it were — that the messengers [all of whom were black] are servants, and servants for practical purposes of the secretaries under whose direction they work. These secretarial opponents of the proposal in effect took the position that just as hostesses don’t ask their servants to their parties, so they should not be asked at a purely social occasion to ask their messengers.” (This was a bad argument, not least because the analogy was bad: The messengers were not the personal servants of the secretaries. The messengers served the Justices, as employees of the Court, under the supervision of the secretaries. The messengers were no more the secretaries’ servants than the secretaries were the Justices’ servants.) “The upshot of the matter was that the secretaries withdrew from the proposed party and the law clerks decided to go on their own as hosts and to invite the Justices’ messengers and a few other colored employees.”
Justice Frankfurter’s diary contains a lengthy description of the escalation of the controversy and the Court’s failure to resolve it. The Marshal of the Court refused to authorize use of Court facilities for the clerks’ party without approval from the Justices themselves. So, Chief Justice Fred Vinson brought the matter up at a meeting of the Justices on December 20, 1947. At first it appeared that the clerks would get their way, with the Chief Justice and Justices Hugo Black and Stanley Reed speaking first and voting for the plan.
But then Justice Robert Jackson objected on two grounds — first, that the clerks should not be permitted to use a social event at the Court to “make a demonstration of the matter” of one of the “great social conflicts in the country,” and second, that “there is a good deal of justice on the part of the girls in not wanting the kind of a party that the boys have insisted upon.” (It is puzzling that Justice Jackson went out of his way to express sympathy for the secretaries’ preference for a segregated party when the question before the Justices was whether to permit the clerks to have a party with the messengers, not the secretaries.) He was then joined by Justice Frankfurter in a proposal to avoid the whole controversy by banning all social functions at the Court other than the Justices’ own. After deliberating at some length and with some heat, the Justices voted 5-2 against the Jackson-Frankfurter proposal. (Justices Frank Murphy and William O. Douglas were absent at the time of the vote.) And there the matter ended, unresolved. Instead of ordering the Marshal to permit a desegregated Christmas party at the Court, the Court hosted no party at all.
The following year no effort at all seems to have been made to organize a Court Christmas party. Perhaps this was because Justice Frankfurter’s hiring of the first black law clerk in the history of the Court — William T. Coleman — for October Term 1948 made a mockery of the “we won’t celebrate Christmas with our servants” rationale used by the secretaries and supported by Justice Jackson in 1947.
In any event, it appears that in 1947 and thereafter Christmas celebrations at the Court were conducted by Justices in their own chambers, where each was free to discriminate or not, on his own initiative. There was one exception (there may have been others, but we have not found any). In 1951, Justice Jackson presided at a non-chambers Christmas party at the Court. It is not clear whether the party was segregated or not, but Justice Harold Burton’s diary entry about the event does not mention messengers or other non-white employees. The interests that had endorsed excluding the messengers in 1947, however, were well-represented: “Luncheon in Cafeteria with Justice Jackson, Miss [Helen C.] Newman (the Librarian) + the Secretaries + some others who had arranged to sing Christmas carols at 1PM — which we did.”
And so it took the Court 13 years to make its way from the all-white Christmas party of 1946, through the controversy of 1947, and through the long, mostly empty period that followed, down to [the] all-employee Christmas party of 1959.