In his first inaugural address, on January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama, highlighting how far the nation and Washington DC had come, described himself as someone “whose father, less than sixty years ago, might not have been served at a local restaurant.” But he failed to mention the black woman who was responsible for desegregating Washington DC’s restaurants in 1953, a year before Brown v. Board of Education.
On January 27, 1950, 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell had walked into Thompson’s Restaurant, a cafeteria located a few blocks from the White House. The manager refused to serve her and two African American activists who had gone with her, the Rev. William H. Jernagin, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, and Geneva Brown, the secretary-treasurer of the United Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers Union. The manager’s reason? They were “colored.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” Terrell asked.
The manager apologized. It was not his fault, he said. It was his company’s policy not to serve Negroes.
Terrell and her colleagues had expected that answer, and they enlisted two lawyers to help them challenge Thompson’s for violating Reconstruction-era anti-discrimination ordinances that banned Washington restaurants from discriminating by race. The laws had languished on the books for decades, not enforced and never repealed. And because the laws made it a misdemeanor for restaurants to discriminate against customers by race, Terrell and her colleagues needed the help of local prosecutors, who had long shown little interest in enforcing the ordinances and prosecuting restaurants for refusing to serve blacks.
Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in Terrell’s case, District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. In an opinion by Justice William O. Douglas, the Court invalidated restaurant segregation in the nation’s capital, upholding the Reconstruction-era prohibition against race discrimination. From that date, Obama’s father could have been served at a local restaurant. That decision set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education and for a decade of civil rights struggles that eventually granted the country’s African-Americans full civil rights.
Mary Church Terrell, who initiated the test case, had been the most prominent woman in the civil rights movement for over fifty years. An Oberlin College graduate and the daughter of former slaves, she was once known as the female Booker T. Washington. She was also a militant feminist, a founder of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. In 1904, she gave remarks in English, German and French at the International Congress of Women in Berlin. That same year, Lewis Douglass, the oldest son of Frederick Douglass, called her “the greatest woman that we have.” After World War II, she was a very early leader of the campaign against racial segregation in public accommodations.
Yet while almost every student of American history knows about Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, almost no one knows who Terrell was. After her death in 1954, she simply vanished from history. That may be because in the early part of the twentieth century, when Booker T. Washington and supporters of racial separation held sway, her open defiance of racial discrimination became an irritant. Or it may be because she was also an early supporter of women’s rights among men who preferred that women play a servile role. Or it may simply be because she was too far ahead of her time. At a time when activists from Black Lives Matter are pushing the boundaries of respectable protest, it’s worth revisiting the story of Mary Church Terrell.