She launched her case almost six years before Rosa Parks helped start the Montgomery bus boycott and a decade before sit-ins rocked lunch counters across the South
In a city known for iconic buildings, Thompson’s Restaurant was unremarkable. Located a few blocks from the White House, it sat on a commercial corridor: banks, storefronts, streetcar tracks. Inside, it was the kind of place where customers stood in line with their trays, grabbed a slice of cake, and sat down at a table. If they were white, that is.
Mary Church Terrell, an 86-year-old charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was not white. Born in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, she was the daughter of former slaves. She was also an 1884 graduate of Oberlin College, a suffragist, and a veteran activist for civil rights. On January 27, 1950, she had lived in Washington, D.C. for sixty years.
At roughly 2:45 p.m., Terrell walked through Thompson’s double glass doors. With her were three hand-picked compatriots: Geneva Brown and the Rev. William H. Jernagin, who were African American activists, and David H. Scull, a white Quaker. Collectively, none of them made it to the dining area. The manager, Levin Ange, stepped in front of Jernagin and refused to serve him because he was “colored.”
Elsewhere in Washington, President Harry S. Truman was leading a worldwide crusade for democracy. The manager of Thompson’s, however, was invoking the decades-old logic of Jim Crow, with its architecture of racial inferiority. That outlook, Terrell knew, was a liability in foreign affairs, especially when Washington restaurants refused to serve dark-skinned diplomatic envoys, treating them as if they were American blacks. She had no intention of backing down.
“Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?”
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