Unbeknownst to many, integration in Washington, D.C. actually took a big step backward when the District Code was written in 1890. Prior to the issuance of the code, local integration laws required restaurant proprietors “to serve any well-behaved person regardless of color,” or face a steep fine and forfeiture of their license.
Enter Mary Church Terrell. Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863, she graduated from Oberlin and was one of the first Black women to earn a college degree, and in 1888, she became one of the first two Black women to earn a master’s degree. A suffragist, journalist, and civil rights activist, Terrell was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Terrell held many important titles during her life, including president of the National Association of Colored Women, founder of the NAACP’s Executive Committee, and the first Black woman ever appointed to an American school board.
On February 28, 1950, Terrell and several colleagues were refused service at Thompson’s Restaurant, after which they filed a lawsuit against the establishment. She proceeded to lead boycotts and sit-ins at several other restaurants. Terrell’s persistence and tenacity led to the court ruling that segregated eating places were unconstitutional. Terrell would live to see the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case before passing away at the age of 90.
This house located in the Ledroit Park Historic District has been part of a restoration effort that started in the summer of 2008. However, the project stalled out and has been on hold for over a decade.
Know Before You Go
Mary Church Terrell House is listed as a National Historic Landmark.