FEBRUARY 28, 1950

Mary Church Terrell successfully battled to end racial discrimination in restaurants and theaters in the nation’s capital.

Mary Church Terrell invited friends to eat with her at Thompson’s restaurant in Washington, D.C. The manager turned them away, saying Thompson’s refused to serve Black patrons. 

Terrell, the 86-year-old founding member of the NAACP and the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, stood up against the prejudice. Such discrimination had not always existed in the nation’s capital. In fact, Congress had passed laws in 1872 and 1873, barring restaurants and the like from refusing to serve any “well-behaved” customer, regardless of race. Those laws remained on the books, despite being ignored.

Several years later, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor, she returned with her friends to Thompson’s. “We went, and we had a glorious time,” she told the New York Age. “When I got to the end of the line, a gentleman walked up to me, took my tray and escorted me to a table and asked me, ‘Mrs. Terrell, is there anything else I can do for you?’ And who do you think that man was? Why, it was the manager of the Thompson restaurants!” 

Her battle led to the end of racial discrimination in restaurants in the nation’s capital, but her fight was far from done. On her 90th birthday, she challenged the capital’s segregated theater policy. In weeks, “virtually all of Washington’s movie houses had opened their doors for everyone,” according to the biography of her life, Fight On!: Mary Church Terrell’s Battle for Integration.

She lived to see the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, which ended racial segregation in public schools. She died just a few months later.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.