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Dorothy Detzer, executive secretary of Women’s Int. League: 1939 | by Washington Area Spark
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Dorothy Detzer, executive secretary of Women’s Int. League: 1939

Dorothy Detzer, executive secretary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, is shown testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs May 4, 1939.

 

Detzer headed the organization from 1924-46. She was a former relief officer for the American Friends Service Committee in Austria and Russian after World War I.

 

While in Washington as executive secretary of WILPF she, along with her assistant Dorothy Cook, organized a sit-in campaign attempting to desegregate the US. Capitol restaurants in 1934.

 

The six-month fight against Jim Crow in the Capitol’s restaurants began when U.S. Rep. Oscar DePriest’s (R-Il.) confidential secretary, Morris Lewis, was barred from the House public restaurant along with his son in January 1934.

 

Another instance of Jim Crow occurred when Mabel Byrd was forcibly removed from the Senate public restaurant in February.

 

The enforcement of Jim Crow in the Capitol building led to 10 days of small parties of interracial diners seeking service in the restaurants—sometimes successfully—in an attempt to desegregate the restaurants.

 

One of the interracial parties that Detzer led March 16th was composed of Cook, Dorothy Alden, and Afro American reporter Florence Collins.

 

The party waited to be seated, but when seats opened up the manager beckoned an all-white group.

 

Detzer then led Collins to two vacant seats at a long table that was partially occupied by white diners.

 

A waiter told the two they could not be served and Detzer asked for the manager.

 

A. E. Meaney, the manager of the Senate restaurant, told her if she sat at a separate table with the reporter she would be served. The exchange continued:

 

Meaney: You have no right to do this. You should have some respect and consideration for other white people in here. You have no business sitting here with these people, with your er, er, friend.

 

Detzer: I have been coming here for nine years and I have never been refused before.

 

Meaney: I cannot refuse to serve you.

 

Detzer: Then serve me.

 

Meaney: You mean serve you ---alone?

 

Detzer: Bring me my order, bring it here to me now.

 

Meaney stared for a few seconds.

 

Meaney: Ah, come now, you know you wouldn’t have me do that.

 

Detzer: Are you refusing to serve me?

 

Meaney: Oh, you know that isn’t right. Don’t have me do that. Take another table with the rest of your party and you will all get served.”

 

Meaney walked away shortly afterward and Detzer told Collins, “Sit tight, they can’t harm you. We’ll sit it out.”

 

After more time, a table for four opened up and the group was seated together. All were served.

 

Approximately 30 Howard University students came to the Capitol on March 17th attempting to gain service in the House and Senate restaurants but were barred by police. One was arrested at the Capitol and four others at the precinct house where they went to bail out their fellow student. Charges were all dropped later.

 

Some southern Democratic congressmen called for the students to be expelled and the president of the school, Mordecai Johnson, to be fired Romney chimed in calling for suspension of the 30 students saying they had “disgraced” the institution and should be punished.

 

Johnson brought the students to the faculty disciplinary committee for action recommending expulsions and/or suspensions. However, the chair of the committee, Ralph Bunche—a future Nobel prize winner—said they should be given medals instead. Bunche prevailed and no discipline was imposed on the students.

 

This series of protests marked the first sit-in demonstrations for civil rights in the nation’s capital and perhaps the country.

 

DePriest offered a resolution for an investigation that passed the House, but the investigating committee, the majority appointed by the Democratic Speaker of the House, found that the restaurant was a private one operated for the members of the House and their guests and therefore no discrimination occurred. This was despite the white public being admitted without a member of Congress and African Americans barred.

 

Speaker of the House Thomas Rainey (D-Il) let the clock run out as Congress adjourned in June to avoid a debate and vote on the issue.

 

Jim Crow continued in the Capitol for nearly 20 more years.

 

While head of WILPF, Detzer lobbied Congress for legislation to allow alien conscientious objectors to become U.S. citizens, to end lynching, for the removal of U.S. troops in Haiti and Nicaragua and for the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact.

 

Along with Mabel Vernon she coordinated the petition campaign that collected more than half a million U.S. signatures in support of universal disarmament.

 

For a detailed blog post on the fight against Jim Crow in the U.S. Capitol restaurants, see washingtonspark.wordpress.com/2018/02/26/origins-of-the-c...

 

For related images, see flic.kr/s/aHsmcArGZz

 

The photographer is unknown. The image is a Harris and Ewing photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress. Call Number: LC-H22-D- 6516 [P&P]

 

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Taken on May 4, 1939