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Byrd after her removal from Senate restaurant: 1934 | by Washington Area Spark
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Byrd after her removal from Senate restaurant: 1934

Mabel J. Byrd was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, in the United States on July 3, 1895. Her father Robert Byrd was a bricklayer who moved his family to Portland, Oregon, when Mabel was a youth.


In 1917 she was the first African American to enroll at the University of Oregon. At that time, she was also the only African American in Eugene, Oregon. Majoring in economics at Oregon, she transferred to the University of Washington in 1919, and in 1921 she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts.


Byrd became a research assistant for the president of Fisk University, and later for economist Paul Douglas at the University of Chicago.


Byrd was hired under Franklin Roosevelt's National Recovery Act to "observe possible exploitation of colored workers" during implementation of minimum wage laws. However, the autocratic head of the agency General Hugh S. Johnson quickly ousted her.


While still in Washington, D.C., she was forcibly expelled from the Senate public restaurant in February,1934 reviving a firestorm over Jim Crow with the U.S. Capitol building.


The Chicago group with Byrd during the incident included Cook County commissioner Amelia Seers, Sarah Paul Paige and Trevor Bowen, along with Byrd.


The group had been attending hearings on the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill.


When the party entered, a waitress told them, “If that woman is colored, she can’t eat in here.”


Seers told the Associated Press that after a “dignified” argument with the “individual” in charge, they were refused permission to eat and were evicted by Senate Office Building police officers.


According to Seers, a police officer grabbed Byrd’s elbow so forcefully it caused her to pass out as he expelled her from the restaurant.


The Atlanta Daily World reported that Byrd was dragged unconscious through the corridors and down the stairs to the police headquarters within the Capitol before being placed under a doctor’s care.


Senator Royal S. Copeland (D.-N.Y.), chair of the Senate Rules Committee that oversaw the restaurant, stated that the Byrd party was not barred because of race but because the restaurant was full and there were no tables available, according to the Afro.


Copeland later apologized and reiterated that no one should be barred from the Senate public restaurant because of color.

However, in the subsequent days during protest against Jim Crow within the building, it became clear that the Senate policy was to obstruct, delay, make excuses but not outright bar African Americans.


Byrd’s expulsion was the trigger for an already burgeoning movement against Jim Crow at the Capitol and helped spark the first organized, ongoing sit-ins though the effort was ultimately unsuccessful.


Though appointed to the Consumer Advisory Board to President Roosevelt, she was the recipient of a Quaker scholarship to study settlement houses in England. It was the beginning of her internationalist travels and ideas.


During her journey abroad, Mabel Byrd increasingly inhabited a race-conscious internationalism, which united respect of black accomplishments with attraction to communist ideology about workers’ rights.


Her travels led her to protest against pacifism and interracialism, articulating an understanding of activism much more common during the Civil Rights Era than her own. When Byrd arrived in England to study the settlement house movement, she wrote to Du Bois asking for materials on the Fourth Pan-African Congress to distribute to her new acquaintances


By the end of the summer, she had found a position at the International Labor Organization (ILO), connected to the League of Nations.


Her job was to research the status of African workers in the Mandate regions. Countee Cullen and Juliette Derricotte visited her in Geneva and she stayed with the Robesons and Alain Locke in London.


In her letters to New Negro leaders, Byrd articulated a passionate political perspective rather than concentrating on the tourism part of her journey.


Byrd argued that the only way forward was by directly confronting white supremacy, whether it was embodied in imperialist government or patient, sweet-seeming Christian ladies.


Throughout her journey, Byrd challenged black male radicals who “replicated contemporary gender notions of women as wives and mothers of the race who should be concerned with maintaining their physical beauty and raising future revolutionaries,” according to Minkah Makalani.


Partially excerpted from Wikipedia and a Lauren Anderson blog post on the Society for U.S. Intellectual History website.


For a detailed blog post on the fight against Jim Crow in the U.S. Capitol’s restaurants, see


For related images, see


The photographer is unknown. The image appeared in March 10, 1934 Afro American newspaper.

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Taken in March 1934