Parents League: 1919
The first mass mobilization in the 20th Century by African Americans in Washington, D.C. occurred when revelations came out that a white man, Herman Marie Bernelot Moens, was given permission by the District school system to conduct ethnographic studies of African American children in 1916.

Moens claimed to be a Dutch scientist but had few academic credentials. Nevertheless, his charm allowed him to obtain letters of introduction from the Dutch embassy and from civil rights leaders W. E. B. DuBois and Joel Spingard.

Moens, with the assistance of an African American teacher named Charlotte Hunter, recruited black children for hundreds of nude photographs. There were allegations that even more serious activities took place, but definitive proof was not obtained.

When the public became knowledgeable of Moens’ activities in 1919, parents of African American children organized themselves into the Parents League and staged picketing, collected petition signatures and staged mass meetings to protest the school administration’s actions.

The Parents League and the Washington Bee newspaper claimed that over 15,000 attended one school board meeting. The numbers were probably exaggerated, but there is no doubt that thousands were involved.

Hunter resigned her position and Moens was charged with abuse, but the Parents League demanded that assistant superintendent in charge of the segregated African American schools be fired.

Roscoe Conkling Bruce defended himself against these attempts by pointing out that it was he who had uncovered and revealed the abuse. He pointed out that permission to conduct the studies was given to Moens by school superintendent John van Schaick.

An investigation by a U.S. Senate committee put pressure on Bruce and after a long campaign by the Parents League; Bruce resigned his position as well.

Moens claimed this was all in scientific pursuit to prove that claims of racial differences were bogus, but he convicted of abuse. His conviction was overturned and J. Edgar Hoover finally ended all attempts to imprison Moens in 1928 when he ended any further investigation.

Nevertheless, the Parents League protests achieved real reforms in the screening of both teachers and those who had access to students and it marked the first organized mass action on behalf of rights for African Americans in the District in the 20th Century.
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