Capitol cafes: 1934-90
The U.S. Congress, a so-called beacon for the “free world,” has for many years treated its African American workforce and visitors with disdain.

The Capitol building itself was partially built by African American slave labor.

Except for a brief period after the Civil War, the restaurants and pressrooms of the building were whites-only (unless you were a foreign dignitary—it wasn’t simply color of the skin, it was also specifically discrimination against the formerly enslaved).

Jim Crow was challenged in the restaurants and cafeterias on Capitol Hill in 1934 by as part of an ongoing campaign to desegregate restaurants in the city.

The sit-in tactic was used at the Capitol by left-leaning groups like the Socialist Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom along with liberal groups seeking desegregation.

The sit-ins had some limited success, but did not change the Jim Crow policy on the Hill.

At the same time a Howard University student working part time in the restaurant served another African American and was promptly fired.

William Hastie, a future judge, wrote an editorial for the Hilltop newspaper at Howard and Kenneth Clark, a future renowned psychologist, helped lead a demonstration of 30 students with picket signs who sought to enter the House of Representatives restaurant.

They were barred at the door by police and arrested, but charges were later dropped at the police station.

These early efforts at desegregation failed and were followed by protests by small interracial groups continued over the next 15 years.

Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-Ca.) was instrumental in desegregating the House cafeteria and restaurant 1949-50 by persuading the private operator to end Jim Crow. Richard Nixon defeated Douglas in the 1950 California Senate race when Nixon famously redbaited her.

The Senate side desegregated later.

Labor relations were equally bad.

The African American workforce in the restaurants, cafeterias and snack bars was at best paid 20% below commercial rates—and congressmen and senators were notoriously low tippers.

A strike occurred in the House restaurant that served U.S. Representatives and their staff in 1942. The House was paying the workers far less than the below standard Senate.

The African American workforce went back to work after promises by elected representatives that they would look into the matter.

In 1969, a strike was called at the Senate cafeteria after management fired a worker that was trying to organize the group into an independent union seeking year-round pay (Congress recessed for a minimum of three months out of the year).

The strike also ended after a day and the unionization effort failed.

The House cafeteria voted to be represented by a union in 1987, although the Senate side remains unrepresented.
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