Walter E. Washington, Charles H. Houston, William Hastie, Robert Weaver, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mary McLeod Bethune were among those who played an important role in its efforts to end discrimination. As war loomed in Europe, America continued to refuse its Black citizens a modicum of respect. For example, when the internationally renowned Marian Anderson agreed to give a concert under the auspices of Howard University, the Daughters of the American Revolution prohibited the use of Constitution Hall for the concert, causing Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her membership in protest. The D.C. Board of Education agreed to the use of the Central High School Auditorium, but under such humiliating circumstances that Anderson refused to accept the conditions. In the face of such a situation, which cast the national reputation in an embarrassing light, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes made the Lincoln Memorial available, and Anderson triumphed before 75,000 in a venue where Blacks had been second class citizens at its dedication some seventeen years earlier.

     The coming of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal raised the hopes of Black Americans everywhere. The coming war and the realization that America would continue largely with business as usual dampened spirits but not aspirations. While racism persisted, a new generation of Black Washingtonians were coming of age and the war would assure that the world, the nation and the city would never again be the same. In 1937, Sterling Brown wrote that social compulsion forces many who would naturally be on the side of civic fairness into hopelessness and indifference. Washington has made steps in the direction of justice, but many steps remain to be taken for the sake of the underprivileged and for the sake of a greater Washington. Throughout the years that this struggle has been waged, Washington’s Black citizens have preserved in their efforts to achieve their rightful measure of their community’s benefits. Where possible, they have assumed the responsibility for their own improvement and the enhancement of the quality of life in their community. During the years between the civil war and World War II, they did so in the face of staggering indifference and oppressive racism. For much of the same period, most white Washingtonians refused to cooperate or to see the benefits of a community united in a common cause to improve the lot of all the city’s residents. Those of us today would do well to remember the observation made by John Hannah of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1962: "In the eyes of the world, Washington is the window of America. By what we do here the entire Nation is judged."


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November 2000