Teaching With Documents
Discrimination and Protest in Wartime Washington

By Joellen El Bashir

     Black Washingtonians were as segregated and discriminated against during World War II as before it. While America was preaching democracy to the world, the nationís capital remained one of the most racially segregated cities outside the Deep South. Hotels, restaurants and theaters were barred to Black patrons. Downtown drugstore lunch counters served Black customers, but refused to seat them. Restrictive covenants denied home ownership to Blacks in many neighborhoods. As a result, the neighborhood schools were primarily segregated. In the downtown department stores, Black customers were not allowed to try on clothes. The cityís health facilities were also segregated; and African American doctors were barred from all 12 private hospitals in the city. The cityís public transportation was integrated; but Blacks could not get jobs as drivers. Employment in other aspects of the public sector was just as discriminatory. Just prior to the war, the majority of all the federal governmentís African American employees were confined to the lowest custodial jobs.

     Black soldiers were not spared the humiliation of racial discrimination. Having endured the militaryís discrimination policies both in the training camps and abroad, Black soldiers returning to Washington, D.C. and other areas of the country during and immediately following the war soon found that discrimination was still rampant on the homefront.

     Manpower shortages and President Trumanís need for Black votes combined to make conditions better for some in the African American community. Real gains were made in both the numbers and job levels of those employed by the federal government. For most of Americaís largest minority, however, war time was a continuation of hard times. During this period, Blacks in Washington, D.C. banded together as never before in their attempt to change the racial climate of the nationís capital.

     One of the organizations in the forefront of the struggle for equal rights was the New Negro Alliance. Founded in 1933, the Alliance initiated one of the most successful "Donít Buy Where You Canít Work" campaigns to promote the hiring of African Americans in non-custodial jobs in Black neighborhoods.  The New Negro Alliance and other organizations, such as the D.C. Branch of the NAACP, resorted to pickets and boycotts when their verbal and written appeals failed to break down racial barriers.

     Click on the photos below to learn more about discrimination in Washington, D.C. and some of the ways in which citizens combated it.





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November 2000