Civil Rights Tour: Employment - Elmer Henderson, Fighter for Equality

1130 6th Street NW

Elmer W. Henderson was the plaintiff in a major civil rights case, a fair employment advocate for the federal government, and the longtime director of a national lobby for African American equality.

In May 1942, Henderson was denied seating on a Southern Railway dining car en route from DC to Atlanta, because the tables designated for black passengers were partially occupied by white diners. Henderson recognized that he was unlikely to win a lawsuit against the railway, so instead filed a complaint with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which acknowledged he had been treated unfairly. However, when the railway proceeded to resolve the issue by designating two tables closest to the kitchen as the only seating for black passengers, and required a curtain be drawn to hide their presence from white diners, Henderson sued again, and this time the US Department of Justice (DOJ) backed him up.

In a brief for this case, DOJ attorney Philip Elman attacked "separate-but-equal" seating, legalized half a century earlier by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The Court finally ruled, in 1950, that the railway had violated the Interstate Commerce Act, and, while it did not address the constitutionality of separating the races, DOJ's efforts in Henderson v. United States marked a turning point in the federal government's role in dismantling segregation. Influenced by his work on Henderson's case, attorney Elman became the principal author four years later of the Justice Department's brief in Brown v. Board of Education, which argued that separate-but-equal schools violated the Constitution.

During the 1940s, as his case moved through the courts, Elmer Henderson was the Midwest regional director for the Fair Employment Practices Commission, where he worked to ensure that African Americans were hired and paid fairly for World War II-related jobs. As the founding president of the American Council on Human Rights, beginning in 1948, Henderson lobbied Congress and President Harry S. Truman to end racial discrimination in the military and in non-government industries; African Americans were the first to be fired once the war was over. Henderson also urged the government to make direct loans to black homebuilders as they were unable to secure bank loans, and to require white developers to integrate new housing. "The unwritten code of the home building and real estate industry in banning the sale of new houses to Negroes is still in full force," remarked Henderson in a 1954 speaking tour.

Here in DC, Henderson lobbied President Truman to appoint an African American to the DC Board of Commissioners, which governed the city for nearly a century before District citizens achieved home rule in 1974. "We have made this request many times before but…the time is peculiarly ripe for such an appointment," said Henderson in 1952, referring to the recent Census showing that black residents comprised more than a third of the city's population. Logan Circle resident and New Negro Alliance co-founder Belford V. Lawson represented Henderson in his cases against the U.S. government and Southern Railway as well as in a 1949 lawsuit that desegregated restaurants at the Cincinnati airport.

In the 1950s, Elmer Henderson's office was located at 1130 6th Street NW.

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