Civil Rights Tour: Legal Campaigns - Old City Hall, Racial Equality

The Old City Hall Building at Judiciary Square was the site of a decades-long battle to desegregate the whites-only DC Bar Association and its law library, both housed at what was the US District Court for the District of Columbia until 1952.

Huver Brown, a 1913 graduate of Howard University School of Law, filed a suit against the District Bar in January 1939 for unconstitutionally operating a private, racially segregated organization in a federal courthouse. Unlike today's DC Bar, which requires membership as a condition for practicing law in the District, the DC Bar, the Women's Bar, and the predominantly black Washington Bar were professional associations in which membership was voluntary. Rather than address Huver Brown's argument that it was unconstitutional for a federal court to house the facilities of a whites-only bar association, lawyers settled the case out of court  in 1941 with a requirement by the US Attorney General that African Americans and other non-members have access to the library. Faced with complying with this order or moving out of the courthouse, the group voted to admit white women as members and to let African Americans use the library for a fee.  

As planning began in September 1950 for a new federal courthouse, attorney Aubrey E. Robinson, Jr. filed another lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a segregated organization being headquartered inside a federal courthouse. Robinson was fresh off another desegregation case, Carr v. Corning, where he represented a group of black parents who sued the DC schools for access to equal facilities. Among the judges who ruled in Carr that segregated schools were constitutional was E. Barrett Prettyman, a former president of the DC Bar who rejected Robinson's appeal. Along with his colleagues, Prettyman—for whom the new federal court would be named—upheld the right of the segregated Bar to operate in the courthouse.

In the summer of 1950, the DC Bar began polling its members on whether to drop the whites-only provision from the group's bylaws. In 1955, it elected officers who supported integration, but it took seven votes over eight years before the Bar finally desegregated in October 1958, admitting black lawyers the following year. The Washington Post reported sarcastically that "warmest congratulations are due…for excising a restriction which was as embarrassing to the legal profession as it was to the community."

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