Civil Rights Tour: Protests - Childs Restaurant Sit-Ins

2 Massachusetts Avenue NW

The distinctive stone building at the apex of Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol Street was designed and built as a Childs Restaurant in 1925 to attract visitors—white visitors, that is—as they arrived in the city through nearby Union Station.

In February 1949, the Legislative Assembly and Rally to End Segregation and Discrimination was held in Washington, DC, attracting civil rights leaders from around the country. On Saturday afternoon of the conference, a group of participants planned a sit-in at Childs restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue to protest the restaurant chain's whites-only policy.

On that February afternoon, the racially mixed group of 80 filled the lunchroom’s tables and tried to order, but in accordance with the restaurant's policy, the group was denied service. Three hours later, the peaceful sit-in ended without incident. But the demonstration was not in vain. The following year, Mary Church Terrell and other activists attempted to eat at Thompson’s Restaurant, a downtown cafeteria that, like Childs and many other eateries, had a whites-only policy. After they were denied service, the city promptly filed a lawsuit on their behalf.

The conference, scheduled to coincide with the Lincoln’s Birthday Holiday (later combined with Washington’s Birthday as Presidents Day) and the end of Negro History Week, drew about 1,000 attendees and featured speakers such as W.E.B. Du Bois of the Council on African Affairs; former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, now head of the Progressive Party; Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY); and E. B. Henderson, director of health and physical education for the DC Public Schools, Colored Division. Among the resolutions the group adopted was a call to end segregation in the District of Columbia.

The Assembly—which had been billed by its organizers, the Improved Benevolent-Protective Order of Elks of the World, as non-partisan—did not proceed as peacefully as the sit-in. Even before it started, sponsors such as the National Council of Negro Women and the NAACP withdrew their support, suspecting that Du Bois and Wallace would push it too far left. Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and other speakers also pulled out for fear of being associated with the Progressive Party, which was viewed as too friendly to Communism and the Soviet Union. As described by the Chicago Defender, a leading Black newspaper, the conference “broke up in bedlam,” as Elks Grand Exalted Leader J. Finley Wilson struggled to prevent the Progressive Party from gaining control of the event. 

Three years after the conference, in 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. that segregated eating places in Washington, DC were unconstitutional.

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