Civil Rights Tour: Political Empowerment - Wilhelmina and Calvin Rolark, Crusaders for Justice

524 Foxhall Place SE

Attorney and politician Wilhelmina Jackson Rolark (1916–2006) and publisher and executive Calvin Rolark (1927–1994) were activists and outspoken advocates for DC. Their legacy is carried on by the institutions they founded.

Born and raised in Portsmouth, Virginia, Wilhelmina Jackson moved to Washington in 1933 to attend Howard University, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. Her career began with the National Negro Congress (NNC). Founded in 1936 to address police brutality, the NNC soon extended its advocacy to include conditions for domestic workers. When the Washington Chapter of the Domestic Workers’ Union opened headquarters at NNC offices at 717 Florida Avenue NW, Jackson and colleagues established a free job placement center for domestic workers. They followed up by pressing employers to pay fair wages and provide safe working conditions.

Around 1940, Jackson went to work for Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal, traveling through the South to document Black living conditions. Myrdal incorporated her research into his trailblazing book on race relations, An American Dilemma (1944). Jackson earned a law degree from the Robert H. Terrell Law School (since closed) and opened her own practice in 1947.

In 1962 Jackson married journalist Calvin Rolark, a Texan who arrived in Washington about a decade earlier. In 1964, with $500 provided by his wife, Rolark founded the Washington Informer, taking on the mantles of editor and publisher. The Informer championed the achievements of the community, including the Rolarks, and spoke out against injustice. In 1969 the couple founded the United Black Fund as an alternative to the United Way, which they felt did not necessarily benefit Black Washington.

The Rolarks joined Rev. Walter Fauntroy and others in a successful 1972 effort to unseat Rep. John L. McMillan, long-time chair of the House District Committee, by registering African American voters in his South Carolina district. The segregationist McMillan had consistently thwarted DC residents’ efforts to govern themselves. Once he was gone, Home Rule legislation advanced through Congress and, in 1973, was signed into law.

That same year, Wilhelmina Rolark, tired of the sexism and racism she routinely encountered in the legal community, founded the National Association of Black Women Attorneys. She represented Ward 8 on the DC Council from 1977 through 1992, focusing on justice and policing issues, and championed the rights of working people. The Rolarks purchased the rowhouse at 524 Foxhall Place SE in 1965 where they lived out the remainder of their lives.