Civil Rights Tour: Legal Campaigns - George E.C. Hayes, Lawyer and Leader

1732 S Street NW

“George E.C. Hayes was one of the great lawyers who fought for the little people of this Nation when it was extremely unpopular to do so.” (Wiley Branton, Director of the United Planning Organization, 1968)

George E.C. Hayes (1894-1968) graduated from the Howard University Law School in 1918 and spent much of the rest of his life working to dismantle racial segregation. Hayes taught law at Howard and served as the university’s general counsel for more than 30 years. He was also legal counsel to the NAACP’s national office and led its DC branch.

In the mid-1920s he and his wife Louise were one of several families who defied a racially restrictive deed covenant by moving to the 1700 block of S Street NW. By the time the courts upheld the covenant in Corrigan v. Buckley—endorsing the right of white residents to legally bar Black settlement—the Hayes and other Howard University faculty had effectively turned over the block and asserted their right to stay. No further attempts were made to enforce the covenant.

In 1925, Hayes joined a group of young attorneys, including Charles Hamilton Houston, in breaking from the Colored Bar Association to form a new black lawyers group that would work more aggressively to demand full citizenship for African Americans. (Known as the Washington Bar Association, it is now the DC branch of the National Bar Association, which was founded the same year.) He later represented the Committee for Racial Democracy in its attempt to desegregate the National Theatre. Although the court ultimately upheld the theater’s policy, Hayes ably prevented its lawyers from having the case dismissed.

Hayes was part of a team of attorneys who represented Marguerite Carr in an anti-segregation lawsuit against the DC schools. An appeals court upheld segregation in Carr v. Corning in 1950, the same year that Hayes and his Howard University law colleague James Nabrit attended a NAACP lawyers conference where they urged the organization to take a new, more aggressive approach in directly attacking segregated schools as unconstitutional. Hayes and Nabrit soon became the lead attorneys in Bolling v. Sharpe, DC’s companion case to Brown v. Board of Education; Hayes authored the brief and “possessed one of the most skillful and elegant trial techniques I have ever seen,” said Brown’s lead attorney, later a federal judge.

While Hayes is less recognized than his colleagues Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall for his role in the legal desegregation of public schools, he gained significant attention for another 1954 case. Hayes represented government cafeteria worker Annie D. Moss before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that year. He advised Moss to voluntarily testify, rather than be subject to a subpoena, on her activities as the member of a union allegedly affiliated with the Communist Party. Covered on national television, the hearing undermined McCarthy’s mission by revealing Moss to have been unfairly targeted by a spy posing as a co-worker. During this period of anti-Communist fervor, Hayes also negotiated on behalf of noted scholar and pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois and performer/activist Paul Robeson when the State Department revoked their passports due to alleged Communist ties.

In 1955, President Eisenhower appointed Hayes to the DC Public Utilities Commission. As the agency’s first Black member and its chairman, Hayes pushed against discriminatory hiring and contracting practices, not only by his agency but also by the utilities it regulated.

Hayes’s law partner James A. Cobb (1876-1958), shared the Hayes home. Cobb earned two law degrees from, and taught at, Howard University Law School and served as judge of the Municipal Court for the District of Columbia from 1926 to 1935, an appointee of President Calvin Coolidge. He was also the lead attorney in the anti-covenant Corrigan v. Buckley case, centered on this block, and with Hayes, represented Clara Mays in her effort to defy a racial covenant in Bloomingdale. This case, Mays v. Burgess, gained wide notoriety and provided traction toward the Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling in Hurd v. Hodge that the enforcement of racial covenants was unconstitutional.