Civil Rights Tour: Protest - National Theatre Goes Dark

1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

“The National Theatre of Washington has the bold affront to bring to the District of Columbia a show, ‘The Green Pastures,’ played entirely by a cast of our own people, with the definite understanding that no known Negro can enter that theatre and see it.” (Rev. R.W. Brooks, Letter to the Editor, Baltimore Afro-American, 1933)

In 1946, thirteen years after The Green Pastures played to a whites-only audience at the National Theatre, segregation was still the norm. But when a New York play starring Ingrid Bergman was booked at the Lisner Auditorium and Bergman and the company discovered that the venue barred black audiences, they organized protests and boycotts by both the Dramatists Guild and the Actors Equity Association. The protestors targeted the National Theatre as members of Congress, civil rights groups, religious leaders, and many others weighed in on the situation.

In 1948, activist and educator Edward B. Henderson sued the National Theatre for refusing to sell him tickets because of his race. His attorneys, James A. Cobb, George E.C. Hayes and Leon Ransom, argued that a 19th century anti-discrimination law applied to the National. In addition, they said, the Supreme Court ruling that found racially restrictive housing covenants unconstitutional logically meant that segregation was “contrary to the public policy of the United States.”

In June 1948, despite this legal argument, the judge upheld the discriminatory policy of the National Theatre. Meanwhile, the standoff with Actors Equity continued. That August, Actors Equity announced that its members were no longer required to perform before segregated audiences in Washington. As whites-only theaters such as the National lost bookings, people flocked to plays at the city’s non-segregated venues such as the Howard Theatre, the Gayety Burlesque house, and the brand-new Arena Stage. In 1952, under new management, and in an effort to remain competitive, National Theatre dropped its racial ban.