Civil Rights Tour: Sanitary Grocery, "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work"

1936 11th Street NW

Though unremarkable in appearance, the modest building at 1936 11th Street NW—once a Sanitary Grocery Store—looms large in civil rights history as the scene of a landmark Supreme Court decision safeguarding the right to picket.

The case, New Negro Alliance v Sanitary Grocery Store, came about in 1936 when the grocery store chain opened a new store at 1936 11th Street NW in the heart of the African American U Street neighborhood, yet refused to hire African Americans to work there. Three years earlier, the New Negro Alliance (NNA) was organized by writer/activist John Aubrey Davis, lawyer Belford V. Lawson, Jr., and activist M. Franklin Thorne to promote civil rights through pickets, economic boycotts, and other direct-action protests. To that end, NNA instituted a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign that involved boycotting and picketing white-owned businesses in black neighborhoods. So, when the Sanitary Grocery, with its discriminatory hiring practices, opened on 11th Street just steps from black Washington’s famed U Street, NNA was quick to respond by launching a picketing campaign the very next day.  

Most businesses, which were suffering during the Depression era, gave in quickly and hired black clerks. However, Sanitary argued that NNA had no right to picket where protesters didn’t work and successfully persuaded a court to issue an injunction to stop the campaign. NNA lawyers, including Belford Lawson, William Hastie, Thurgood Marshall, and James M. Nabrit Jr., fought back, all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1938, the Court declared NNA had the legal right to picket a business regardless of whether the pickets worked there or not. New Negro Alliance v Sanitary Grocery Store became a landmark in the struggle by African Americans against discriminatory hiring practices, and “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” groups multiplied throughout the nation. NNA estimated that, by 1940, the group had secured an estimated 5,106 jobs in more than 50 businesses around the city.

Although no longer a Sanitary Grocery store, the building remains a market today.