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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Protest

Lansburgh's Department Store, Washington, DC, photograph, n.d. (after 1940)
- "Negroes Petition General Assembly," newspaper article, The State (Columbia, SC), 23 January 1919 (PDF)
- Letters to Lansburgh's department store, Washington, DC, Autumn 1945 (PDF)
- "Members of Your Race Are Not Admitted," Ch. 11 of Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, memoir, 1987 (publ. posthumously) (PDF)

African Americans hoped that their support for America's mission in World War I would earn them the respect of white America and the rights due them as citizens. When little changed in the aftermath of the conflict, they began asking for what white America was unwilling to give them. In 1919, black citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, asked the state's General Assembly to make an important change in the law that governed who could teach in Charleston's black schools. While their language was deferential—notice the request that the General Assembly "use the golden rule toward, for and over" black Charlestonians—these petitioners bravely sought control over their children's educational lives. While a small committee produced the petition, its authors insisted that the document came from the 10,000 African Americans who lived in Charleston. In doing so, they anticipated the mass movement to come.

After World War II, as after World War I, many African Americans hoped that white Americans would acknowledge the hypocrisy of fighting for freedom abroad while denying it at home. But again, African Americans were disappointed; and again, many decided to insist that they receive the basic rights of citizenship. One way in which they did so was through the boycott, which in the mid 1950s and 1960s would become an effective tool of protest. Here we see that tool in use ten years before the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, made it famous. Members of the Tenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, DC, wrote letters of protest to the manager of a department store that maintained a segregated soda fountain. Not only do these letters reveal the pent-up frustration of many black Americans, but they also show a coordinated effort to force change that would become an increasingly popular tactic as the civil rights movement grew.

Pauli Murray, an African American woman, applied to the law school at the University of North Carolina in 1938. She did so in the aftermath of Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada, a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri had to provide equal facilities to an African American law school applicant. Like Missouri, North Carolina lacked a law school for blacks, and now, like Missouri, North Carolina had either to build one or desegregate its existing school. In this excerpt from her autobiography, Murray describes her temperate but determined effort to gain admission. Although she failed, she came to realize that she was part of a long tradition of struggle in which each small advance built upon a previous one and contributed to the next. Perhaps most important, however, in her battle for social reform she overcame the fear that had enslaved her mind. (15 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Why did the black citizens of Charleston choose to ask for civil rights by petition rather than demand them with protest?
  2. How would you characterize the language of the Charleston petition? Why did the petitioners employ such language?
  3. How do they want to change the law?
  4. Are the Charleston petitioners asking for separation or segregation?
  5. What does their request suggest about their attitude toward white Charleston?
  6. Why did soda fountains like the one in Lansburgh's Department Store become sites of protest?
  7. Why did the African Americans citizens of Washington choose to boycott Lansburgh's Department Store rather than sit in at its soda fountain?
  8. What information do the Lansburgh letters reveal about the protesters?
  9. What does the inclusion of return addresses suggest about the protesters?
  10. Based on a reading of the Pauli Murray chapter, what forces prevented organized protest among African Americans in the South?
  11. How did Murray's opponents justify their resistance to her entry into the law school?
  12. How does Murray's chapter highlight different generational and class approaches to race relations in the South?
  13. How does Murray's story illustrate the power and the limits of the legal approach to social reform?
  14. How does Murray present herself in this narrative?
  15. Do the actions described in these three readings constitute protest or resistance?
  16. How do the actors in these instances conceive of themselves as citizens and as African Americans?
  17. How do these three readings illustrate the complex and sometimes contradictory attitudes African Americans hold toward integration?

Framing Questions
  •  What forms did African American protest take?
  •  How did protest strategies and goals evolve over time?
  •  In what ways was African American identity shaped in opposition to the larger American society?

1919 petition:  1
1945 letters:  2
Murray: Song 12
TOTAL 15 pages
Supplemental Sites
Septima Clark and the 1919 drive for equal treatment of black teachers in South Carolina, from the University of South Carolina-Aiken

Pauli Murray, biography, bibliography, and excerpts, from the North Carolina Writers' Network

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

- Lansburgh's Department Store, 420-426 Seventh Street, NW, Washington, DC, photograph, n.d. (after 1940). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record Collection.
- Pauli Murray, b&w photograph entitled "Pauli Murray of New York, winner of a 1946 Mademoiselle Merit Award for signal achievement in law," 1946. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection #LC-USZ62-109644.

1. Asking   2. Reasoning   3. Singing   4. Marching
  5. Boycotting   6. Arming   7. Voting   8. Separating
  9. Connecting   10. Writing   11. Poetry   12. Theater   13. Images

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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