How Black Women Steered National Politics Through Local Activism in Washington, DC

US Capitol Building (Flickr: Martha Heinemann Bixby)

Many histories of America’s capital city have explored the personal networks of political figures. They have revealed the sociopolitical influence of women socialites. Political histories of Washington, D.C., have occasionally centered women, local policies, or Black perspectives. But historian Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy accomplishes all of the above in her 2018 book Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945. As a scholar of African American studies, women, and gender, Murphy analyzes how African American women Washingtonians transformed national politics through complex political networking and activism from the inter-war years through the end of World War II.

Jim Crow Capital contends that African American women Washingtonians “claimed federal space,” meaning that they seized upon their proximity to the federal government to “broadcast” issues that affected African American communities across the country, especially “friends and family members who lived in the Jim Crow South and lacked a political voice” (2-3). These were life-or-death issues: lynching and police brutality. Focusing on African American women in one city over the course of twenty-five years, Murphy accomplishes a deep dive. This is a story about building relationships, claiming space, and engaging key issues.

Murphy organizes her monograph chronologically into three sections: “Postwar Promises, 1920-1929,” “Political Crises, 1930-1940,” and “The Leverage of War, 1941-1945.” Then, she divides each section thematically. In the 1920s, women like Mary Church Terrell, Marian Butler, and Nannie Helen Burroughs coordinated lobbying efforts for federal anti-lynching legislation. These women recognized that Washington, D.C., not being a state, ironically served as a political-legal equalizer for all residents of the District. Their activism contributed to the Wagner-Costigan anti-lynching bill of 1935. During the 1930s, the economic despair of the Great Depression exacerbated deep-seated racism, escalating D.C.’s police brutality. Finally, from 1941 through 1945, while African American men fought overseas, their mothers, sisters, and wives leveraged that sacrifice to demand long-forsaken civil rights on the home front. Wartime activism evolved into what Murphy and other historians call the “long Civil Rights movement,” meaning that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s boycotts and marches were deeply rooted in a century-old struggle. Indeed, this book’s chronology showcases how in each decade African American women Washingtonians pushed the country closer to the advances and reforms of the 1960s.

A central takeaway from African American women Washingtonians’ activism in Jim Crow Capital is the unique relationship between the federal government and local Washington, D.C. When D.C. police brutality worsened during the 1930s, for example, local activists partnered with a freshman Congressman from California, Byron N. Scott, who wanted to help. Murphy explains, “The fact that black Washingtonians could turn to the House of Representatives for support in their local campaign against police brutality illustrated the unique political benefits of residency in the nation’s capital” (95). Congressman Scott promptly introduced legislation for a federal investigation into D.C. police brutality. The investigation definitely did not solve the problem, but it increased public consciousness and pressured the police to improve.

Conveying this federal-local dynamic is something that Murphy does best, and her evidence supports this. In addition to famous repositories like the U.S. National Archives and Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. is home to some equally valuable treasure troves: The DC Public Library, especially the Martin Luther King Jr. branch; the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.; the Howard University Archives; and the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. When the author was finishing her doctorate at the University of Maryland at College Park, just outside D.C., she scoured these archives thoroughly. From these collections, she cited historic newspapers, meeting records, and various correspondence. For instance, at the Martin Luther King Jr. branch of the D.C. Public Library, Murphy accessed vertical files relating to the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, which “served as the anchor point for black women’s anti-lynching activism” (70). The NAACP records and the National Association of Colored Women Papers, both located in the Library of Congress, likewise proved invaluable.

While historical scholarship on African Americans, women, and Washington, D.C., are all robust, Jim Crow Capital demands that these fields must intersect. Murphy helps to center African American perspectives within women’s political history. In 2019, museums and public history sites have honored the centennial of women’s suffrage. In D.C., such exhibits are on display at the Library of Congress, US National Archives, and Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Murphy’s cast of characters complicate the traditional narrative of women’s suffrage, not only because African Americans endured discrimination, but also because all Washingtonians lacked full voting rights. Jim Crow Capital likewise expands on the 2017 book Chocolate City by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove. Chocolate City chronicles D.C. history through the lens of race. Due to its synthesis and its ambition to cover all people of color in the nation’s capital, Asch and Musgrove’s book speeds through the activism of the women who are central to Murphy’s narrative. Together, Asch and Musgrove’s Chocolate City and Murphy’s Jim Crow Capital can turn readers into experts on the long history of Washington, D.C. At the same time, Jim Crow Capital is decidedly academic, more so than Chocolate City. Jim Crow Capital emerged from Murphy’s doctoral dissertation. The chapters read independently from each other, almost like journal articles, which can be beneficial depending on the reader’s intent.

The world is about to reenter a decade called the ‘20s, less than three months from now. The chronology on which Murphy focuses begins in the 1920s. A century apart, readers cannot ignore the similarities. In the 1920s, Americans with privilege indulged in bootlegging and attended Great Gatsby style parties, while the African American Washingtonian women in Murphy’s book marched in the streets carrying the hope that their communities would no longer need to mourn deaths from lynching. Approaching 2020, affluent lobbyists on their way to work must pass people experiencing homelessness, the vast majority being African American, every day. Residents of Washington, D.C., still lack votes in US Congress and in national elections. The structural racism and inequality present throughout Jim Crow Capital are devastatingly familiar.

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Rebecca Brenner Graham

Rebecca Brenner Graham is a PhD candidate in history at American University in Washington, DC. Her dissertation traces Sunday mail delivery from 1810 through 1912, focusing on religious minorities and disenfranchised persons, to analyze American governance. Follow her on Twitter @TheOtherRBG.

Comments on “How Black Women Steered National Politics Through Local Activism in Washington, DC

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    Indeed, Mary Murphy has written a very insightful book. A very valuable book.

    Maurice Jackson
    Georgetown University

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    This is a really good claim I like this.

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