For fifteen years I have resided in Washington, and while it was far
from being a paradise for colored people when I first touched these
shores it has been doing its level best ever since to make
conditions for us intolerable. As a colored woman I might enter
Washington any night, a stranger in a strange land, and walk miles
without finding a place to lay my head. Unless I happened to know
colored people who live here or ran across a chance acquaintance who
could recommend a colored boarding-house to me, I should be obliged
to spend the entire night wandering about. Indians, Chinamen,
Filipinos, Japanese and representatives of any other dark race can
find hotel accommodations, if they can pay for them. The colored man
alone is thrust out of the hotels of the national capital like a
As a colored woman I may walk from the Capitol to the White House,
ravenously hungry and abundantly supplied with money with which to
purchase a meal, without finding a single restaurant in which I
would be permitted to take a morsel of food, if it was patronized by
white people, unless I were willing to sit behind a screen. As a
colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country,
which owes its very existence to the love of freedom in the human
heart and which stands for equal opportunity to all, without being
forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car which
starts form the very heart of the city– midway between the Capital
and the White House. If I refuse thus to be humiliated, I am cast
into jail and forced to pay a fine for violating the Virginia
As a colored woman I may enter more than one white church in
Washington without receiving that welcome which as a human being I
have the right to expect in the sanctuary of God. . .
Unless I am willing to engage in a few menial occupations, in which
the pay for my services would be very poor, there is no way for me
to earn an honest living, if I am not a trained nurse or a
dressmaker or can secure a position as teacher in the public
schools, which is exceedingly difficult to do. It matters not what
my intellectual attainments may be or how great is the need of the
services of a competent person, if I try to enter many of the
numerous vocations in which my white sisters are allowed to engage,
the door is shut in my face.
From one Washington theater I am excluded altogether. In the
remainder certain seats are set aside for colored people, and it is
almost impossible to secure others. . .
With the exception of the Catholic University, there is not a single
white college in the national capitol to which colored people are
admitted. . . . A few years ago the Columbian Law School admitted
colored students, but in deference to the Southern white students
the authorities have decided to exclude them altogether.
Some time ago a young woman who had already attracted some attention
in the literary world by her volume of short stories answered an
advertisement which appeared in a Washington newspaper, which called
for the services of a skilled stenographer and expert typewriter. .
. . The applicants were requested to send specimens of their work
and answer certain questions concerning their experience and their
speed before they called in person. In reply to her application the
young colored woman. . . received a letter from the firm stating
that her references and experience were the most satisfactory that
had been sent and requesting her to call. When she presented herself
there was some doubt in the mind of the man to whom she was directed
concerning her racial pedigree, so he asked her point-blank whether
she was colored or white. When she confessed the truth the merchant
expressed. . . deep regret that he could not avail himself of the
services of so competent a person, but frankly admitted that
employing a colored woman in his establishment in any except a
menial position was simply out of the question. . . .
Not only can colored women secure no employment in the Washington
stores, department and otherwise, except as menials, and such
positions, of course, are few, but even as customers they are not
infrequently treated with discourtesy both by the clerks and the
proprietor himself. . . .
Although white and colored teachers are under the same Board of
Education and the system for the children of both races is said to
be uniform, prejudice against the colored teachers in the public
schools is manifested in a variety of ways. From 1870 to 1900 there
was a colored superintendent at the head of the colored schools.
During all that time the directors of the cooking, sewing, physical
culture, manual training, music and art departments were colored
people. Six years ago a change was inaugurated. The colored
superintendent was legislated out of office and the directorships,
without a single exception, were taken from colored teachers and
given to the whites. . . .
Now, no matter how competent or superior the colored teachers in our
public schools may be, they know that they can never rise to the
height of a directorship, can never hope to be more than an
assistant and receive the meager salary therefore, unless the
present regime is radically changed....
Strenuous efforts are being made to run Jim Crow cars in the
national capital. . . . Representative Heflin, of Alabama, who
introduced a bill providing for Jim Crow street cars in the District
of Columbia last winter, has just received a letter from the
president of the East Brookland Citizens’ Association “indorsing the
movement for separate street cars and sincerely hoping that you will
be successful in getting this enacted into a law as soon as
possible.” Brookland is a suburb of Washington.
The colored laborer’s path to a decent livelihood is by no means
smooth. Into some of the trades unions here he is admitted, while
from others he is excluded altogether. By the union men this is
denied, although I am personally acquainted with skilled workmen who
tell me they are not admitted into the unions because they are
colored. But even when they are allowed to join the unions they
frequently derive little benefit, owing to certain tricks of the
trade. When the word passes round that help is needed and colored
laborers apply, they are often told by the union officials that they
have secured all the men they needed, because the places are
reserved for white men, until they have been provided with jobs, and
colored men must remain idle, unless the supply of white men is too
small. . . .
And so I might go on citing instance after instance to show the
variety of ways in which our people are sacrificed on the altar of
prejudice in the Capital of the United States and how almost
insurmountable are the obstacles which block his path to success. .
It is impossible for any white person in the United States, no
matter how sympathetic and broad, to realize what life would mean to
him if his incentive to effort were suddenly snatched away. To the
lack of incentive to effort, which is the awful shadow under which
we live, may be traced the wreck and ruin of score of colored youth.
And surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based
solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than
in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the
principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still
professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the
protection of the flag, yawn so wide and deep.
Mary Church Terrell Speech
What it Means to be Colored in the U.S.