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Trailblazers: African-Americans Who Challenged Segregation in the Senate

In 1947 and 1953, three pioneers knocked down color barriers on Capitol Hill

Christine McCreary worked for Missouri Sen. W. Stuart Symington Jr. in the 1950s. (Courtesy the Senate Historical Office)
Christine McCreary worked for Missouri Sen. W. Stuart Symington Jr. in the 1950s. (Courtesy the Senate Historical Office)

Before the Civil Rights Act legally ended segregation, three African-Americans helped break down a few barriers to make the Senate more inclusive.

The first was Thomas Thornton, a World War II Army veteran. In February 1947, Illinois Republican Sen. C. Wayland “Curly” Brooks appointed him a mail carrier in the Senate Post Office. Early the next month, the new staffer went to lunch one day in the Senate cafeteria and sat down to eat.

“Thornton’s act violated a long-standing Senate practice — one followed by numerous government agencies throughout the city — of maintaining separate dining facilities for black and white staff,” Senate historian Kate Scott wrote in a research paper “Historical Minute — Integrating Senate Spaces.”

Thornton was asked to leave and refused until he had finished his lunch. 

[From Assistant to Chief, Women Heading Hill Offices]

Around the same time, Louis Lautier, a correspondent for the black newspaper Atlanta Daily World, sought admission to the all-white Senate daily press gallery, but was rejected by the Senate Standing Committee of Correspondents.

Lautier appealed to the Senate Rules Committee, which Brooks chaired. The panel heard testimony from Lautier and the head of the standing committee.

“The Rules Committee voted unanimously to approve Lautier’s application for admission to the Senate daily press gallery. At the hearing, Brooks denounced the practice of segregation,” Scott wrote.

[From 1820 to 2018: The Road to an All-Female Correspondent’s Committee]

“In the Capitol of the greatest free country in the world, we certainly should have no discrimination,” the senator said of Thornton’s treatment.

The architect of the Capitol told the Rules panel the cafeteria incident was based on a misunderstanding, adding that there were no formal restrictions on color, race or creed in Capitol facilities.

But it took a while to change attitudes.

Christine McCreary had worked for W. Stuart Symington Jr. at the Reconstruction Finance Corporation after World War II and the Missouri Democrat brought her on his staff after he was elected to the Senate in 1952. After he had taken office, McCreary tried to sit down in the Senate cafeteria, only to be told it was reserved for people who worked in the Senate.

After she said she did, “diners gawked as McCreary passed through the serving line with tray in hand,” Scott wrote.

ICYMI: Black History and America’s Capitol

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