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The Jim Crow North? Dining in New York City Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964

07/24/2014 05:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2014
  • Chin Jou Lecturer in American history at the University of Sydney

In the 1950s, a U.S. civil rights organization set out to investigate restaurant discrimination. As part of this effort, the organization interviewed an African-American man who related his experiences:

Every time I'm downtown I see invisible signs on the door of every restaurant, saying "Negroes, Keep out!" I make up my mind to have a good meal, and I walk for blocks, looking at every eating place I see, and wondering...And then I get cold feet and end up at a cafeteria - or else get a sandwich in a drug store.

This un-named man was not relating his experiences in Greensboro, Birmingham, or any other familiar southern flashpoint of the mid-20th century civil rights struggle. He was describing everyday life in New York City.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law, with its ban on discrimination based on "race, color, religion or national origin" in public accommodations, is often recognized as a repudiation of racial segregation and discrimination in the southern states. But this common association of the Civil Rights Act with the South overlooks the reality of racial segregation and discrimination in public accommodations in the North, including in America's largest city.

That New York City was segregated was not lost on contemporaneous observers. A June 2, 1963 article in The New York Times declared that, "segregation is as much a fact of life [in the North] as it is in the South." According to The Times, "almost invariably the color of ["the Negro's"] skin determines where he goes for school and how he makes his living."

As sober as this observation of racial discrimination in mid-century New York City was, however, The Times added that, "discrimination [in the North] is unquestionably less pervasive outside the South." The paper quoted Calvin Banks, a spokesperson for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who noted that "there is a willingness in the North, generally speaking, to face problems of discrimination that is missing in the South."

Banks's account of efforts to confront discrimination in the North was reflected in New York State's anti-bias laws and the creation of an enforcement agency called the State Commission against Discrimination. Since 1945, the Commission had been charged with combating discrimination in employment, and in 1952, the agency's authority expanded to include discrimination in restaurants and other public accommodations.

Under the 1952 anti-bias law, New Yorkers could report discrimination directly to the State Commission against Discrimination. (Previously, local district attorney's offices -- some of which were not exactly vigorous in pursuing discrimination complaints -- had to first file suit against offending parties.) Those in violation of the 1952 law could be punished by having their names published and being issued cease and desist orders.

But as the very existence of this anti-bias law suggested, racial discrimination in public accommodations was a reality in mid-century New York. Starting in 1950, one civil rights group called the Committee on Civil Rights in East Manhattan (CCREM) decided to investigate the ways in which this discrimination was manifest and the degree to which it occurred in the city's restaurants.

Made up of an interracial coalition of volunteers, the CCREM deployed one hundred 53 of its members to 62 Manhattan restaurants to determine whether restaurant staff would treat African-American and white diners differently. The CCREM's volunteer restaurant testers were divided into same-sex or opposite-sex pairs, including "minority teams" of black diners and "control teams" of white customers. According to CCREM literature, all testers "were of pleasing appearance, quiet in manner, and well, but not ostentatiously, dressed"; most were also educated professionals instructed to be as inconspicuous as possible while undercover. Immediately after dining, all testers recalled the restaurant service they had received by filling out the CCREM's surveys.

In contrast to the South, where African-Americans were denied service at even casual establishments into the early 1960s, all of the CCREM's African-American testers were served in 1950. That was the "good" news. Forty-two percent of the black testers did, however, discern varying degrees of racial bias from restaurant staff, with upscale establishments being more likely to dole out discriminatory service than modest dining spots. Meanwhile, none of the white testers reported discrimination at any of the restaurants.

The discrimination to which African-Americans were subjected took many forms. The CCREM's surveys revealed that when its black testers first entered some restaurants, there was "evidence of confusion at the appearance of the Negro team or of hesitation about admitting them, such as a hasty conference between headwaiter and waiter, [and] shifting of waiters." (Whether offending restaurant staff included people of color as hosts and servers is unknown.)

African-American restaurant patrons were then led into what the CCREM called "undesirable" seating arrangements -- near kitchens, swinging doors, bathrooms, in back corners, on balconies, or other areas where they would be separate and out-of-sight from the majority of other diners. Describing her experiences with her fellow African-American dining companion, volunteer tester Olivia Pleasants Frost recounted being "taken to seats in the back of the restaurant behind a partition used to stack supplies, right beside the kitchen, while the control [white] team was allowed to select their own seats since the restaurant was only half full."

Black testers also reported "rudeness" and neglect by wait staff, and service that could be either sluggish or rushed; the CCREM inferred that the latter was an "apparent attempt to get Negroes out of the restaurant as quickly as possible." Once the food came, some African-American testers were served items that had gone bad, and dishes that were suspiciously salty, spicy or otherwise adulterated. Perhaps most egregiously, some black diners' restaurant tabs were higher than those of their white counterparts who had ordered the very same menu items.

Such experiences by CCREM testers were not exceptional. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, black New Yorkers described discrimination in public accommodations, including restaurants in all of the city's boroughs. The mid-to-late 1940s saw a number of high-profile lawsuits throughout the city alleging that customers had been refused service for being black. Cases of restaurant discrimination in the 1950s appeared less flagrant, but were nevertheless insidious. In 1958, for example, the NAACP conducted an experiment and found that one popular Bronx steakhouse claimed to be fully booked and declined to accept reservations from African Americans, but whites were welcome to make reservations. Cases of racial discrimination in public accommodations were also recorded in nearly every major northern city in the United States, including those located in states with anti-discrimination laws on the books.

As we reflect on a half century of the Civil Rights Act, it is important to consider that the law was not just an abrogation of legally inscribed racial discrimination and segregation in restaurants and other public accommodations in the South. Even ostensibly progressive northern cities like New York, needed it.

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This post was adapted from: Chin Jou, "Neither Welcomed, Nor Refused: Race and Restaurants in Postwar New York City," Journal of Urban History 40.2 (March 2014): 232-251.