When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in New York City in 1909, it was inevitable that there would eventually be a branch in Washington.
After all, said archivist and historian Derek Gray, the District had a sizable African American population and there was “a very robust Black middle- to upper-middle class in the city: attorneys, educators, entrepreneurs. Howard University and M Street High School were centers of Black quality education.”
But what sort of branch would it be?
That’s the question Gray addresses in his new book, “The NAACP in Washington, D.C.: From Jim Crow to Home Rule,” published by the History Press.
The national NAACP office was founded and run primarily by White progressives. Washington was the fourth U.S. city to have an NAACP chapter — Chicago and Boston came before it — and, said Gray, was basically the first to have Black leadership. Mary Church Terrell was among the first officers and John Milton Waldron, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, served as the branch’s first president.
The members had a unique responsibility.
“New York was a powerhouse, but D.C. was the center of power,” Gray said. “The branch had two dual roles: to serve the interests of the city’s Black community, but also to monitor what was going on in Congress in terms of legislation that would negatively affect African Americans all over the country.”
As with so many fledgling organizations, the early days of the NAACP in Washington were challenging. The city’s newspapers were dismissive. You might expect that from White-owned papers such as the Evening Star and The Washington Post, but Gray found even the Black press was less than supportive.
“That was very fascinating to me,” Gray said.
A leading paper for the African American community at the time was the Washington Bee, led by the firebrand editor William Calvin Chase.
“He immediately dismissed the NAACP when it was first formed,” Gray said. “He was of the mind-set that any movement that brought together African Americans and Whites just would not work. For a long time he just ignored it.”