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Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Tomlinson D. Todd and the Institute on Race Relations

Jennifer Morris
Anacostia Community Museum

Tomlinson D. Todd (far right) interviewed this unidentified group of young people on his “Americans All,” radio program, circa 1950s. Henry P. Whitehead Collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Issues with race and racial equity have a long history in the United States, and so do interracial organizations forming to combat discriminatory practices and demand social justice for all Americans. The story of the Institute on Race Relations, founded by Tomlinson D. Todd (1910–1987), is an example of a substantive but understudied history of collaborative anti-racist activism in the District of Columbia.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Tomlinson D. Todd grew up in Washington, DC in a middle-class family. Todd’s father, Rev. Williams W. Todd, served as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church and his mother was a schoolteacher in Virginia before marriage. Both parents were college educated and Tomlinson, similarly, pursued higher education after attending Armstrong High School. He graduated from Lincoln University in 1936, with a Bachelor of Arts Degree before studying sociology at Howard University.

Mr. Todd fought against racial injustice and believed bringing people together across racial lines would assist with harmony and understanding among the races and foster greater economic and political achievement in America. He started the Institute on Race Relations in August 1943 with the aim to establish “true democracy” in the nation’s capital.

One of the organization’s first undertakings was to protest discriminatory practices and Jim Crowism in several restaurants and theatres in downtown Washington, DC. They arranged for interracial groups to enter selected restaurants and request service to test segregation and other inequitable policies, strategically scheduled sit-ins with law enforcement to avoid arrest if managers contacted authorities. The organization also secured letters of support from local restaurants that catered to all people regardless of race. The statements were then provided to other heads of companies to persuade them to adopt non-discriminatory policies.  

A letter of support from Arthur Capper (1865-1951) to Tomlinson D. Todd.  Capper was a U.S. Senator from Kansas whom Mr. Todd interviewed on “Americans All,” broadcast before he retired from the U.S. Senate in 1939. Henry P. Whitehead Collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

The Institute considered it important to shed light on public spaces that denied service to African American soldiers. In 1945, the group ran an ad in the Washington Star newspaper (February 12, 1945) depicting two wounded war veterans, one black and one white, being refused entry together to DC cafes and theaters. In addition, the ad featured accounts of Black soldiers’ heroic deeds and their contributions to the war effort.

This ad denouncing discrimination in the nation's capital also appeared in the Evening Star newspaper on February 12, 1945. Henry P. Whitehead Collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

After several months of testing policies of discrimination and publicizing their findings, the Institute on Race Relations began sponsoring a series of activities to gain public support. They organized mass meetings at churches; held interracial parties; international fashion shows; intercultural dances; and banquets. The banquets were community forums led by senators, college presidents, civil rights leaders, and other government officials.

The Institution on Race Relations sold tickets to several of their events to garner financial support for the organization. Henry P. Whitehead Collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

On March 31, 1946, the Institute started sponsoring Mr. Todd’s weekly Sunday night radio program, “Americans All.” The program aired from 1946–1962 on various Washington, DC radio stations including WOOK, WWDC, and WGMS. The broadcast featured dramas, interviews, addresses, roundtable discussions, and renditions from well-known musical aggregations. The program documented a range of perspectives on race and race relations and garnered a large radio audience, while enlightening the city to the injustices of segregation and racial discrimination.

In the wake of  the Institute on Race Relations’ work to bring racial justice to the nation’s capital, the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws, led by activists Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) and Annie Stein, brought a lawsuit against the Thompson Restaurant. On June 8, 1953, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the Thompson Restaurant case that restaurants in the District of Columbia must accommodate all people, regardless of race, color, or creed. The decision ended discrimination and segregation in DC restaurants.

In 1952, Tomlinson D. Todd interviewed activist Mary Church Terrell (1863- 1954) on her 89th birthday. 

The activism of Tomlinson D. Todd and the Institute on Race Relations deserves further examination for its role in ending discriminatory practices in Washington, DC, and opening a space for interracial conversation and collaboration on a range of issues that affected the lives of all Americans.     

Help us make the records of the Institute on Race Relations more accessible and searchable through transcription on the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Transcription Center:  here!

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