From the 1890s to the 1960s, segregation was a reality for Americans of color. In Washington, DC many schools, restaurants, hotels, and public facilities were segregated by race. During this time, segregation policies changed in the city with each presidential administration, but the grounds and museums on the Mall remained integrated. Segregation persisted for some social and recreational activities across the city, making the Mall a battleground over integration.
Was the Mall ever segregated?
Many of the Mall's idealistic planners designed its grounds and museums in ways to foster an egalitarian society of educated citizens. Commitment to this ideal meant that the Mall was always open to everyone regardless of age, race, gender, or ethnicity. As early as the 1880s, school teachers brought students to the Mall to explore and learn, like these African American school children, posing in front of the statue of George Washington formerly at the Capitol. Most Washington schools were segregated, but the Mall was one place where all students were welcome to learn.
While the Mall's facilities were integrated, some of the social and recreational activities held there were not. City recreational institutions were segregated as were some activities on the Mall. One example was the Bathing Beach formerly located along the Tidal Basin. Open from 1922 until 1925, the beach only allowed white patrons to sun bathe and swim along the edges of Mall.
During the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, the National Park Service began managing the grounds and maintenance of the Mall. Under the leadership of Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, America's National Parks were desegregated. This included all recreation facilities on the Mall, including the tennis courts and golf course.
Even as the Mall increasingly opened and integrated in the 1930s, segregation still ruled in Washington city. The Mall actually became a place of refuge for African American opera singer Marian Anderson, who was prevented from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution's Constitution Hall in 1939. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) arranged for Anderson to perform her Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The concert drew a large, integrated crowd, while millions listened on the radio in their homes. This was the first of many civil rights protests that used the Lincoln Memorial as a symbolic gathering place.
African Americans were always welcome on the Mall, but the Mall's museums rarely exhibited their contributions in history, art, culture, or science. In 1929 and 1933 the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art hosted temporary exhibits featuring African American artists, but it was not until the 1960s when the Gallery featured African American art in permanent exhibitions. Beginning in the late 1980s, permanent exhibitions opened in other museums interpreting the histories of African Americans. The National Museum of the American Indian opened in 1999 devoted to making Native American history more visible, while the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened 2016.