Free the Ingram Family
September 19, 1949 — Human Rights Commission, UN Economic and Social Council, United Nations, Lake Success, NY
As students of History, the members of the General Assembly of the United Nations are well versed in the efforts made by human beings throughout the long centuries to secure freedom from tyrants and deliverance from injustices of various kinds. Although the United States of America is called “the Greatest Democracy on Earth,” the conditions under which thousands of colored people are forced to live are as unjust, cruel, and shocking as any which history records.
This is not because the Constitution fails to make equitable and just provisions for all its citizens, but because these provisions of the Constitution are violated with impunity every day, especially in that section where slavery existed for nearly 300 years. Please permit me briefly to cite examples of disabilities and injustices of which colored people are victims in many parts of the United States. Mrs. Rosa Lee Ingram’s conviction and sentence are a case in point. Here is a woman convicted and sentenced to be hanged in a Georgia court for a crime she did not commit. Obeying the orders of Strafford, a white share cropper living next to her place, she went to drive home her pigs and mules which he complained were on his land. As Mrs. Ingram entered Strafford’s place, he met her armed with a shotgun and beat her over the head with it until the blood ran. Her two little boys 12 and 13 years old stood by crying and pleading, until a son 16 years old ran from the house, wrenched the gun from Strafford’s hand, and struck him with it. The man fell to the ground and later died. There is no proof the son’s blow killed the man who was beating his mother, and he might have died from a heart attack. This mother of 14 children, 9 of whom are being cared for by charity, and her two sons are now serving a sentence of life imprisonment in one of the worst penitentiaries in Georgia. Under similar circumstances it is inconceivable that such an unjust sentence would have been imposed on a white woman and her two sons. The colored women of the United States are appealing to the Commission on Human Rights carefully to investigate Rosa Lee Ingram’s case, feeling sure that when the facts are known, justice will prevail and Rosa Lee Ingram with her two sons will be freed from the jail in which they have been unjustly incarcerated for more than two years.
Colored women in the United States are confronted by obstacles and perils of various sizes and kinds, not only because they are women, but because they are colored women are difficulties and disappointments meet them at every turn. The white women of the country have only one handicap to hurdle — that of sex. Colored men have just one handicap to hurdle — that of race. Colored women have two high, hard handicaps to hurdle — both race and sex. Generally speaking, a colored woman who is the victim of a white man’s advances or violence has no redress in the courts.
The brutal and shocking manner in which colored people are lynched in the United States places a foul stain upon the country’s escutcheon and causes the world either to doubt or to sneer at our claim of being a Democracy. The world’s condemnation of such lawlessness and cruelty is increased because it is generally known that the perpetrators of these crimes are rarely punished. On several occasions, the bodies of colored women have been ripped open, their babies snatched out, and thrown into a river nearby or on the ground.
Thousands of colored people in the United States are disfranchised in that section where the majority live. As a result of this flagrant violation of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, laws are passed in the Congress of the United States by representatives and senators who have been illegally elected because the colored citizens of their respective states are not allowed to vote. One wonders whether laws by an elective assembly can be valid when a number of legislators voting for them have been illegally elected.
Where there are segregated schools, the money spent for the education of colored children in public schools is often only half or less than half of that spent on the education of white children, and many of the schools which colored children are obliged to attend are dilapidated shacks, utterly lacking in provisions for the comfort of the children and are often a menace to their health.
The living and housing conditions of thousands of colored people beggar description. There are several reasons why colored people are obliged to live in squalid surroundings, who might otherwise live in comfortable homes. One of the reasons is that solely because of prejudice against their race thousands of well trained colored people are unable to secure employment, so that they can earn a living and help support their families. For instance, in the Capital of the United States the Capital Transit Company refuses to employ colored men to operate the streetcars and buses. I want especially to call attention to conditions affecting colored people who live in the capital of the United States. With the exception that there are no Jim Crow streetcars and buses, the status of the colored people in the National Capital is no better than that of the colored people in Mississippi or Georgia.
In the Capital of the greatest democracy on earth colored people are barred from hotels, restaurants, and other eating places. Until the 5 and 10 cent stores were opened, a colored person could not get a bite to eat in Washington, no matter how hungry he might be. Even today in the 5 and 10 cent stores in Washington colored people are obliged to stand at a counter to get a sandwich or a cold drink on one side of the store but are not allowed to sit at a counter on the opposite side of the store to eat a meal.
Colored people are excluded from movies attended by white people and can attend only those operated for their own group. For a long time there has been no theater in the Capital of the United States because the only one in the city refused to admit colored people and the Actor’s Equity voted not to accept engagements there. The public schools of the National Capital are segregated, and in many cases the provisions for the education of colored children are inferior to those given to white children. The colored children are not provided with recreational facilities equal to those enjoyed by white children. Last summer the Recreation Board refused to agree with Mr. Krug of the Interior Department to operate them on an interracial basis without discrimination. Because of the riotous situation that developed, one of the swimming pools was closed during the hottest days of the season. The hoodlums and gangsters objected violently to the presence of colored children in the pools, some of whom were viciously attacked.
Three years ago the Washington branch of the American Association of University Women gave a shocking exhibition of race prejudice by refusing to accept the application for reinstatement presented by a colored woman who had once been a member, but had been forced temporarily to withdraw because of pressure of duties. The colored woman whose application for reinstatement had been rejected held an A.B., an A.M., and later an honorary degree of Doctor of Human Letters from Oberlin College and a similar degree from Wilberforce University. She had been one of the first two women appointed on the Board of Education in the National Capital, on which she had served 11 years and had been engaged in many other activities. When the case was taken to court both the District Court and the Appellate Court rendered the decision that the Washington branch had a right to exclude anybody it wished. But the delegates to the national convention of the American Association of University Women at Seattle last June voted 2158 to admit all qualified women without regard to race or religion with only 65 voting against the motion.
It is a tragedy that the Capital of this Democracy is situated on southern soil and that the citizens of that section are allowed continuously and deliberately to violate the Constitution of the United States. It is all the more astounding that colored people living in the National Capital are subjected to such humiliating and irritating conditions, for in 1872 by a popularly elected assembly a law was passed which would put every Jim Crow restaurant and hotel out of business. Here is the exact wording of that law against discrimination on account of color:
“That any restaurant keeper or proprietor, any hotel keeper or proprietor, proprietors of ice cream saloons or places where soda water is kept for sale, or keepers of barber shops and bathing houses, refusing to sell or wait upon any respectable well behaved person, without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude, or any restaurant, hotel, ice cream saloon, or soda fountain, barber shop, or bathing house keepers, or proprietors who refuse under any pretext to serve any well behaved, respectable person, in the same room, and at the same prices as other well behaved and respectable persons are served, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction in a court having jurisdiction, shall be fined one hundred dollars, and shall forfeit his or license as a keeper or owner of a restaurant, hotel, ice cream saloon, or soda fountain, as the case may be, and it shall not be lawful for the Register or any officer of the District of Columbia to issue a license to any person or persons, or to their agent or agents, who shall have forfeited their license under the provisions of this act, until a period of one year shall have elapsed after such forfeiture.”
Leading attorneys in Washington say this law, passed in 1872, has never been repealed. A group of citizens in the National Capital are now discussing ways and means of having this Anti-Discrimination law enforced.
This petition is presented to the Human Rights Commission and the General Assembly of the United Nations in behalf of Mrs. Rosa Lee Ingram, a colored woman, who as has already been stated was first sentenced to be hanged for a crime she did not commit, her sentence was changed afterward to life imprisonment. It is a great travesty of justice that Mrs. Ingram is now languishing in a Georgia penitentiary with her two teenage sons. The colored women of the United States hope and pray that Mrs. Ingram’s case will be thoroughly investigated, that as a result of this investigation justice will be done and Mrs. Ingram with her two sons will soon be freed.
The conditions under which colored people live in Washington have been described in order to show that even in this Democracy, called the Greatest on Earth, colored men, women, and children are the victims of discrimination, segregation, are barred from employment, are humiliated, handicapped, and hindered in many ways. If colored people living in the National Capital are subjected to such injustice and humiliation, one can easily imagine what the status and fate of colored people, especially colored women, must be who live in Georgia or in the other states where slaves were bought and sold for nearly 300 years.
Definite proof and concrete examples have been presented to show that although the United States has put itself on record as approving the Declaration of Human Rights, it has done little or nothing to enforce the measures which will make it possible for the victims of injustice like Rosa Lee Ingram to enjoy the rights to which the government has subscribed and for which the Constitution of the United States amply provides.
Source: Reel 22, Papers of Mary Church Terrell, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 6 pp.