African American Thomas N. Thornton joined the U.S. Senate staff on February 20, 1947, as a mail carrier for the Senate post office. A U.S. Army veteran, Thornton hailed from Chicago, Illinois, and owed his position to the sponsorship of Illinois senator C. Wayland “Curley” Brooks. One day in early March 1947, Thornton stopped for lunch at the Senate luncheonette in the New Senate Office Building (now called the Russell Senate Office Building), ordered a sandwich and a coffee, and sat down. A waitress asked him to leave. Thornton offered to move to a corner table but refused to leave the luncheonette until he had finished his lunch. Though not enforced by law, racial segregation was a common practice in Washington, D.C. Many government agencies maintained separate dining facilities for black and white staff, including local post offices, the Internal Revenue Service, and the State Department. The popular Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson publicized the incident in his syndicated column.
While Thornton was challenging de facto segregation in Senate dining facilities, another African American, Atlanta Daily World correspondent Louis Lautier, was demanding admission to the all-white Senate daily press gallery. On March 4, 1947, the Standing Committee on Correspondents, a group of professional journalists tasked by the House and Senate with regulating the congressional press galleries, rejected Lautier’s application for admission on the grounds that he failed to meet the qualifications of a member of the daily press gallery. Defending his credentials, Lautier denounced the committee’s decision as discriminatory. Editorials in the Washington Post, the Washington Star, and the New York Herald Tribune largely supported Lautier and urged the Standing Committee to reconsider its decision.
Lautier appealed to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, chaired by Curley Brooks, to review the Standing Committee’s decision. On March 18, 1947, Brooks convened the committee to consider Lautier’s application. After hearing testimony from Lautier and the chair of the Standing Committee, members met in executive session and voted unanimously to approve Lautier’s application for admission to the Senate press gallery.
Senator Brooks used the committee hearing as a forum for voicing his disapproval of Thornton’s treatment in the Senate luncheonette. He declared, “In the Capitol of the greatest free country in the world we certainly should have no discrimination in the Capitol or its surrounding buildings.” The Architect of the Capitol, David Lynn, who oversaw the operation of Senate restaurants, testified to the lack of de jure discrimination, stating, “There have been no restrictions imposed [on access to Senate dining facilities] with respect to color, race, or creed.” He assured the committee that the incident was based on a misunderstanding and that no such instances would occur in the future. Despite that prediction, de facto segregation continued. Thornton and Lautier would not be the last African Americans to face discrimination in the nation’s federal institutions. Their experiences are an important part of the institutional history of the U.S. Senate.