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Oral History Excerpt | Christine McCreary Challenges De Facto Segregation

Christine McCreary, Staff of Senators Stuart Symington and John Glenn
May 19, 1998
Interviewed by Senate historian Donald Ritchie

The following is an excerpt from the oral history interview with Christine McCreary recounting how McCreary challenged the de facto segregation in the Senate cafeteria.

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Donald Ritchie: You came here in 1953, when Senator Symington started, and he must have gotten an office I guess over in the Russell Building in those days.

Christine McCreary: He had an office in the Russell Building. Everybody....They only had the one building, so he only had three rooms, so he had a desk for me and I was sitting right next to his office. Like that was his office right there. I worked right close to him all the time.

Ritchie: What was it like coming to work in the Senate in those days?

McCreary: Well, it was different. I'll be frank, it was different. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if I could eat there, because you see Washington was segregated and you had to deal with that. You know, I wasn't pushing myself, so I asked the senator, "Where do I eat?" He said, "What?" I said, "Where do I eat? Where do I get my meal?" He said, "Why, why are you asking me that for, at the cafeteria?" I said, "Senator, do you know this is a segregated state, or whatever it is, a district?" He said, "Oh, my God, yes. Wait a minute, let me call [Herbert] Lehman." He called Senator Lehman, and said, "One of your members from your state is working for me and she doesn't know where to eat." I heard him say, "What?" [laughter] He said, "Yes, she's a negro." He said, "Oh, Stu, wait a minute, I'll call you back."

So I think he called Miss Cook, or whatever her name was, she would seat people in the restaurant in Russell. You see, everything was in Russell. Well, not having been there, I didn't know where to eat. [Symington] said that Lehman had called over there, and he said I would eat over there. Lehman didn't tell the lady I was black--Miss Cook. So, Symington said, "Well, it's taken care of. Lehman said you just go over there and eat your breakfast." I said, "Okay," so I thought everything was fine, because he know.

Well, I went bopping over there. I got to the door, and this lady came flying over to the door where I was and said, "Can I help you?" I said, "Yes, I've come to get my breakfast." She said, "Oh, no, this is only for people who work in the Senate." I said, "Well, I work in the Senate with Senator Stuart Symington." [gasps] "Oh, oh, oh,oh,oh,oh,okay, come on, come on in, have a seat." Well, everybody was stopped and looking and it was like a big to-do. Well, I felt stupid. I wasn't used to this.

So, I went over there, and I stood there, and I waited for her to tell me where I was to sit. She said, "You just take a seat anyplace you can find. You just go through [the cafeteria line] and get your food. They will push it to you on the thing...." So I saw what they had. They would put it on the plate and pass it to you. It seemed. There were black people who worked on the thing, but they were nervous. You know how they'd put a plate on the line, like that. You would step back, see. I stepped back, because I didn't want it on my clothes, and it all went on the floor. And so she came over, and I said that she sort of pushed the plate a bit and I had to move back and it fell. Well, they were looking at me, but I had to deal with it. So anyway I got another plate. And then I went back the next day, and the next day, until finally they got used to seeing me coming in there and then there was no more problems with that....

Ritchie: But there were problems for the next couple of days, until when....

McCreary: There were problems. I'd come out of the restaurant and all the black people that worked in the Senate were people working down in the subway or the basement or whatever, and they were all lined up out there just to see me. Well, I felt like two cents, because I wasn't used to that. I didn't know what to say or do. I didn't know them. And then of course there were some who would make snide remarks--"how about a date?"--and all kind of foolishness. I would just keep on going. I wouldn't even bother to stop and answer that.

Disclaimer: The Senate Historical Office has a strong commitment to oral history as an important part of its efforts to document institutional change over time. Oral histories are a natural component to historical research and enhance the archival holdings of the Senate and its members. Oral histories represent the personal recollections and opinions of the interviewees, however, and should not be considered as the official views or opinions of the U.S. Senate, of the Senate Historical Office, or of other senators and/or staff members. The transcripts of these oral histories are made available by the Senate Historical Office as a public service.