New York state passed its first antidiscrimination law in 1895, yet in 1921 it was still being flouted by businesses in all sorts of underhanded ways.
But, of course, in actual practice, the suave young hotel clerk practices just such discriminations every day in the week. If he sees you coming and registers his inward objection, “I do not like thee, Dr. Fell,” the best he can promise is a room in the annex, week after next. Experience has rendered him 100 per cent. efficient in turning down the unwelcome stranger, whether it be a too-swarthy gentleman from Haiti or South America or an unsterilized appearing customer who might be the forerunner of the Bolshevist convention.
So what recourse did a refused would-be customer have to right this wrong? In 1921, not much. Which explains why most of them didn’t try.
The applicant rebuffed may be mortally certain that the clerk’s declaration, “No room,” is a downright lie; but in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand the bona fida applicant slinks away meekly enough, to seek refuse elsewhere. The thousandth man makes a test case of himself in court, with all the hotel forces arrayed against him to swear that the facts were quite different from those that he states. If he does win his case, the jury may award him 6 cents damages.
It took another few decades before the problem would actually be solved, not just in law but in reality. Much of that effort was accomplished by individual New Yorkers striving to change the system one by one, business by business, as Michael Woodsworth described in his 2016 book Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War on Poverty in New York City —
Activists across New York City worked to end informal segregation by sending out “testers” to hundreds of restaurants known to exclude black clientele. Though largely successful, these challenges gained less press coverage than the wave of lunch-counter sit-ins that swept the South after 1960. Ironically, the problem for New York activists was that segregation was illegal, even if it persisted on the ground. They could not hope to deal a fatal blow to the Jim Crow system, since the Jim Crow system did not officially exist. Because discrimination endured in so many restaurants, hotels, and construction sites, despite laws to the contrary, assailing it required hundreds upon hundreds of individual challenges. No wonder that Brooklynites were eager to identify with the more dramatic — and more dangerous — Southern campaigns, to which Bed-Stuy activists often lent a hand in person.
Fortunately for all of us, the Jim Crow system was dismantled by law, just as New York City’s culture of business discrimination was largely dissolved through changing culture norms. (Note the word largely. Although you don’t see businesses outright refusing to seat customers based on their race or ethnicity anymore, that same person’s ease in hailing a New York City cab may tell a different story.)
Actually, in the past few years, the single most prominent controversy in the U.S. regarding a private business’s refusal to accept somebody was arguably a Virginia restaurant’s refusal to seat a straight white person, because they worked for the Trump administration.
The Stranger Within the Gates
Published: Sunday, April 17, 1921