4 min read
Posted on 05.26.14
  • 4 min read
  • Posted on 05.26.14

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced legislation in early May that would designate Union Station in Washington, D.C., as the "Harry S. Truman Union Station." U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) is a co-sponsor of the bill, S. 2308.

The move has some pundits talking.

Presidential scholar Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) tweeted an immediate endorsement: "Good idea to name DC Union Station for Harry Truman," he wrote. "More so than bldg named for him at State Dept, whose 'striped pants' he gibed."

Washington Post metro columnist John Kelly countered with a crotchety riposte. He claims to have searched in vain for a historical connection between President Truman and the local landmark.

We're happy to help out Mr. Kelly and the nation's political paper of record with a little reporting.

During the final stages of World War II, and its aftermath, Union Station was one of the busiest transportation centers in the nation. No doubt more than a few of the hundreds of thousands of people teaming across its elegant concourse and main hall each day were members of our Armed Forces.

President Truman integrated those Armed Forces.

In Executive Order 9981, issued July 26, 1948, he wrote:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.

Mr. Truman ensured soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, passing through Union Station and around the world, had a right to strive and stand and walk and work together, and defend the nation together, irrespective of race.

More than a few people passing through Union Station during this period, too, no doubt, aspired to serve in our National Government's fast growing civilian workforce.

President Truman integrated that workforce.

In Executive Order 9980, issued that same day as the one on the Armed Forces, he declared:

By virtue of the authority vested in me as president of the United States, by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, it is hereby ordered ... (that) (a)ll personnel actions taken by Federal appointing officers shall be based solely on merit and fitness; and such officers are authorized and directed to take appropriate steps to insure that in all such actions there shall be no discrimination because of race, color, religion, or national origin.

Is there a more fitting place to celebrate the blow for freedom and equality Mr. Truman struck than the great social crossroads of Union Station in what then remained a segregated city?

Railroads, for such reasons, occupy a central and poignant place in our civil rights history.

Homer Plessy, after all, was jailed for refusing to leave a "whites only" passenger car on the East Louisiana Railroad. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), upheld his conviction and, with it, the brutality of Jim Crow segregation.

Fifty years later, Elmer Henderson purchased a ticket on the Southern Railroad in Washington, D.C. He was an employee of the United States, traveling to Birmingham, Alabama, on public business.

Union Station in Washington was a Southern Railroad hub, and Elmer Henderson was black. By railroad policy, black passengers were relegated to two tables in the dining car near the kitchen. A curtain was drawn to separate those tables from the rest of the dining area.

Mr. Henderson was refused service at a table reserved for white passengers. He complained.

Harry Truman's Interstate Commerce Commission and Solicitor General (arguing alongside Thurgood Marshall, attorney for the NAACP) vindicated Mr. Henderson's complaint. They successfully argued to the U.S. Supreme Court, in Henderson v. United States, 339 U.S. 816 (1950), that federal law prohibited the Southern Railroad - and all railroads affecting interstate commerce - from excluding black passengers from train amenities or providing passengers with separate service based on race.

* * *

There's more to Mr. Truman's legacy on civil rights. The Missourian with a complicated personal outlook on race and social equality was the president who created the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. He was the first president to address the NAACP. The 1947 Report of his Committee on Civil Rights reads like a blueprint for the next 20 years of Civil Rights reform.

This much, too, is certain: The diversity we see in today's Armed Forces and federal workforce arrived in Washington by train.

Harry Truman cleared the tracks at Union Station.