Lisner Auditorium segregation controversy, 1946

From GW Encyclopedia

Ingrid Bergman, who performed in "Joan of Lorraine" at Lisner, 1946
Petition signed by cast and crew of "Joan of Lorraine" protesting segregation, 1946
Flyer put out by the American Veterans Committee protesting the Lisner segregation, 1946


Until 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, segregation was a part of life in Washington, D.C.. One infamous incident involved the first commercial production ever held at Lisner Auditorium. The facility could then seat 1,550, and it contained modern light and sound systems as well as a huge 59-foot stage, said to be the largest south of New York City.

On October 9, 1946, the theater refused to admit a group of African-Americans, including the Dean of the Medical School at Howard University, who had bought tickets in advance. The managers claimed that they were following long held "community policy" in denying admission. The following day, the local chapter of the American Veterans Committee wrote a letter of protest to President Cloyd Heck Marvin.

The controversy erupted into an enormous public debate on October 29, 1946, when the University agreed to host a Broadway-bound production of "Joan of Lorraine," featuring 29-year old Ingrid Bergman. The star was disappointed to learn that the audience would be segregated and thus let her views be known in the local newspapers. Picketers protested outside of Lisner on opening night. Boycotts and leaflet campaigns continued throughout the show's three week run at Lisner Auditorium. During November, the governing board of the National Symphony Orchestra unanimously voted to cancel its scheduled performances at Lisner and to play at the desegregated Constitution Hall instead. Then, the Dramatists Guild banned its members from entertaining at Lisner Auditorium and all other segregated theaters.

Francis S. Pierce, B.A. 1947, recalled the period this way in an interview with GW Magazine in 1995: "I became involved in an effort to desegregate Lisner Auditorium, which would not permit blacks in its audiences. To stand outside Lisner handing out leaflets was considered antisocial if not downright radical, to judge from the comments I received. President Cloyd Heck Marvin told the press that the university’s policy reflected 'the community pattern.' True enough. Since then the pattern has changed and the policy with it. Question: Does policy ever anticipate the pattern?"

In the following months, the University received two dozen letters, flyers, and petitions arguing for and against segregation at its theater. The first letters to arrive favored segregation and supported the policy of admitting only white people to Lisner.

The following letter (unedited) was addressed to the managers of Lisner Auditorium:


From a news item appearing in the Washington Star of this day I am lead to believe that the very undesirable propaganda group known at the Committee for Racial Democracy is attempting to secure the destruction of the right of individual and group privacy for members of the white race by demanding the admission of africans to the Lisner Auditorium.

After living in Washington for about ten years I have become an advocate of segregation of the American and african races and perfer that the segregation be as complete as possible. I feel that the segregation should extend to residential areas, schools, playgrounds, stores, restaurants, theatres and all other places where a group of people may gather. I trust that you will continue the policy of granting admission only to americans and that africans will be excluded from the Lisner Auditorium. Since we prefer the privacy of our own group there is no reason why any propoganda should be allowed to change the existing tradition. The africans have their own theatres which are not invaded by americans. Let the africans remain in their own theatres. I believe that the entire community of americans feels as I do about this matter.

For reasons which you will undoubtedly understand I prefer to remain anonymous. Any publicity would be unattractive and heavens knows what offensiveness might be imposed on a mere private citizen who dared oppose the ideas of this propoganda group which calls itself a Committee for Racial Democracy.

A Segregationalist.

As time passed, more and more people protested segregation at Lisner Auditorium and threatened to boycott all plays and other events for as long as the policy remained in effect. Private individuals and social organizations, like the American Veterans Committee, produced flyers, distributed leaflets, increased public awareness, and lobbied the University to abandon the policy of segregation.

The American Veterans Committee published the following article on December 12, 1946:

The policy choice which the board of trustees makes today respecting the Lisner Auditorium will be a choice of direction for the George Washington University. It must vitally affect the prestige, as it mirrors the character, of the university, ranging it either among those which look always to the past, accepting things unquestioningly as they are, or among those that face the future, assuming leadership in the communities they serve.

Leadership, we think, is at once the function and the responsibility of a university. It is for this reason, therefore, that we call upon The George Washington University to effect, within its own jurisdiction, a change in the pattern of racial discrimination which disgraces the Capital of the United States.

The university has a peculiarly apt opportunity to do this. Its magnificent new auditorium-the gift of a man who himself belonged to one of those many minorities which have enriched the strain of American life-is bound by no compact with the past. It is committed to no narrow sectarian purpose but rather to the advancement of an art and the enlightenment, as well as the entertainment, of a community. It is free to offer its gifts, as the gifts of art are meant to be offered, to the whole community-to all men regardless of their race, or creed or origin. In doing so, in breaking with a pattern of the past, it will have the full justification of Christian ethics and of democratic doctrine.

As veterans, we have a warranted interest in this matter. For we have lately played a direct part in a mortal struggle against forces dedicated to the proposition that men are created unequal and are born, in accordance with their race, to places of inferiority. As citizens of a free society which we helped to keep free, we have a right, we think, to plead that the mean and ugly practice of racial discrimination be uprooted here.

We address this plea to the trustees of the George Washington University in the hope that they will use the Lisner Auditorium as an instrument of education, not of prejudice. It can serve as a social force. This is a role which the theater, and especially the theater of a university, should fulfill.

Let the Lisner Auditorium be known, then, not merely as another American theater but as a theater for Americans. Community policy has been explained as the reason to justify the practice of discrimination at Lisner Auditorium. But is there a community policy? In all the public schools in the District of Columbia, Negro and white students are segregated into separate buildings. George Washington and Georgetown Universities bar Negro students from matriculating; but American and Catholic Universities have students from both races attending classes jointly, and without any friction. Howard University, a federally subsidized university for Negroes, admits white students.

Constitution Hall and the National Theater have discriminatory policies, but reverse of each other. At Constitution Hall, Negroes may attend all performances given and even may appear in charity exhibitions, but commercial performances by Negroes are forbidden. At the National Theater, no Negroes are admitted as members of the audience, but they may perform on the stage. All government-owned auditoriums, the Public Libraries, the Sylvan Theater and the Watergate do not discriminate because of color. Commercial movie houses are segregated for white and colored patrons, but many white persons attend vaudeville performances at the Negro Howard Theater.

At the beginning of the century, legitimate theaters in Washington admitted Negroes and white equally. In the 1930's, the National Theater opened its doors to Negroes for several productions which had Negroes in the casts. There never were any incidents.

Washington hotels generally follow rigid discriminatory program, but there have been exceptions. The sessions of the School for Political Action Techniques and the Eddie Condon Jazz Concert at the Willard Hotel are examples.

All servicemen's canteens in Washington during the war, except for a Labor Canteen operated by the CIO Women's Auxiliary, were for men of one color only. There, with servicemen and hostesses of both races, no friction developed.

The only conclusion is that there is no consistent or established community policy in respect to racial discrimination. All barriers to colored persons are the personally adopted policies of the managers or owners of the buildings.

Ultimately, the majority of correspondence demanded that the University halt discrimination at Lisner Auditorium and to abandon its practices of desegregation. During the controversy, an overwhelming majority of the editorials in the local newspapers supported desegregation.

On December 12, 1946, the Board of Trustees consulted with President Marvin about the issue of desegregating Lisner auditorium. The following is an excerpt from the minutes of the discussion:

The President advised the Board that the Executive Committee had met on November 14, 1946 to discuss the situation which had arisen in connection with the Lisner Auditorium. The Committee had considered all communications, especially a letter from Trustee Strong; had reviewed the Press comment; and had suggested the appointment of a Committee to advise with the President concerning the best way of meeting the situation.

The President reviewed for the Board briefly the facts which ha had presented to the Executive Committee on November 14, 1946. He stated that the Auditorium had been used in three ways: for university activities, including student productions; for outside attractions which were controlled by the University; and for commercial productions for which the Auditorium was leased and over which the University had no control. In all three uses during the current Fall season the question of racial discrimination had been raised.

The Board then discussed the entire problem and reviewed comununications. Certain letters such as the letter from the Bishop of Washington were read to the Board. The Chairman of the Board stated that he felt the Lisner Auditorium was built primarily for the use of the University and when used for outside activities, the use should be confined ordinarily to educational and cultural activities. After a full discussion the Board decided to take the matter under advisement, but to take no definite action until they had had an opportunity for further consideration of this subject.

The University thereafter allowed African-Americans to attend sponsored events at Lisner Auditorium. When commercial groups leased the theater, however, the University could not guarantee equality in admissions. As a result, discrimination remained in effect at some privately organized events. In 1947 the Board of Trustees decided to admit African-Americans as patrons to Lisner. George Washington University did not desegregate fully until 1954.

Document Information

Images: 3
Photographic Credit: From Strength to Strength; RG0054/Lisner Auditorium
Author or Source: RG0054/Lisner Auditorium; From Strength to Strength; GW Magazine, Fall 1995
Document Location: University Archives
Date Added to Encyclopedia: December 21, 2006
Prepared by: Lyle Slovick;Evan Laney

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