Elmer Henderson; Helped Desegregate Train Dining Cars


Elmer W. Henderson, a civil rights activist whose case before the Supreme Court ended segregation in railway dining cars in 1950, has died. He was 88.

The retired general counsel of the House Government Operations Committee, Henderson died of congestive heart failure Tuesday at a Washington nursing home.

Henderson spent eight years challenging both the practice of the Southern Railway restricting and segregating African Americans using its dining cars and the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission to approve such a rule. He had been denied service in 1942 while traveling between Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Ala., as a field representative for the wartime President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practices.


The railroad at the time allotted 10 tables for white travelers and one for black travelers and separated the races with a curtain. Segregation had been legal for much of the country’s history in schools, restaurants, theaters and other public places. Henderson’s attorneys asked the court to strike down the ruling in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case that in 1896 had established the principle of separate but equal facilities.

By 1949, the federal government had joined Henderson in his fight, asking the court to put an end to this “constitutional anachronism, which no longer deserves a place in our law.”

Arguments in the case were made before a courtroom packed with civil rights advocates, Washington society figures, including the wife of then-Vice President Alben W. Barkley, and others eager to see history in the making.

The Supreme Court ruled that segregation in dining cars violated the Interstate Commerce Act, under which it was unlawful for a railroad in interstate commerce to subject a passenger to undue or unreasonable disadvantage. After his victory, Henderson said the next target would be railroad and bus company waiting rooms, which took longer to desegregate.

Henderson was a native of Baltimore and a graduate of Morgan State University. He received a master’s degree in political sociology from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Georgetown University.

He devoted much of his early career to the civil rights movement and later taught sociology and political science at Howard University.

He worked during the 1940s as Midwest regional director for the Fair Employment Committee, formed after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an order banning discrimination in employment in government and in defense industries.

The committee was responsible for the wartime integration of thousands of black workers in plants, factories and other services, an employment picture that changed after the war when defense jobs closed. But during the war, the committee helped move the country closer to a national fair employment policy. After the war, Henderson was executive secretary of a national council that pushed for a permanent fair employment panel.

From 1948 to 1955, he directed the American Council on Human Rights, an organization of seven major fraternities and sororities that lobbied for civil rights advancement. He was an advisor to Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson when he ran for president in 1956.

In 1955, Henderson was appointed legal counsel to the Government Operations Committee, the principal investigative body of the House. He was later named general counsel and retired in 1982.

Survivors include his wife of 46 years, Ethel Earlene Cobb of Washington, and three children.