April 24, 2017

CONFIDENTIAL: The Jim Crow Elevator Suit

Claude Marchant photographed
by Carl Van Vechten, 1947
This edition of The Confidential looks at a 1948 civil rights lawsuit that began in Tudor City. The press dubs it the "Jim Crow elevator suit," Jim Crow being shorthand for the racial segregation laws then in effect in the South.

The petitioner in the case is Claude Marchant, an up-and-coming African-American dancer. Although only 23, his résumé includes a stint in Katherine Dunham's modern dance troupe, as well as Broadway appearances in the revival of Show Boat and the calypso musical Caribbean Carnival.

In March, 1947, he visits an acquaintance who lives in No. 25. He's turned away from the passenger elevator and told to take the service car ‒ the elevator operator later says he thought Marchant was a delivery boy. When it happens again several months later, Marchant files a racial discrimination lawsuit against the French Company, the owner of No. 25. In May, 1948, he wins a jury award of $1,000, the maximum award under the law. 

Headline from The New York Age, an African-American newspaper founded in 1873.
The French Company appeals, and the verdict is reversed a year later by three Supreme Court judges because the original justice "frequently interfered with direct examination by counsel for the defense's witnesses and followed this by undue cross examination."

The New York Age calls the reversal a "below-the-belt blow at the whole civil rights program for the State and City of New York" and goes on to swat "swank, lily-white" Tudor City.

After the reversal, Claude Marchant forms his own dance troupe and abandons America, touring Europe for several years. One of his last sightings in print is this saucy item from the Bachelor Bits column of Jet magazine,1954.



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