“NO WHITE PEOPLE ALLOWED IN ZOO TODAY”

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These black and white photographs, taken by Ernest Withers, depict the entrance to a Memphis zoo. At front and center is a sign reading “NO WHITE PEOPLE ALLOWED IN ZOO TODAY.” Behind it, several African Americans can be seen in the zoo.

(Photo by Ernest Withers)

The nascent civil rights movement that photographer Ernest Withers witnessed in Montgomery and Little Rock was developing in Memphis. African Americans were only allowed to visit the Memphis public zoo one day a week. Actually, black domestics were allowed in the Overton Park zoo six days a week as long as they were chaperoning white children. Thursdays, called “maid’s day off,” was just for blacks.

(Photo by Ernest Withers)

In 1959, O.Z. Evers and the black Binghampton Civic League filed a lawsuit in federal court to open the zoo, the city’s Brooks Memorial Art Gallery and the Memphis Museum every day of the week. The city claimed, “the incidence of violence, vandalism and disorders among visitors to the parks of the city of Memphis is greatly increased in those parks frequented by Negro citizens.” More police would needed, and the costs would be prohibitive.

Despite the tepid answer, the federal lawsuit moved slowly. But in late 1960, the park commission decided to desegregate the zoo, the art museum and Memphis Museum.

(Photos by Ernest C. Withers)

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