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The National Theatre first opened in 1835 and has been in continuous operation since. White theater managements consistently excluded black audiences until public protest forced the management to change its discriminatory policies. During the first half of the 20th century, African Americans sporadically protested their exclusion, particularly from shows that featured black actors on the stage. In 1935 one of the earliest pre-New York productions of Porgy and Bess was scheduled to be performed before the white-only audiences. Political scientist Ralph Bunche, actor Todd Duncan, composer George Gershwin, and others organized to force the theater to admit African Americans. The theater did so, but went back to its segregationist policy once the show had closed.

In the years immediately following World War II, many more battles were fought to desegregate Washington's schools, theaters, restaurants, and other public accommodations. In 1946 the Dramatists Guild announced it would not allow its plays to be produced in Washington theaters that practiced race discrimination. The next year Actor's Equity, the union of actors, refused to let members appear in theaters that practiced segregation or exclusion. The biracial Committee for Racial Democracy organized pickets to protest. Rather than admit all patrons while other theaters continued to discriminate, the theater closed in 1948, and its owners re-opened it soon after as a movie house. In 1952 the National reopened as a legitimate theater welcoming all audiences.

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