1947 Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Hotel Stoddard

Posted by Jenny on April 12, 2021

(written by Jenny DeRocher, Archives staff)

In 1946, the United Automobile, Aircraft, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America Local Union 395 (UAW-CIO Union #395) held their Regional Conference in La Crosse, inviting delegates from all over the Midwest. In preparation, one of the conference planners contacted the Stoddard Hotel and made a blanket reservation for 150-200 conference delegates.

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The Stoddard Hotel was located at the southeast corner of 4th and State streets. Today, it is a parking lot surrounded by the State Bank (as you can see on the far right of the photo), the Rivoli, the Post Office, and the Cavalier Theater.


Later, the manager of the Stoddard Hotel, John A. Elliott, recalled the company’s version of the incident:

“At that time we called his attention to the crowded conditions of our hotel and said then we could take care of them only in so far as the delegates would be willing to double and go in larger groups where the rooms were large enough….On the eve of their coming to La Crosse he called and said there woul[d] be an undetermined number of negro delegates and requested housing for them in our hotel. We told him that we would house the delegates, provided they would group themselves, offering the same kind of accommodations we did to anyone else.”


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However, that is not the same experience that these Black American delegates from St. Paul and Chicago recalled. A number of the Black American conference attendees reported to the UAW-CIO regional conference planners that they were crowded into rooms based on their race, with 3+ people assigned to one room. This was despite other rooms being available under that original blanket reservation. Furthermore, white attendees were assigned their own rooms or partnered with one other white conference attendee. They also disclosed in their complaint that they were asked by Stoddard Hotel staff to refrain from using the elevator and the dining room.


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A room at the Stoddard Hotel, 1935.


The UAW-CIO Union #395 was quick to support their conference delegates. They wrote to Elliott, proclaiming, “With a membership of over 750 persons, [we] protest very strongly the discriminator action of your Hotel toward Negro Delegates,” and were quick to back two of the delegates in officially prosecuting the Stoddard Hotel on the basis of racial discrimination. One man, James Tate, was from Chicago and the other, Hilliard Ellis, was from Minneapolis.

During the year-long ordeal, Elliott wrote letters to his friends in the Wisconsin State Hotel Association, looking for support from the state organization. In one letter, he explained that his attorney suspected that the UAW-CIO Union #395’s strong stance was because of their interest in “a grandstand play of the CIO as an overture to the colored element, showing that they are in the fight for their equal rights and intend to do it all the way even though possibly the case may be lost in that regard.”


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Many of Elliott’s letters to his Wisconsin State Hotel Associate friends show his true feelings of the case. In some moments, he used phrases like “My famous Negro case” in a light, mocking tone, and stated multiple times that he felt he had an “airtight case” and was sure he’d come out victorious. Other times, his worry was evident. In one letter to his friend Howard “Ash” Ashworth, he wrote:

“I do think the case is quite important, as my attorney, on a recent trip to Chicago to get depositions from the two plaintiffs, said that [one of their attorneys] Mr. Raskin had, in an unguarded moment during a friendly conversation, said that if it was established that we discriminated against their clients and damages were awarded, that any colored person who had frequented hotels would have a claim against the hotel, if they felt that they were not accorded the exact treatment as whites were, even for past experience [sic]. I do not know how far the statues of limitation would go, but it would seem to me it would cause a great furor and much comment among the colored element. It may cause some hotels a lot of embarrassment. I therefore think that my case is not a colloquial affair.”


In the 1947 circuit court proceedings for the case James Tate v. Northern Hotel Company, the La Crosse Tribune quoted Judge Robert S. Cowie in his ruling statement:

“I am duty bound to give this matter all due respect. There has been evidence presented to show that there was discrimination. This young colored man wouldn’t be here with this prosecution unless there had been a basis for his accusations. It is admitted that Tate did have a reservation made at the hotel…I am satisfied that he was assigned to a room with two other colored men purely because he was colored.

“I regret very much to have to decide this case, that the jury was waived. However, I find that there was discrimination against the plaintiff and he is award damages of $25 and costs.”

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Judge Robert S. Cowie was the sixth Wisconsin circuit judge for 26 years, from 1925-1951.


The companion case of Hilliard Ellis v. Northern Hotel Company, however, was dismissed, as Ellis was unable to attend the trial.

In Elliott’s next letter to his friends at the Wisconsin State Hotel Associate, Elliott quoted Judge Cowie and remarked:

“That was the silliest thing the Judge could have said…I might mention that the Court was filled with CIO enthusiasts and it was definitely a case financed by the CIO.” He went on, “To me this is awfully important to our Association to allow a miscarriage of justice such as this because from now on, any colored person can claim damages on the basis of discrimination if the employee as much as does not smile to a colored person, if he is in the habit of doing so to a white person.”

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Elliott tried to rally the Wisconsin State Hotel Association into backing him, arguing “I do think…that more interest in these things should be taken among hotel men, because sooner or later, they too will have to cope with this.” However, in the end, Elliott and the hotel association chose not to take the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, hoping it would fizzle out of the news rather than causing any sort of stir in the Wisconsin hospitality industry.


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And they were right—the entire case was severely underreported. The La Crosse Tribune even had few articles reporting the case. Searching online newspapers for the time, it seems that no other Wisconsin newspaper printed about the story. In one of his letters, Elliott even mentioned an encounter he had with the editor of the Tribune regarding a piece he wanted to write about racial discrimination in the north compared to the south. In this letter, Elliott said, “I did not think it would do the hotel business any good to keep the issue alive, so [I] talked him out of publishing it.”

However, Black Americans found ways to communicate what hotels were safe while traveling. For example, in 1936, Victor Hugo Green started publishing his famed The Negro Motorist Green Book, which listed hotels and motels that were welcoming and safe for Black Americans. As the publication grew in popularity, Green also included a listing of organizations to contact in each state that could help Black Americans in their travels to stay safe.


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The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1947 edition. La Crosse had no listings in the Green Book in 1947; the first year La Crosse appears in the publication is 10 years later, in 1957. The Stoddard Hotel was never listed in the Green Book through its entire publication, which ended in 1967. The entire Green Book collection is digitized through the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

John A. Elliott was the manager of the Stoddard Hotel for 45 years. His wife, Virginia Baker Elliott, her two sisters, and their mother were all co-owners of the hotel. All four women passed away in the 1950s and left John Elliott as the sole owner. In the 1970s, he sold the hotel off, bought the apartments at 804 Cass St, and renamed them "Elliott Arms." These apartments still stand today.

To find out more about Tate v. Northern Hotel Company and racial discrimination in La Crosse, come into the La Crosse Public Library Archives to look at the manuscript collection in which the documents in this blog are all located. Contact the Archives if you have questions at (608) 789-7136 or archives@lacrosselibrary.org.