On April 25, 1965, three teenagers staged a sit-in at Dewey’s Restaurant in Center City, Philadelphia (219 South 17th Street). They were protesting the restaurant’s multiple denials of service based on sexual orientation, gender expression, and cultural nonconformity.
Reports at the time referred specifically to the restaurant’s discriminatory denials of service to “homosexuals,” “masculine women,” “feminine men,” and “persons wearing non-conformist clothing.”
After a restaurant manager contacted the police, the three teenagers who staged the sit-in were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct. Clark Polak, a local gay activist, who was the president of the Janus Society and the editor of Drum magazine, offered to help obtain a lawyer for the three protesters. He also was arrested for disorderly conduct.
Over the next five days, Janus Society activists and their supporters, led by Robert L. Sitko, demonstrated outside the restaurant and distributed 1500 fliers to passersby.
On May 2, three patrons staged a second sit-in at Dewey’s after they were denied service. This time, the police made no arrests and the patrons left the restaurant after approximately four hours.
Janus Society activists later reported that the sit-ins and demonstrations were successful in preventing further arrests, ending “indiscriminate denials of service” at the restaurant and showing the “homosexual community” that the Society was “prepared to intercede in helping to solve these problems.”
Drum magazine called it “the first sit-in of its kind in the history of the United States.”
Details Remain Unknown
There is much that we do not know about the Dewey’s sit-in. The Janus Society and Drum reported that the three teenagers who began the sit-in included two males and one female. But they have not been identified and we do not know much more about them. We do not know much more about the three people who staged the second sit-in, the customers who were denied service, or the activists who participated in the demonstration.
Clark Polak reported in Drum that “the trouble began…when a small group of rowdy teenagers began using the restaurant for a meeting and camping home.” The magazine referred to the restaurant’s “refusal to serve a large number of homosexuals and persons wearing non-conforming clothing.”
Janus Society’s Newsletter
The Janus Society’s newsletter provided further hints about the gender and sexual politics at play in the incidents at Dewey’s when it declared,
All too often, there is a tendency to be concerned with the rights of homosexuals as long as they somehow appear to be heterosexual, whatever that is. The masculine woman and the feminine man often are looked down upon by the official policy of homophile organizations, but the Janus Society is concerned with the worth of an individual and the manner in which she or he comports himself. What is offensive today we have seen become the style of tomorrow, and even if what is offensive today remains offensive tomorrow to some persons, there is no reason to penalize such non-conformist behavior unless there is direct anti-social behavior connected it.
Letter to the Editor
Another clue comes from a letter to the editor published in Drum a few months after the magazine reported on the sit-in. According to D. E. of New York, “I, too, was not served at Dewey’s…. Four girls and I had just come from services at church, planning to eat breakfast. None of us had ever been to Philly before but were told: ‘Don’t you remember last night? I told you then we don’t serve you people here.’”
Mainstream newspapers apparently did not report on the Dewey’s sit-ins or demonstrations. Police reports on the incident have not been found. The Janus Society newsletter reported that one local television station provided a news report, but this has not been found.
Historians have shown that the Dewey’s restaurants in Center City, especially the ones on 13th and 17th Streets, had significant LGBT patronage. The 17th Street Dewey’s was near Rittenhouse Square, which was popular among LGBT Philadelphians in the 1950s and 1960s. This Dewey's was located within several blocks of a large number of LGBT bars, clubs, coffeehouses, and restaurants in Philadelphia’s Center City.
Racially Diverse Group
We also know that the Philadelphia police routinely abused, arrested, and harassed LGBT people who congregated in and around these sites. Oral histories conducted in the 1990s indicate that the Dewey’s restaurants on 13th and 17th Streets were frequented in the 1950s and 1960s by a racially diverse group of patrons, including LGBT and non-LGBT people, drag queens, and sex workers.
50th Anniversary Commemoration
This feature was developed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Dewey’s sit-in, an important episode in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender mobilization and radicalization in the 1960s.
The feature has four parts:
First are four primary sources from 1965: (1) the Janus Society April flier distributed during the demonstrations at Dewey’s; (2) the Janus Society Newsletter’s May report on the sit-ins and demonstrations; (3) Drum magazine’s August report on the protests; and (4) a letter to the editor, published in Drum in November, which referred to denials of service at Dewey’s.
Second are excerpts of five oral histories that reference the 1965 Dewey’s protests, including one in which a Philadelphia lesbian talks about participating in the demonstrations.
Third are photographs of Dewey’s and the 1965 protests.
Fourth is a bibliography of secondary books and articles by scholars and journalists (including John D’Emilio, me, Susan Stryker, Bob Skiba, and Ray Simon) who have discussed the 1965 Dewey’s sit-ins and demonstrations.