Tucked away in a corner of the L-shaped Republican Cloakroom reserved for Members of Congress, a hard-working, modest woman ran a cramped lunch counter in the U.S. Capitol. Part of a world built upon power and influence, Helen Sewell did not use her position for political gain, but focused instead on caring for the people she considered family for more than 70 years. “You’ve won your way into our hearts,” Representative Paul Henry of Michigan once told Sewell, “and helped keep this institution human when the going gets rough.”
Born in Washington, D.C., on September 2, 1917, Helen Sewell’s roots in the U.S. Capitol ran deep. Her father, Benjamin Franklin Jones, was part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban centers like DC. He traveled from Illinois to the nation’s capital in 1907 to check hats and coats at the U.S. House. To pass the time during the lulls of lengthy House sessions, Jones sold coffee and fruit to Members. Before long he carved out a small section of the cloakroom to sell homemade sandwiches, soups, and snacks. As business flourished, Jones brought his daughter Helen along to assist him. Only in high school at the time, Helen worked alongside her dad after school and during the summer, bringing a “woman’s touch” that Jones thought previously had been lacking in the cloakroom.
When her father died in 1946, Helen Sewell took his place in the family business. In an institution steeped in tradition, Sewell made few changes to the cloakroom lunch counter. By adopting her father’s adage, “men liked heavy sandwiches,” Sewell built a loyal following among Members and staff. She also put her own individual stamp on the job, greeting everyone with a smile, and learning the favorites of each customer in the cloakroom. She proudly recalled how Jerry Ford, a longtime House Member and Republican Leader who went on to become President, loved her cottage cheese with Worcestershire sauce. Friendly service and special attention became the hallmark of Sewell’s establishment.
The cozy cloakroom environment suited Sewell. In an era before televised debates, large staff, and hectic travel schedules, Members met in these spaces off the House Floor away from the limelight. Much like a family gathered around the dinner table, Members swapped stories between votes and discussed legislative strategies during crucial debates. In a rare safe spot away from prying eyes and ears, Members trusted Sewell and relied on her discretion.
Sewell’s nurturing temperament and devotion to the well-being of her customers was legendary. Spouses of Members, for example, often asked her to monitor the consumption of sweets and cigarettes (which she gladly did) of their loved ones. Sewell took these requests to heart, eventually removing pie from her menu to keep the Republican Representatives who dashed in and out of the cloakroom from gaining too much weight. “But they love those Klondike bars,” she admitted. “They can’t stay away from those.”
Sewell’s dedication to the institution she served extended beyond Members of Congress. She cared for the House Pages who ran messages and helped with House proceedings like a bunch of cubs in need of a surrogate mother bear. Teenagers working in the pressure-packed Capitol, many living away from home for the first time, found comfort and a friendly face in Sewell. From her anchor in the cloakroom, she served Pages her famous roast beef sandwiches, all while providing practical advice on how to live and work in D.C. Frank Mitchell, the first African-American House Page of the 20th century, gravitated toward Sewell. Mitchell sensed a special connection with the black woman who fed him hefty meals and snacks—a welcome respite for Pages who logged long days at school and work. “I actually felt it was something she went out of her way to do for me, since I was black,” Mitchell observed of Sewell’s watchful eye.
In 1982, the House recognized Sewell’s exceptional service with the John McCormack Award of Excellence for employees. Members and staff praised Sewell’s devotion to the institution. More than her reliable service, though, Sewell won favor by making connections with people she met during her long career. “You’ve been like a mom to me,” one House staffer noted. Representative Amo Houghton of New York showed his gratitude for Sewell’s contributions to the House by buying her a red neon sign for the cloakroom that read, Café Helen.
As testament to Sewell’s popularity, former Members returning to the Capitol routinely stopped by to visit and chat with their friend. An “A list” of influential politicians, including former Presidents and cabinet members, sought out Sewell, a woman whom they called a “living legend” on the Hill despite the fact that she had no political aspirations, much less formal influence. Battling bad health, she reluctantly stepped away from her cloakroom position in 2005. Less than a year later, on July 18, 2006, Sewell passed away.
Throughout her storied career, Sewell touched the lives of those she fondly considered her family. People on both sides of the aisle mourned the loss of their friend, but held warm memories of a woman who left an enduring mark on the House, and earned a place in the hearts of countless Members and staff.
Sources: Congressional Record, 79th Cong., 2nd sess., 15 April 1946; Congressional Record, 101st Cong., 2nd sess., 7 March 1990; Congressional Record, 102nd Cong., 1st sess., 13 March 1991; Roll Call, 24 July 2006.Follow @USHouseHistory