For much of the 19th century, New York City’s public transportation was racially segregated, and African Americans were forced to ride on specially designated horse-drawn street cars. Newspapers documented acts of resistance to these policies of segregation by members of the African American community, some of whom took the street car companies to court. Three examples are cited here.
On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, an African American teacher and organist on her way to the First Colored American Congregational Church on East Sixth Street, hailed a street car of the Third Avenue Railroad line at the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets. The car did not carry the requisite sign reading “Colored People Allowed in This Car,” but the driver pulled over to allow Jennings and a companion to board. However the conductor, who was responsible for collecting fares, physically blocked Jennings from entering the car once she stepped on the platform, and an altercation ensued.
The conflicting signals given by the driver, who pulled over to let Jennings on, and the conductor, who stopped her from boarding, show just how arbitrarily segregation was enforced at the time. By her own account published in the New York Tribune a few days later, Jennings stated that the police officer called to the scene sided with the conductor, even though she was one that had been assaulted.
Jennings’s father, a prominent business man, and other African American community leaders formed a Legal Rights Association and sued the Third Avenue Railroad. Under the legal guidance of future U.S. president Chester Arthur, Jennings won damages and the line was ordered desegregated. However, the decision did not apply to all of the city’s street car lines, which were individually owned and operated (this was long before the unified Metropolitan Transportation Authority came into existence). Each line had to be challenged separately.
In an effort to avoid confrontations like the one between Elizabeth Jennings and the Third Avenue Line’s conductor, the Sixth Avenue Railroad increased the number of its cars available to African Americans beginning in October 1854.
However, in 1855, Thomas Downing, a well-known African American caterer, challenged the Sixth Avenue Line’s segregated system by daring anyone to stop him (he was 64) from riding uptown. He was followed by a band of determined supporters who pushed the car forward when the driver refused to go.
In June, 1864 a Civil War widow named Ellen Anderson won another important case, this time against the Eighth Avenue Railroad. She had been evicted from a segregated car while wearing mourning clothes for her husband, a sergeant in the 26th Colored Regiment who had died in South Carolina, garnering a degree of public sympathy. Anderson brought a suit against the police officer who had aided a conductor in removing Anderson from the street car. Police Commissioner Thomas Acton rebuked the officer:
It was his duty to preserve the peace, and there was no breach of the peace until [the conductor] broke it. It was rather his duty to have arrested the conductor than the woman, if he was breaking the peace… There was no law against these people riding the cars, and they had no right to make such a law; nor was there any order requiring policemen to do the work of the conductors.”
The company’s director also criticized the conductor from the witness stand, and the Eighth Avenue Railroad desegregated all of its cars. One week later, the Sixth Avenue line announced their street cars would no longer have segregated cars. However, segregation in New York’s street cars wouldn’t be comprehensively prohibited by the state legislature until 1873.
The story of New York City’s 19th century African American civil rights activists is one that deserves to be more widely known. The work of several historians, among them Graham Hodges (Root and Branch), Leslie Harris (In the Shadow of Slavery), Leslie Alexander (African or American?), and Carla Peterson (Black Gotham), sheds light on the daunting and courageous struggles of Ellen Anderson, Thomas Downing, and Thomas and Elizabeth Jennings and their community, and affords instructive lessons for our 21st century world.
This is an edited version of a post written by Eric Robinson and published on this blog July 2012.