Before Rosa Parks: Taking on New York’s Segregated Street Car Companies

Post written by Eric Robinson 

The corner of Pearl & Chatham St. Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1861.

So much has been written about the struggle against slavery and segregation in the American south that it is easy to forget that race relations in the north have been just as knotty. It is comparatively unknown that nineteenth-century New York City’s public transportation systems were racially segregated: African-Americans were forced to ride on specially designated horse-drawn street cars. Integration came about only slowly. Newspapers carried occasional reports of resistance to the policies by members of the African-American community, but the issue was never given a wider, systematic hearing. 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, made a mockery of 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, perhaps garnering a degree of public sympathy. In her case Police Commissioner Thomas Acton offered stirring testimony concerning a police officer who aided a conductor in removing Anderson from the street car:

It was his duty to preserve the peace, and there was no breach of the peace until he broke it. It was rather his duty to have arrested the conductor than the woman, if he was breaking the peace. He didn’t care what he supposed; he ought to exhibit some common sense in these matters. 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, but 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 has largely been forgotten, but several historians are shedding new light on the daunting and courageous struggles of Ellen Anderson, Thomas Downing, and Thomas and Elizabeth Jennings and their community. Root and Branch by Graham Hodges, In the Shadow of Slavery by Leslie Harris, African or American? by Leslie Alexander, Black Gotham by Carla Peterson, and contributors to the Historical Society’s Slavery in New York catalog, including Shane White and Craig Wilder, begin to tell the story and help us find lessons for our 21st century world.


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