Protesting the Black Codes: The Streetcar

Before we dive in, a brief descriptor of “Black Codes.” They were restrictive laws that were designed to limit the freedom of African Americans. Largely, they were created as a way to the continued availability of a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished. This set of laws was applied blanketly to both freemen of color and freedmen; that is, those that were born free before the Civil War and those that were freed after it. Around four million African Americans had been given their freedom but the postwar South left many questions surrounding their social status. This lead to the creation of the Black Codes which, in many places, required Black people to sign yearly labor contracts or, for the previously free people, even find white sponsors to vouch for their character. Failing to comply with these codes meant arrests, fines, or even being forced into unpaid labor. (Pictured above: A free Black man being sold to pay his fine. Monticello, FL, 1867. ) Again, these codes were indiscriminately applied to all black people including those that were biracial and/or were freemen before the war; this will be important in a moment.

Contrary to popular belief, there were integrated areas antebellum. These places, namely New Orleans, LA, and Charleston, SC, saw color lines blurred quite openly. A person of even the darkest complexion could have all the rights of a white person based on their family ties rather than their skin color. That was, however, when New Orleans was controlled by France and Spain and Charleston still had strong ties to the Caribbean. It wasn’t until the Union took over these places during the Civil War that the old racial binary was truly enforced. Freemen and freedmen were lumped together as “Blacks” and the people that were born free antebellum lost a great deal of privileges as the “one drop rule” became prevalent. The “one drop rule” was the thought that a single “drop” of African American blood made one wholly Black in the eyes of the law and society. There were groups of mixed race people that formed in an effort to fight to regain their lost rights like the Brown Fellowship Society in Charleston and the Creoles of Color or Gens de couleur libres (free persons of color) in New Orleans. There is a lot of interesting history surrounding these groups, their creation, and their fight for equality but that’s for a whole other post. The important part for now is that they existed and, antebellum, enjoyed the rights of full citizens.

When most Americans think of civil rights laws and protests they likely think of the 1950s and ’60s. We all know the story of Ms. Rosa Parks’ and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that ensued but the story of transportation integration really began in the 1860s. Streetcars had been an issue for people of color in New Orleans since their implementation in the 1820s. A few rail companies operated Black-only cars sometimes demarcated with a black star. However, “Star Cars”, as they came to be known, were few and far between. After the Union occupation of New Orleans in 1862, General Benjamin F. Butler ordered that the streetcar lines be desegregated but rail companies complained and it didn’t stick. Butler’s successor, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, was able to persuade the rail companies to allow African American soldiers to ride white-only streetcars in 1864 but this did little to help other African Americans. One spokesman is quoted as saying it was “a shame that a colored solider be received in the cars, and his mother be expelled.”

In 1865, there was some progress made, at least temporarily, when General E. R. S. Canby, Banks’ superior, issued an order that stated that “the attempt to enforce police laws or regulations that discriminate against negroes by reason of color, or their former condition of slavery…will not be permitted.” In essence, this made all streetcars fair game for whomever wanted to ride them, star or no. Unfortunately, the rail companies took to the courts and, a mere two weeks later, the edict was nullified as it “infringed upon the basic right of a private corporation to refuse service to any group or individual it desired.” Then came the Civil Rights Act of 1866, one year postbellum, which declared that all people (males at least) born in the United States were thus citizens and had certain inalienable rights and enjoy the full protection of federal law without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude. One might think that this would aid in the fight for streetcar equality as the star cars were incompatible with the Act.

Alas, the streetcar segregation controversy continued coming to a head during the spring of 1867 when it became the focal point of racial unrest. Fearing a race war, federal authorities asked anyone who felt their rights had been violated to file a formal complaint. Such a complaint was filed with the Freedmen’s Bureau on April 17 by Mary P. Bowers, an African American Charlestonian, when she was asked to leave a whites-only car despite claiming that she had ridden such cars many times before. Little is known about Bowers but it seems likely that, based on her claims and description, she was mixed-race and born free antebellum and had enjoyed the privileges that came with that. It was also likely that she had been chosen by local activists to make a test case in the courts to force the Reconstruction authorities’ hand. The following Monday, a representative of the Freedmen’s Bureau wrote to the president of the Charleston City Railway Company informing him that “public carriers have no right to exclude individuals from their conveyances on account of color.” The company stalled for time citing court cases in other Southern cities that ultimately ended with the creation of star cars but such half-measures wouldn’t fly.

Frustrations were growing in New Orleans as they followed the news out of Charleston. On April 28, William Nichols, an African American man in New Orleans, took a seat upon a whites-only streetcar. He was physically removed from said seat by Edward Cox and arrested for “breach of peace.” The charges were dropped and Nichols took Cox to court, suing him for assault and battery. The rail companies, determined to retain segregation, but also eager to avoid lawsuits, settled on a policy of “passive resistance.” Streetcars boarded by Black riders would simply stop, and drivers were ordered to wait the activists out. This new policy was tested by P. Ducloslange, a Creole of Color, on May 3 when he boarded a whites-only car and refused to budge. The driver, as instructed, refused to move as well which resulted in an hours-long endurance battle that left just the two men on the car. Eventually, Ducloslange gave in and left the car; empty but victorious, the car started on its way again. That wasn’t the end of the protests though, that weekend would see more.

As long as the star cars rolled, the chance of protest loomed over any whites-only streetcar that dared to enter the Creole wards. The Friday after the passive resistance policy was adopted, Joseph Guillaume, young Creole of Color, boarded a whites-only car and, upon being told to leave, he stole the reins of the horse drawn streetcar and drove it down the street himself. (Pictured above: A horse drawn streetcar in New Orleans.) Guillaume was eventually cornered and taken into custody. A mob grew, “squads of colored men, fifteen or twenty in a gang, armed with clubs” a police officer reported, jumping on passing cars and threatening their drivers.

In Charleston, on May 3, the Charleston City Railway Company’s board of directors gathered passing a resolution that “the cars be thrown open to the public, and that instruction be given to the several conductors to recognize the right of all persons to ride therein.” On Sunday, May 5, the unrest in New Orleans came to a head. Despite threats made against the streetcars, the rail companies kept them running. Roughly 500 protesters began to amass on Congo Square, the main African American public space, taking up positions on either side of Rampart Street. As star cars came by, the protesters encouraged riders of color to get off and join them. When whites-only cars showed up African American riders hopped aboard. The police finally came brandishing weapons to intimidate the crowd. This is when the mayor, Edward Heath, appeared and tried to calm the protestors stating that there was no need for violence, peaceful protest is the right of every American citizen.

The next morning, the presidents of the various companies met to discuss next moves. Major General Philip Sheridan, federal official, gave the executives an ultimatum: “Erase your stars and make all your buses open to all.” With the previous night’s unrest fresh in their minds, they saw little alternative but to cave in to the demands. Hours later, the official word was out that the streetcars would now be open to everyone. When Nichols arrived in court that Wednesday his case was already won and there was no need to move forward so he dropped the charges. Within days, the stars on the star cars had been painted over. In Charleston the change seemed to happen and be accepted overnight. In New Orleans, however, it was a little slower going as Black riders still seemed to segregate themselves (supposedly) though white riders were said to have taken to the change rather quickly (supposedly). Success! But it was not to last, bills to segregate cars were defeated in 1894 and 1900 but they were desegregated by state law in 1902 this time by moveable screens within the same car.

Bardes, John. 2018. “The New Orleans Streetcar Protests Of 1867”. We’re History.

Brook, Daniel. 2019. The Accident Of Color. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Fischer, Roger A. “A Pioneer Protest: The New Orleans Street-Car Controversy of 1867.” The Journal of Negro History 53, no. 3 (1968): 219-33. Accessed May 28, 2021. doi:10.2307/2716217.

Gates, Henry Louis. 2019. Stony The Road. Penguin Publishing Group.

“How The Black Codes Limited African American Progress After The Civil War”. 2021. HISTORY.

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