Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy V. Ferguson

Article excerpt

Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. By Blair L. M. Kelley. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 256. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $59.95, cloth; $21.95, paper).

Blair L. M. Kelley's remarkable monograph is the first book on the initial black resistance to laws segregating trains and streetcars. Between 1900 and 1907, African Americans in more than twenty-five southern cities (including Little Rock, Pine Bluff, and Hot Springs) boycotted newlysegregated streetcars. Lasting anywhere from a few weeks to over two years, these boycotts pushed numerous streetcar companies into bankruptcy or to its brink. Widespread participation reduced African-American ridership by as much as ninety percent. In scale and scope, many of these campaigns matched and even surpassed the famous 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott. But unlike that movement, these turn-of-the-century boycotts did not succeed. Even a few apparent victories were only temporary pauses, a skipped beat before white legislators and officials resumed constructing and policing a racially divided society.

Yet Kelley reminds us that the tens of thousands of men and women who boycotted streetcars and supported legal campaigns to challenge Jim Crow laws did not know how this story would end; they did not see de jure segregation as inevitable. Furthermore, the comparatively rich source material on their protests provides "a unique opportunity to understand popular black thought at the turn of the twentieth century" (p. 11). To this end, Kelley has constructed detailed case studies of anti-segregation campaigns in four cities: antebellum New York and turn-of-thecentury New Orleans, Richmond, and Savannah. These local histories expose the class and ideological cleavages that undercut anti-segregation organizing. But they also shed new light on the breadth of working-class participation, concerns for black women's safety, the import of black women's leadership, and the diversity of perspectives among boycott organizers.

Following the abolition of slavery, access to public transportation became "a test of the quality and character of black citizenship" (p. 16). In the antebellum North, where segregation originated, and the post-Civil War South, the status of African-American passengers was often unstable, subject to the varying rules of railroad companies, attitude (and sobriety) of white passengers, and the whims of streetcar conductors. Yet even with these inconsistencies, public conveyances remained comparatively democratic spaces. As such, they became the first targets of politicians seeking to legislate black subordination.

Chapters one through three of Right to Ride follow black citizens down their first avenue of resistance to discriminatory laws and policies: courts and federal regulators. In New York City, segregation was a matter of company policy rather than law. Despite decisions by the state supreme court in the mid-1850s affirming black citizens' right to ride all public conveyances, black New Yorkers struggled to compel streetcar companies to respect the verdicts. Black southern passengers who faced similar mistreatment in the 1880s (most famously Ida B. Wells) turned to the state courts and the Interstate Commerce Commission with mixed results. The following decade, numerous southern state legislatures passed separate coach laws, testing the waters before passing other Jim Crow statutes. As the New Orleans case study illustrates, black resistance to this new regime was complicated by the impact of new voting restrictions and judicial indifference to black citizenship rights. Each effort-political organizing to defeat the proposed separate coach law, the campaign to test its constitutionality (resulting in the 1896 Plessy v. …