[Chapter 04] Under Color of Law: The Fight for Racial Equality

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By 1863 African Americans had won their right to testify in court, and a few years later, Mary Ellen Pleasant and Charlotte Brown exercised that right when they sued two San Francisco streetcar companies over segregation.

Charlotte L. Brown was well known in San Francisco's African American community: her mother, Charlotte Brown, born a free woman in Baltimore, had worked as a seamstress to buy the freedom of her husband, James. When the couple moved to San Francisco, James opened a stable and cofounded Mirror of the Times, one of the first African American newspapers in the state. An antislavery crusader, Brown also raised funds for Archy Lee.

"Colored Persons are not allowed"

As the sun was setting on April 17, 1863, Brown left her residence for a doctor's appointment on Howard Street. When the Omnibus Railroad car stopped on Filbert Street, she entered from the rear platform. There were only three other passengers, and she took a seat midway down the car. A conductor ordered her off. As Brown recalled, "I told him I had been in the habit of riding ever since the cars had been running. He answered, colored persons are not allowed to ride and I would have to get out."

Brown refused to leave. For three more stops, the conductor tried to eject her.

Finally, Brown recalled, "He took hold of me, by the left arm, somewhere. I made no resistance as he had taken me by the arm. I knew it was of no use to resist, and therefore I went out, and he kept hold of me until I was out of the car, holding on to me until I struck the walk."

Another Lawsuit

Encouraged by her father, Brown sued the company for two hundred dollars. In response to the lawsuit, Omnibus Railroad justified its conductor's action by arguing that racial segregation was necessary to protect white women and children who might be fearful of riding side by side with an African American, an argument that was commonly used to justify segregation. But in November 1863, a San Francisco superior court judge rejected this reasoning and awarded Brown damages of five cents (the streetcar fare) plus legal costs.

Racist cartoon responding to Charlotte Brown court victoryRacist cartoon responding to Charlotte Brown court victoryHer success in court, though, did not immediately translate into change. Within days of the judgment, another streetcar conductor forced Brown and her father from a car. The tenacious Brown brought another lawsuit. And in October 1864, District Court Judge C. C. Pratt ruled that San Francisco streetcar segregation was illegal. He stated:

Mary Ellen PleasantMary Ellen PleasantIt has been already quite too long tolerated by the dominant race to see with indifference the negro or mulatto treated as a brute, insulted, wronged, enslaved, made to wear a yoke, to tremble before white men, to serve him as a tool, to hold property and life at his will, to surrender to him his intellect and conscience, and to seal his lips and belie his thought through dread of the white man's power. A jury awarded Brown five hundred dollars, a tenth of the five thousand she had sought in damages. The judgment generated racist editorials in the San Francisco papers. And despite the legal victory, African Americans in the city still wound up walking to their destinations after streetcar drivers refused to stop for them.

One of them was Mary Ellen Pleasant. In 1866, three years after Charlotte Brown's lawsuits, a conductor on the North Beach Municipal Railroad refused to pick up the tall, middle-aged woman. She sued, and a jury awarded Pleasant five hundred dollars in punitive damages. The streetcar company appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court. The high court ruled streetcar exclusion based on race was unlawful, but it also rescinded the damage payment to Pleasant, since there was no proof "to show willful injury," or any proof that the streetcar company had a policy of excluding blacks.  The lawsuits succeeded in changing the racist practice: no more stories about streetcar exclusion appeared in the local black press, which had reported all such incidents vigilantly. In 1893 the legislature enacted a statewide prohibition on streetcar segregation and exclusion.

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