Months after San Francisco’s horse-powered street car companies during the Civil War dispatched their street cars—with orders to only accept white passengers—African American citizens began to directly challenge this discrimination.
On April 17, 1863, Charlotte Brown, a young African American woman from a prominent family, boarded a street car and was forced off. Determined to assert her rights, Brown boarded street cars twice more and twice more was ejected by the year’s end. Each time she began a legal suit against the company.
In May 1863, William Bowen was stopped from boarding a street car because he was an African American. He brought a civil suit and a criminal assault suit. Their legal actions came after the African American community’s successful campaign to remove the state’s ban on court testimony by African Americans. Lifting this ban opened the legal system to challenges by African Americans in the state.
Mary Ellen Pleasant, a longtime foe of segregation and leading financial supporter of abolitionist John Brown, brought suit against San Francisco street car companies–when she was ejected in 1866.
After two years of court battles, the lines were desegregated.
Find many more stories in the online collection Transportation Protests: 1841 to 1992.
Thanks to William Loren Katz, author of Black Indians, for this story.