This Day in History

April 17, 1863: Charlotte Brown Forced Off Streetcar

Time Periods: Civil War Era: 1850 - 1864
Themes: African American, Democracy & Citizenship, Women's History
Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mary Ellen Pleasant

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, Ms. 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, an African American, was stopped from boarding a street car. 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 supporter of John Brown, brought suit against San Francisco street car companies–when she was ejected in 1866–and after two years of court battles the lines were desegregated. 

Thanks to William Loren Katz for this story. Katz is author of Black Indians and 40 other books.