This Day in History

April 17, 1863: Charlotte Brown Forced Off Streetcar

Time Periods: 19th Century, Civil War Era: 1850 - 1864
Themes: African American, Democracy & Citizenship, Women's History

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. Read a detailed description in the KQED Rebel Girls from the Bay Area series. Here is an excerpt:

Charlotte was not one to go quietly however, thanks in large part to the way her tenacious parents had raised her. Her father, James E. Brown was a co-founder of the Bay Area’s first African-American newspaper, Mirror of the Times, and an outspoken abolitionist.

Charlotte and her father decided to take action by bringing a lawsuit against Omnibus Railroad, an extraordinarily brave movie, given that it had only been a matter of months since African Americans in California had gained the right to testify against white people in court. During the case, Omnibus defended its racist policies, arguing that people of color should not be permitted to ride streetcars in case they made white women and children feel “fearful or repulsed.”

While Charlotte ultimately won the case and was awarded $25 and costs, appeals by Omnibus kept her tied up in court for months. The end result saw her award sum reduced to just five cents, the cost of Charlotte’s original ticket. What’s more, the case did not change Omnibus policy. Just days after the first case was finally over, Charlotte was removed from another Omnibus streetcar.

Charlotte and her father went straight back to court, this time finding themselves arguing in front of a very sympathetic judge. Judge Orville C. Pratt of the 12th District Court deemed segregation “barbaric” and awarded Charlotte $500. Read more.

Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mary Ellen Pleasant

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 was a longtime foe of segregation, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and leading financial supporter of abolitionist John Brown. She 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.