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The creation of the railroad system in the United States is a stirring story of American initiative and enterprise. Every conceivable obstacle stood in the way of the railroad’s success. An apathetic public jeered at early efforts to provide rail transportation; it was difficult to convince them that it was safe or would make a profit. Mechanical difficulties ran all the way from finding engines that would run to perfecting rails, wheels, and signals.
In some eastern locations, tracks were torn up by indignant citizens, and in one city they were declared a public nuisance. A famous newspaper issued a warning that “the use of steam with its train of coaches, its ‘soft effeminate cushions causing easement to bodies and legs,’ would rob passengers of manliness.”
The close relation of railroads to all the people was aptly described by railroad historian Agnes C. Laut in an article in the October 24, 1929, edition of The Daily Republican. Laut noted that the railways can prosper “only as the communities they service prosper and their empires prosper. The well- being of one is bound up in the well-being of the other; and neither can be hurt without hurting the other.”
The first routes where the tracks could be laid were little more than crude trails through thick undergrowth that led west from Boston and New England along the Mohawk Valley to Lake Erie, from Philadelphia and Baltimore across the Appalachians to the Ohio River Valley, and from Virginia and North Carolina to Nashville and Louisville. For more than thirty years, railway tracks were laid without interruption across the country from the late 1820s. By 1850, they crisscrossed many states totaling more than nine thousand miles of tracks. Men from all walks of life and many ethnic backgrounds, from the Chinese to the Irish, carved out sections in the vast grasslands, dense forests, and rolling mountains. Women contributed to the grand effort in many ways, not the least of which was refining the creation and making it suitable for all who hoped to benefit from the revolutionary mode of transportation. Women also played a part in bringing about an end to the discriminating tactic employed by railroad companies.
A great deal was accomplished technologically in a relatively short amount of time in the railroad industry. What didn’t progress as quickly as the advancement in conveyance was the acceptance of the population regardless of race or ethnic background. The less attractive element of railroad development was the creation of the Jim Crow car. The car was identical in structure to other passenger cars but contained a patrician which would separate the races. The section where the Black Americans would sit had no restroom and often times no water fountain.
In 1870 and 1881, the practice of segregating ticket buyers was challenged by two women. In early 1870, Mary Jane Chilton boarded a train in St. Louis with her fifteen-year-old daughter and eight-year-old nephew. The trio were bound for Carondelet, an annexed neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri. With tickets in hand, Mary proceeded to the ladies’ car. A brakeman quickly stepped in front of her and blocked her way. The conductor following behind him approved of his actions. Mary was told that the ladies’ car was not for women of color and was instructed to find a place to sit in the smoker’s car. Men rode in the smoker’s car, most of which smoked and drank while traveling.
Mary didn’t like the smell of smoke, and she was fearful of sitting in a car with strange men. She refused to go and sat down on the steps of the ladies’ car. There she stayed until the conductor physically moved her onto the train platform in front of a crowd of cheering bystanders. The train proceeded on its way, leaving Mary and her family to walk to their destination.
Mary sued the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad Company for $5,000. Not surprisingly, the court found in favor of the railroad. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the ruling and noted the railway companies had the right to make such regulations in regard to the color line.
A similar situation occurred to a family attempting to travel from Kentucky to Cincinnati in August 1881. According to the November 29, 1881, edition of The Courier Journal, Reverend William H. Gray purchased first-class tickets for himself, his wife Selena, and their child to travel on the Cincinnati Southern Railroad. They boarded the train, presented their tickets, and proceeded to the first-class coach. A brakeman stopped them and told them to go to the smoking car. The reverend kindly agreed to go along to the smoking car but pleaded with the railroad conductor to allow his wife and child to ride in the ladies’ car. The conductor refused, and, when pressed for a reason, the reverend was told it was because of his wife’s color. Selena refused to make the trip under the terms offered.
Angry and insulted, the Grays filed suit against the railroad. In an article written by Patricia Minter in the April 1985 edition of the Chicago-Kent Law Review, Gray v. Cincinnati Southern Railroad Company charged that the plaintiff was unlawfully and forcibly prevented from entering the first-class coach solely because she was a woman of color, and as a result was greatly hindered and delayed in her trip, and deprived of her lawful rights as a citizen to accommodations substantially equal to those offered other female passengers of her status.
Selena, Reverend Gray, and a number of other Black Americans met at a church in Cincinnati on November 28, 1881, to discuss the widespread discrimination practiced by many of the railroad companies. At the indignation meeting, a collection was taken to help Selena pay for her attorney and court costs. Those present also created a list of resolutions to make their position known to railroad executives that the adverse behavior toward people of color would no longer be tolerated. The resolutions read as follows:
“Resolved. That we view with indignation the system of outrages perpetrated upon the colored people of Kentucky and other states by the railroads.
“Resolved. That the colored citizens, in mass meetings assembled, do demand first-class fare for colored persons holding first-class tickets.
“We further demand the railroad companies make no discrimination on account of color. We shall hail with delight a verdict in favor of Mrs. Selena Gray, in the suit now pending in the United States Court and we pledge our influence and means in the prosecution of the suit.”
Selena Gray did have her day in court, and, according to the lawsuit she placed her damages at $50,000. The judge hearing the case found in her favor and awarded her $1,000.
Mrs. Belle Smoot didn’t fare as well in court as Selina had. Belle had experienced the same treatment at the hands of the brakeman and conductor on the Kentucky Central Railroad in September 1881. She had paid for accommodations in the first-class car and demanded she be given what she paid for when the railroad officials tried to send her to the smoking car. Belle refused go to the smoking car and was thrown off the train. The September 13, 1881, edition of The Louisville Bulletin called her treatment “a high-handed outrage.” Belle sued the railroad for $10,000.
Rather than sue the railroad on the common-law grounds of not being given what was paid for, Belle sued for damages under the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The Civil Rights Act “guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public transportation and public accommodations and service on juries.” The law also made it a crime for “anyone to facilitate the denial of such accommodations or services on the basis of color, race, or previous condition of servitude.”
When the case came up for hearing in the United States Court at Covington in Kentucky, the counselor who represented the railroad objected to the petition, claiming the United States Court had no jurisdiction in the case because both plaintiff and defendants were residents of the same state. The court agreed that the prohibitions of the Civil Rights Act applied only to state action, not to those individuals such as the conductor or the policy makers of the railroad. The judge offered Belle the opportunity to make an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The decision made in the Smoot case was an important one as it was the first upon the points presented ever rendered in the United States.
Several years would pass before segregation on trains was abolished, but the stand Mary Chilton, Selena Gray, and Belle Smoot took against racial bigotry brought attention to the immoral and inhumane practice.