In the late 1800s it had long been an acute source of humiliation for Washington D.C.’s African Americans, that all Blacks, including women, children and the elderly, were routinely prohibited from riding in the city’s streetcars, and were forced to stand on the exterior platforms in the rear of the car or up front “with the horses.” No exception was made for inclement weather either, as Major Alexander Augusta, the head of Freedmens Hospital, discovered to his dismay.
During and immediately after the Civil War, Sojourner Truth, Alexander Augusta, Senator Charles Sumner, and others challenged the segregated streetcar system in the District. . In her Book of Life editor Francis Titus recounts several physical confrontations:
. . .[Sojourner], having occasion to ride [upon the city streetcars], signaled the car, but neither conductor nor driver noticed her. Soon another followed, and she raised her hand again, but they also turned away. She then gave three tremendous yelps, ‘I want to ride! I want to ride!! I WANT TO RIDE!!! Consternation seized the passing crowd–people, carriages, go-carts of every description stood still. The car was effectually blocked up, and before it could move on, Sojourner had jumped aboard. Then there arose a great shout from the crowd, ‘Ha! ha! ha!! She has beaten him,’ &c. The angry conductor told her to go forward where the horses were, or he would put her out. Quietly seating herself, she informed him that she was a passenger. ‘Go forward where the horses are, or I will throw you out,” said he in a menacing voice. She told him that she was neither a Marylander nor a Virginian to fear his threats; but was from the Empire State of New York, and knew the laws as well as he did . . . .
Black Washingtonians waged a long battle to defeat this form of racial discrimination. Sumner was able to pass legistation or insert language prohibiting racial segregation on streetcars in the charters of streetcar companies several times between 1863 and 1865, but many street car companies and operators ignored the prohibition.
By the late 1860s, the new residents of Barry Farms in far southeast Washington, D.C., were organizing boycotts:
“Many of the settlers walked to work as far as Georgetown and back daily. There were horse drawn cars down Penn Ave, but the determined settlers saved that fare through indignation at the segregation practiced. Persons of color, although charged the same fare as were the whites, were only entitled to a seat on top of these cars, exposed to the rain, snow and winter blizzard. They lugged their groceries and other purchases for miles. . .” [p.7-8., Hillsdale Civic Association meeting, 1920-21, ACM Archives]
Photograph courtesy of Historical Society of Wasington, D.C.