Jim Crow on West Broadway

New York, Nov. 17, 1860

Streetcars on Park Row, circa 1860. The large building in the background is the headquarters of The New York Times.

The young man saw the horse-drawn streetcar coming from up the block. It didn’t have the necessary sign in the window – “Colored People Allowed in This Car” – but he was in a hurry that Saturday morning, so he hopped aboard anyhow. The conductor, according to a brief report in The New York Times, “told him that he must either get off or ride on the front platform. He said that he would do neither, but he would stay where he was.” A scuffle ensued, a constable hurried to the scene, and 23-year-old Charles Sanders was hauled off to face charges of assault and battery.

Records reveal little about Sanders: it is unclear whether he was an early civil rights activist – a 19th-century Rosa Parks – or just an impatient and hassled New York commuter. In any case, he was no mere Bowery ruffian. Sanders resided on one of the most elegant blocks in Manhattan, in the home of a wealthy dry-goods merchant for whose family he worked as a domestic servant. (The house, 55 West 9th Street, still stands; it is currently on the market for $10 million.) Next door lived an army officer named Irvin McDowell, who would soon gain notoriety along an obscure Virginia stream called Bull Run; just up the block stood the mansion of Henry J. Raymond, founder and publisher of the Times.

Such exalted connections availed him little. As far as the streetcar company and the police were concerned, Charles Sanders was just another “colored” man who needed to be shown his place. But in the years before the Civil War, New York was already the battleground of a civil rights struggle that has been nearly forgotten: a hard-fought conflict foreshadowing events in the Deep South a century later.

Segregation was an old story in New York. Although the state had abolished slavery in 1827, most public transportation, schools, theaters, restaurants and churches still enforced a strict color line, as they did throughout the free states. In the 1830s, omnibus drivers sometimes used their whips to keep African-Americans from boarding. As the renowned Southern historian C. Vann Woodward would write, “one of the strangest things about the career of Jim Crow was that the system was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force.”

Separate and unequal facilities were hardly the only injustice confronting New York’s African-Americans. State law restricted blacks’ voting rights to men owning at least $250 in real estate, a tiny percentage of the total population.

Segregated streetcars, however, remained powerful, ubiquitous symbols of everyday racism in the city. In the 1850s, after decades of intermittent civil disobedience, a bold cohort of black New Yorkers made a concerted effort to integrate them. On July 16, 1854, a young African-American schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings was violently ejected from a trolley at the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets. The black community rallied to raise money for a lawsuit and hired a young attorney named Chester A. Arthur – the future president – to represent her. Remarkably, the judge decided in favor of Jennings, awarded her damages of $250 and decreed that transit companies were “bound to carry all respectable persons” regardless of race.

When most trolley operators simply ignored this ruling, black leaders redoubled their efforts, forming a group called the Legal Rights Association (which included a special “female branch”) to continue the fight. A well-known minister, Rev. James W.C. Pennington, deliberately got himself arrested for boarding a whites-only car. A few prominent whites lent support; in September 1860 Horace Greeley, The New York Tribune’s famous editor, asked his readers: “Can anyone doubt that Jesus of Nazareth, if now on earth and in New York, would reject more indignantly and rebuke more sharply our negro-cars [and] negro-pews in churches that evoke his name?” By that point – thanks less to messianic intervention than to the activists’ tenacity – almost all the streetcar lines had accepted integration.

The timing of Charles Sanders’s act of defiance, just 10 days after Abraham Lincoln’s election, may not have been coincidental. Across the nation, indignant whites were reporting that blacks seemed suddenly, frighteningly rebellious. One unsettling story told of a Georgia slave who refused to chop wood for his master and mistress, telling them that “Lincoln was elected now, and he was free.” The black man, according to a newspaper, “after being sent to the whipping-post, gained new light on the subject of Lincoln and Slavery, and returned to his duty.” Yet the portents of revolution continued.

The final outcome of Sanders’s prosecution went unreported in the newspapers and is, for the time being, lost to history. (It may await discovery in New York’s vast criminal court records). Not until after the Civil War, in 1873, did the state legislature pass a bill sweeping away the last vestiges of segregated public transit – three years after abolishing the property requirement for voting.

Sources: New York Times, Nov. 19, 1860 and Nov. 13, 2005; 1860 Census; “Trow’s New York City Directory, for the Year Ending May 1, 1859”; Leslie M. Harris, “In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863”; C. Vann Woodward, “The Strange Career of Jim Crow”; David N. Gellman and David Quigley, eds., “Jim Crow New York: A Documentary History of Race and Citizenship, 1777-1877”; John Hewitt, “The Search for Elizabeth Jennings, Heroine of a Sunday Afternoon in New York City” (New York History, October 1990); Edward Spann, “Gotham at War: New York City, 1860-1865”; Judith Ann Giesburg, “Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front”; Leon F. Litwack, “North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860”; New York Tribune, Feb. 25, 1858 and Feb. 20, 1861.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

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Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/jim-crow-on-west-broadway/