Chapter Five: Streetcars

In spite of the bravery displayed by black troops during the Civil War, their service did not result in equal treatment. Indeed, even black soldiers in uniform were banned from riding the streetcars that traversed Philadelphia in the mid- 1800s.

The mass transit system of Philadelphia, a network of privately owned streetcars, prohibited black riders (other than servants accompanying white employers), though some allowed blacks to pay a fare for the “privilege” of standing on the narrow, mud-splattered platform at the front of the horse-drawn trolleys.

Before blacks began fighting for the Union Army, this discriminatory practice was aggravating, inconvenient, and insulting. Once black soldiers were putting their lives on the line, it became absurd. Soldiers and their families could not use the streetcars to travel to and from Camp William Penn, the nation’s first training ground for black troops located in the LaMott area of Cheltenham. Nor could families ride streetcars to visit relatives convalescing from battle wounds in city hospitals.

William Still
(portrayed by Jerry Rudasill)
from An Equal Chance

Among the many black people prevented from riding Philadelphia streetcars during the Civil War period were: internationally famous orator and activist Frederick Douglass (kicked off twice!), activist and successful businessman William Still, teacher and later longtime head of the ICY Fanny Jackson Copin, and even Civil War hero Captain Robert Smalls — the man absconded with a Confederate ship by dressing in a stolen uniform and who then became an important source of intelligence for the Union Navy (and later a Congressman), but he was told to get off a Philly streetcar!

Even more upsetting than the barring of celebrities, though, was what happened to Octavius Catto’s friend and minister in July of 1864. Reverend William Alston took his two-year-old son for a walk along the Delaware River when the son suddenly stopped breathing and spiked a fever. Alston flagged down a passing horse-drawn streetcar, relieved that he could get the boy home quickly. The conductor, though, refused to allow the Reverend and his obviously ill son aboard — even though there were no other passengers

Although the young boy recovered, Alston was enraged. A graduate of both Oberlin and Kenyon Colleges, he penned a letter that was published in the Philadelphia Press. “Is it humane,” Alston asked, “to exclude respectable colored citizens from your street cars when so many of our brave and vigorous young men have been and are enlisting to take part in this heavenly ordained slavery extermination?”

His letter sparked action: Catto and sixty-five other black leaders called a meeting to discuss how to gain access to the streetcars. Some wanted to continue to try to persuade the streetcar companies to change their policies. Catto and other members of his generation had a different idea: pressure the Pennsylvania state legislature to pass a law. But that process would take time. In the meantime, another tactic was attempted.

On January 13, 1865, a large interracial meeting was held at the enormous Concert Hall, a building between 12th and 13th Streets on the north side of Chestnut Street that no longer exists. Prominent leaders and businesspeople, both black and white, listened as people like Reverend Alston and famous abolitionist Robert Purvis (a man who appeared white but chose to self-identify as black; definitely worth a Google search) shared their stories.

As a result of the meeting, a delegation met with the city’s mayor and a group of streetcar owners. Against the wishes of the Concert Hall leaders, the streetcar owners decided to organize a poll: they would have white riders vote on whether or not to allow blacks to ride. Not surprisingly, in that era of widespread racism — and in a city in which unskilled white immigrants knew that access to streetcars gave them an advantage in getting to available jobs — Philly riders voted to maintain the whites only policy by a huge margin (about 4,000 votes against and 200 votes for allowing blacks on the streetcars).

These dismaying numbers were probably on Octavius Catto’s mind as he boarded a (segregated) train to Harrisburg where he would attend a meeting of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Equal Rights League. As one of three members of the “Car Committee,” he would be working with Morrow Lowry, an abolitionist and state senator from Erie who had tried unsuccessfully in 1861 to pass a bill integrating transit.

In the winter of 1865, Senator Lowry’s next attempt at passing the streetcar bill also failed. Catto then set to work with the other members of the Car Committee to rewrite the legislation. Sensing that positive change was coming to the nation (indeed, the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing due process had just been passed in Congress), they penned a bill with even stronger protections for blacks on streetcars.

The case of Mrs. Derry was one more illustration of why such a law was needed. Derry, a black woman, rode the Lombard-South car one night as she returned from aiding wounded soldiers. Even though it was late and no white passengers complained, the conductor and two men he summoned from a street corner grabbed Mrs. Derry, kicked her, and threw her off of the streetcar. When she brought the case to court in April of 1865, a sympathetic judge, specifically citing the contribution of black soldiers, ruled in Mrs. Derry’s favor and a jury awarded her $50.

Lincoln Universty circa 1890

Meanwhile, as the slow process of writing legislation and lobbying state representatives continued, many brave Philadelphia residents pushed the streetcar access issue on their own. Blacks continued to board streetcars — either hiding in a group of white passengers as they boarded, or in open defiance of the regulations. Often they were forced off, sometimes violently. In June of 1866, a group of over thirty recent graduates from Lincoln University (the nation’s first black college, still located in the suburbs of Philadelphia) rushed onto a city-bound streetcar. The conductor, unwilling to challenge such a large number of young men, ended up giving them the ride they had sought.

After years of struggle, by late 1866 black Americans did at last seem to be on the cusp of major progress. The U.S. Congress was poised to pass the Fifteenth Amendment that would grant voting rights to black men. Senator Lowry sensed that the moment was right: on February 5, 1867, the bill that Catto had helped to author was presented to the Pennsylvania lawmakers. This time it passed.

Pennylvania Governor John Geary

The Republican dominated legislature most likely supported the law out of self-interest: if they voted in favor of this bill, surely their newly enfranchised black constituents would re-elect them and members of their party for years to come. On March 22, Governor John Geary signed the bill and black Philadelphia residents, at least in theory, could at last ride the city’s streetcars. Laws, though, can only be effective if they are enforced.

Carrie Le Count, Catto’s super-smart love interest and by then a 21-year- old school principal, attempted to board a streetcar at Eleventh and Lombard Streets. The conductor refused to allow her on his car. But she knew the law. After showing a magistrate both a news article and the text of the new law her boyfriend had helped to write, the conductor and his company were fined one hundred dollars.

Caroline Le Count (played by Tiffany E Green)
attempts to board a Philadelphia streetcar
from An Equal Chance

The law for which Octavius Catto had long lobbied, spoken, and advocated was not only written in the books, it was enforceable on the streets of his city. Though the battle for the streetcars was won, more fights lay ahead. Horse-drawn streetcars were a common sight in Philadelphia from the late 1850s through the late 1890s. Moving along tracks throughout the city, these were the vehicles to which Catto and other black people fought to gain access.