After Slavery: Educator Resources

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4. Charleston Protests against Streetcar Segregation

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Six: Pursuing Citizenship: Justice & Equality in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Although the South's slave society operated on the basis of a rigid racial hierarchy, the need for blacks and whites to work together, often in close quarters, meant that it was difficult to enforce a definite 'color line' in day-to-day interactions. As long as the basic hierarchy went unchallenged, legally enforced segregation seemed unnecessary. Emancipation posed a fundamental challenge to the entire social order, however, as freedpeople disputed white assertions about their alleged inferiority and challenged southern white customs on a range of fronts. In Charleston and in other places throughout the urban South, freedpeople launched a series of streetcar protests to publicly reject their treatment as second-class citizens and to lay full claim to public space. These protests were in many ways the forerunners to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Rides of the twentieth-century civil rights movement.

Charleston Protests against Streetcar Segregation

On Tuesday afternoon, March 27, after the adjournment of the Freedmen's mass meeting in Charleston, S. C., an attempt was made by some of them to test their right to ride in street cars, which is denied them by the rules of the Company.

One of them entered a car, and declined to leave it when requested to do so by the conductor, who at the same time informed him of the Company's rules. The conductor, however, insisted that he should at least leave the inside of the car, and finally his friends who feared he was liable to be forcibly ejected if resistance was offered, persuaded him to yield. On its return trip the car was filled at the same place by a crowd of negroes, who rushed into it, to the great discomfort of the white passengers, and although remonstrated with and appealed to by the conductor, declined to go out. The driver then attempted, by direction of the conductor to throw his car from the track; and, failing in this, unhitched his horses and left the car. The negroes attempted to push the car forward, and threatened personal violence to the conductor, but the arrival of police and detachments of soldiers caused the negroes to disperse. Other cars in the meantime were entered in the same way, and the negroes, finding the conductors would not permit them to ride, endeavored to interrupt the travel of the cars by plain stones on the track.

Source: "Southern Affairs," New York Times, April 2, 1867


Questions to Consider

  1. This account of the streetcar protests was published in the New York Times, a leading northern newspaper. Is it a sympathetic account?

  2. Does the protest seem to have arisen spontaneously or was it inspired by other events? Was the Republican Party likely to support Charleston’s freedpeople in asserting their rights on public transportation?

  3. How would you expect freedpeople to react to the deployment of soldiers to disperse them?

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