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Richmond Streetcar Boycott

  • Richmond Streetcar Boycott, 1904
  • Richmond Streetcar Boycott, 1904
  • Richmond Streetcar Boycott, 1904
  • Richmond Streetcar Boycott, 1904
John Mitchell Jr. encouraged a boycott of the newly segregated Richmond streetcars.
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Richmond Streetcar Boycott, 1904

The segregation of public transportation had a long history in Virginia. During Reconstruction there were some horse-drawn streetcars that were exclusive to whites, but by the mid-1870s black and white passengers probably sat were they pleased. After electric streetcars were introduced to Richmond in the 1880s, segregated seating became a hotly contested topic. In January 1904, nearly a decade after the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson declared that substantially equal segregated seating on railroads did not deprive African Americans of the equal protection of the laws, the Virginia General Assembly passed an “Act Concerning Public Transportation,” with little fanfare or public debate, creating legislation which allowed, but did not require segregation on streetcars. On April 1, 1904, the Virginia Passenger and Power Company made an announcement that the rules for segregation would be enforced later that month on electric street cars in Richmond.

The new legislation allowed transit companies to set aside and designate certain seats for members of either race. The authority to make this designation was given to the conductor, who was to change the number of seats allocated to either race as the racial makeup of the streetcar changed. This makeup would constantly change as the streetcar moved back and forth through the various sections of the city, thereby empowering the conductor to have a passenger change seats as often as he thought necessary. A history of mistrust and violence already existed between the African American community and the streetcar conductors, especially after a near lynching in 1902. The newly granted police powers for the conductors did nothing to ease the minds of the African American community.

The announcement of segregated streetcar service was met with opposition by the African American community in Richmond. John Mitchell, Jr. and Maggie Walker advocated for a boycott of the streetcars in their respective newspapers, the Richmond Planet and the St. Luke Herald. Both urged African Americans to avoid streetcars and walk instead. The boycott was well accepted and had a high percentage of participation. Once the boycott took effect in April 1904, barely a week passed without Mitchell encouraging and supporting the boycott of the streetcars to continue. This was done through a series of stories, poems, and a variety of pieces that extolled the health benefits of walking.

Mitchell and other African American leaders believed that the boycott could be effective. The streetcar company was already suffering economic hardship, and the new legislation did not require segregation, only allowed for it. Thousands of African American Richmonders continued the boycott for more than a year, walking and finding alternate forms of transportation. Despite seeming close to a victory, the Virginia General Assembly altered the legislation in 1906, requiring segregation in public transportation. The Richmond boycott lost its energy shortly thereafter.

For Educators


1. What made the segregation practices on the Richmond streetcars unique?

2. Why did the boycott of the Richmond streetcars end?

Further Discussion

1. If the Virginia General Assembly had not changed the law in 1906, how long do you think the boycott would have continued? Do you think that the ultimate outcome would have been different?

2. There are obvious links between the Richmond streetcar boycott and the Montgomery bus boycott. Which do you find more remarkable? Why? Do you think that your answer would be different if both protests had taken place in the same time period?


Born in the Wake of Freedom: John Mitchell Jr. and the Richmond Planet

Suggested Reading

Alexander, Ann Field. Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting Editor” John Mitchell Jr. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. “The Boycott Movement Against Jim Crow Streetcars in the South, 1900–1906.” Journal of American History 55, no. 4 (March 1969): 756–775.

“Jim Crow” Street=Car Law Set to Catch Negroes.


Thanks to the Advice of the Citizens Mass-Meeting--Colored
Folks Are Staying off the Cars.


The only arrest on the first day of the enforcement of the new streetcar law was that of John B. Meyers, white, a carpenter and builder, of 500 Lewis street, who was tried and convicted in police court this morning on the charge of refusing to change his seat in an Oakwood car when so requested by the conductor.
There was no disorder in this act of law violation. Mr. Meyers was in a car where there was but one Negro passenger.
The testimony was that Mr. Meyers took the third seat from the rear. The conductor, following the company's construction of the law, as set forth in the rules provided the men, asked him to go to the front.
Judge Crutchfield declared the law ironclad and the case of Mr. Meyers a clear violation. He fined him $5.00, but remitted the fine as he believed the violation was merely a case of misunderstanding the law.
"The conductor has absolute power to make you change," said the judge. "I had an idea that I was the czar of this town, but you'll see me moving when the conductor
says move.''
*  *
Captain Eckles,(white) conductor of the Cannon Ball train on the N. & W. road, one of the most widely known men in this end of the State, was the second victim of the new "Jim Crow" street-car law and was under arrest in the police court to-day for its violation.
Capt. Eckles is recovering from a severe injury in a wreck received a short time ago and is feeble and weak in both [knees] and dropped into the first seat he reached and declined to move. He declared that he knew nothing of the new law. Counsel for the street-car company asked for his discharge and he was dismissed without argument.


Another disagreement arose on a street car last night, which resulted in the arrest of George Stringer, a white passenger, who was bailed at the First Station, and the threatened arrest of F. Williams, a conductor.
The conductor claims he asked the passenger to move forward, and on that simple request hung all the trouble, which started in the city and wound up in the county near Thirty-second and Q Streets. The two men bore marks of strife upon their countenances. Mr. Stringer was arrested, and he declared that he would swear out a warrant against Mr. Williams in the county.


[Col]ored Folks Walking—White Folks
Kicking—Amusing Happenings.
Rule Very Unpopular.

[T]he "Jim Crow" street car regula[tion] is in effect in this city and has [torn] since April 20th, 1904. White [pass]engers are ushered up to the front [of th]e car and the colored passengers are [seate]d in the rear.
[The] result, between eighty and ninety [perce]nt of the colored people who have [used] the street-car's are now walking [torn] street-car company is trying to [torn] the moving of the white passen[gers fr]om time to time on account of [the entr]ance of the colored ones, the [torn]t of the street-cars is reserved [for col]ored passengers whether they [torn or n]ot. As a result it is a common [torn] street cars with the front [torn] and the rear part empty.


[torn] then one or two colored per-[torn] [b]e seen in the "Jim Crow'' [torn]. The Clay street line has [torn h]eavy falling off in travel. [torn] has been rammed, jammed [torn] in the mornings with color[ed people go]ing to work. Now at any [torn]n be obtained.
[torn color]ed people who pocket their [torn] respect for their feelings [torn s]tanding upon the platforms [torn] discrimination there, and they only move inside when they receive positive orders from the conductors. Some colored people leave the cars
when ordered to take particular seats.


It is a noticeable fact that white people are objecting to the innovation and some of them walk rather than submit to it. Up to this writing only white people have violated the regulations and have been arrested.
In none of these cases have the fines been collected. Trouble on a car between a white passenger and the white conductor which resulted in the latter's punishment with blows, although an arrest was made, has been "hushed," and no report of the affair given.


Many white females have refused positively to obey the rules and the matter has been overlooked.
Those colored people who ride obey the regulations, but the others prefer to walk. On Sunday, the absence of the colored people from the cars attracted universal attention.
Some colored people are saving 60 cts. per week and some as much as $l.60 per week as a result of the new rules.
A colored man was seen coming up Main street having "pulled" the grade from 8th to 5th St. He had his hat in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, while a fine pair of new boots in which his pant's legs were tucked told that he was "prepared for the weather."


A white gentleman met Editor Mitchell and informed him that he had trouble with his cook on his account. His eyes twinkled and he laughed as he told the editor that he would have a fuss with both him and his cook "Why I told her to bring my dinner to me on
the car." She said, "Yes, sir, I'll bring it, but I'll walk, sir, and bring it."
"No, you wont," said he "your time belongs to me. You bring it on the
"She said nothing more, but looked worried. She brought the dinner, and when she was going back, she saw you and some friends ahead of her. She got off the car at Sixth street and walked the remainder of the way.''
The white gentleman laughed heartily and went on his way.


Several white colored folks have been forced to ride with the white folks, the conductors having ordered them to ride there. Mr. Peter Chandler is one of these and Mr. Henry Austin is another and there are numerous other instances. It is suggested that all of our white colored folks wear tags duly certified to by officers of the street-car company in order to prevent the further consummation of such an outrage.
In these cases, the conductors evidently did not believe them when they told them that they belonged in the rear seats according to the rules of the company.

From Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

Mr. Vernon, N. Y., April 23rd, 1904.—
Editor John Mitchell, Jr.,
My Dear Sir:
In view of the recent action [of the Virginia Passenger and Power Company now operating a system of cars in Richmond, some people here have been to me and stated that they would, at any time called upon, aid any movement that the PLANET deemed worthy towards conveying the people whom the said Virginia Passenger and Power Co.,
have so unjustly discriminated against. The people about here that came from Richmond are more than surprised to hear of such actions as the Virginia Passenger and Power Company has taken in yours and other cities of Virginia.
 I am yours truly,
  T. H. Bridges,

Walking Everywhere.

Texas and Virginia, have been added to the list of "Jim Crow" street carism. Well boys, swallow the pill manfully. Don't begin crying, but walk. Negroes every where are walking.


Of all the towns beneath the stars,
Old Richmond beats for Jim Crow
They thread her streets and all around
Her suburbs Jim Crow cars abound.
And some are fast and some are
But in the rear all serve Jim

The smokers on the rear platform
Can joke and smoke when cold or
In wide spread door conductor stands,
That joke and smoke of vilest brands
Throughout the rear may freely
And fill the space kept for Jim

In summer time they'll smoke Jim
In winter time when bleak winds
Jack Frost will stalk through open
And killing draughts will always
Upon those who shall hold the
Of seats in rear kept for Jim

But the summer cars, when they
shall go
To the lakes where pleasant breezes
Refreshing air of day or night
Will strike alike the black and white!
And Jim Crow then will have his
And fair as well as any whites!

But will he though! But will he
Who hold the two rear seats? By Joe!
Those seats belong to him who smokes
And loves to crack his ribald jokes.
And swift wind from the rear
will blow
These sweet things to our dear Jim

It is the principle involved,
As all will see when all is solved,
Which now enigmatic may seem
To those who do not wake, but
'Tis rights of man! make here
no balk—
Man's rights we claim! For
these we walk.
–O. M. Steward.

On the Right Track.


Our contemporaries coming from Richmond, Va., advise us of the "Jim Crow" program with respect to the street cars of that city which goes into effect on July 1st. They are united in their advice to the colored people of Richmond in the attitude in which they should sustain towards this legalized effort to efface our manhood and self respect. They advise the colored citizens to do what they were to do before the advent of electric cars—that's walk. And where the distance is very great they advise the enterprising men of the race who are proprietors of teams and other vehicles to inaugurate a 'bus" system for the convenience of Afro-American people. The advice is genuinely good and orthodox, and the colored people of Richmond will do well to heed the same. In so doing, they will not only maintain their self-respect but what is equally as helpful they will add to their acquisition faculties and increase their own financial resources in turning into race channels a great deal of money which now goes towards building up the hand and the arm uplifted to crush us out. It is a peaceful but a very effective weapon.