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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: “Separate, Not Equal”


The concept of “Jim Crow” and “separate but equal” policies first occurred on railroad passenger coaches. By the 1850s, southern railroads began enforcing policies that segregated African-American travelers from white travelers. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1875 declared that all individuals had a right to equal public accommodations, states continued to impose “Jim Crow” laws. In 1883, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional due to the belief that the federal government could not mandate racial integration when it pertained to private industries. Railroads and private corporations had a right to refuse service or create separated venues as long as they were “equal.”

On June 7, 1892, 30-year old shoemaker Homer Plessy challenged the Louisiana “Jim Crow” law by sitting in the white section of a passenger coach. Judge John Howard Ferguson upheld the state law, resulting in an appeal to the Supreme Court. In the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations were legal. Of course in reality these accommodations were not equal. Typically, segregated coaches were located directly behind the locomotive. If windows were open, smoke and burning cinders flew inside. If the windows were closed, the coach was stuffy and poorly ventilated. In many cases, the segregated coaches were also used to store tools and materials for the conductor.

By the 1950s, railroad passenger services in general were expensive to operate and not financially productive. Therefore, it was becoming economically impossible for railroads to operate any passenger services, let alone additional segregated cars. In 1954, the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling overturned the “separate but equal” clause stating that separate accommodations were “inherently unequal.” In 1955, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ordered an end to segregated cars on railroads, but some railroads continued to enforce their segregation policies until the late 1960s.

In 1997, a railroad historian and a professor of African Studies compiled a list of 29 known existing Jim Crow cars that have been preserved as evidence of this injustice of the past.  The B&O Railroad Museum’s C&O No. 409 (on display in the Roundhouse) was referenced on this list. Visitors are able to enter the front section of the car and view the areas of the car where segregation was enforced.

Questions for Reading 2
  1. What was the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896?
  2. How did the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 affect the segregation of rail travelers?

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