is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson

Author(s):Kelley, Blair L. M.
Reviewer(s):Moreno, Paul

Published by EH.NET (October 2010)

Blair L. M. Kelley, Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. xii + 256 pp. $22 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-8078-7101-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Paul Moreno, Department of History, Hillsdale College.

Blair Kelley tells the story of several turn-of-the-century desegregation campaigns. Many readers will be aware that black Americans mounted successful boycott campaigns to desegregate urban transit systems, particularly from August Meier and Elliot Rudwick?s 1969 article.? Kelley looks at several of these, and takes issue with Meier and Rudwick?s depiction of them as essentially conservative and middle-class, in contrast to the more radical and mass-based Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. His story shows the complex problems that arose in black communities divided along lines of class, ideology, and complexion.

Meier and Rudwick told their story in a journal article. Though Kelley provides a ?thick description? social history, he probably could have done as well in a smaller compass. Most of the book is a prelude to the actual boycotts, telling the story of the development of urban transportation in the late nineteenth century. The railroad, the advance agent of the urban and industrial revolution, ?threatened the stability of the racial order in an increasingly fluid society? (p. 34). He suggests, but does not conclude, that the segregation of the 1890s (like lynching) was a response to rapid black progress in the late nineteenth century — that whites imposed segregation ?despite or perhaps because of the progress made by African Americans? (p. 60).

New Orleans blacks were divided between an old Creole elite and the newly freed slaves and their children. One of Homer Plessy?s complaints against the Louisiana segregation law was that it deprived him of his reputation as a white man. (Plessy had one black great grandparent — an ?octoroon,? in the parlance of the day.) Kelley notes that this part of Plessy?s plea was ?perhaps too clever. His approach fell short of offering a more universal solution to the problem of Jim Crow? (p. 80). It also reflected the Creole elite?s failure to work with the freedmen.

Kelley reconstructs an interesting debate between two leaders of the Richmond black community, Maggie Walker and John Mitchell, on the question of whether elite whites or lower-class whites pressed for segregation, and whether there was anything in lower-class black culture that fed the movement. Some sympathetic whites, like novelist George Washington Cable, were comfortable with class-based segregation, one that would recognize that blacks could meet bourgeois white cultural standards.

The country?s first independent regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, did not clarify the problem. It ruled that segregation could not be based solely on color, but that racial segregation within equal first-class cars or second-class cards was acceptable. Kelley calls the commission?s report ?a bungled attempt to argue for a fairer segregation system? (p. 39), but this was also what the Montgomery Improvement Association initially sought in 1955.

The most interesting and controversial part of Kelley?s story concerns the role of the streetcar companies. Years ago, economist Jennifer Roback showed that history confirmed the economic argument that rational businessmen would oppose the costs of segregation, and that southern railroads helped fund Plessy?s challenge to the Louisiana segregation law. Kelley recognizes this, but is so patently biased against business (his heroes, after all, are the proletarians whom Meier and Rudwick neglected) that he puts the worst possible face on what he calls ?this unholy alliance? of black citizen groups with the companies who ?viewed Jim Crow cars as an expensive inconvenience? (p. 74).

New Orleans? only black newspaper and many prominent ministers did not support a boycott approach, preferring instead to work with the railroads to challenge the segregation law in the courts. (This was also Thurgood Marshall?s position during the Montgomery bus boycott. The future Supreme Court justice scoffed at the boycott, and took credit for the victory when the Supreme Court overturned the Alabama segregation law Gayle v. Browder. ?All that walking for nothing,? he cracked.) Kelley doubts whether the New Orleans companies really wanted to win in court. Their weak case suggests that the suit was ?perhaps … simply a stopgap designed to divide the city?s black leaders poised for a boycott? (p. 113).

The climax of his tale is the 1906 Savannah boycott. Progressive elements in that city enacted a segregation law in order to bankrupt the Savannah Electric Company. (Kelley rightly recognizes the conjunction of segregation and progressive reform in the South.) The politicians knew that a segregation law would provoke a black boycott and ruin the railroad. The company (a subsidiary of the Boston-based Stone and Webster Co.) took steps to combat the boycott, patronizing black ministers and hiring black workers. Kelley claims that this demonstrates that ?northern companies contributed the capital necessary to make the segregated South,? and ?the streetcar companies? willingness to invest in segregation? (pp. 187, 193).

In fact, it demonstrates that Kelley shares the progressive assumption of business guilt. For progressives a century ago, business was guilty of undermining the racial order and making segregation necessary for white supremacy. Today, progressive historians try to hold business responsible for fostering that segregation. One might even call this ?blaming the victim.? Yet Kelley himself concludes that the boycotts failed ?in the face of lawmakers? unflinching support for separating the races? (p. 196).

Right to Ride would benefit from a more through treatment of legal history, of the sort provided in Andrew Kull?s Color-Blind Constitution. Kelley mentions that Martin Luther King was in the Birmingham jail for violating an Alabama anti-boycott law enacted after successful black efforts of 1900-02. The story of these laws would have been useful. Also, he makes no mention of the case of Hall v. DeCuir, in which the Supreme Court held that a state?s proscription of segregation interfered in Congress? power to regulate commerce. But it remains an impressive and thorough work of historianship.

Paul Moreno is the Grewcock Chair in American Constitutional History at Hillsdale College and the author, most recently, of Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History (LSU Press).

Copyright (c) 2010 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2010). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII