feature: know your black history – how black ownership & public transit boycotts led to civil rights success

July 23, 2014

The decision of “separate but equal” from the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson reversed the small progress that was made combating racism after the Civil War. The decision would trigger three distinct waves of boycotts by black American against racial discrimination. It also marked a dramatic surge of black entrepreneurship in the transportation field.

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor *

The first waves of protests were in the South at the turn of the century. With passage of laws segregating  transportation in Louisiana in 1902, Mississippi in 1904, Tennessee and Florida in 1905 and later in Virginia, the Carolinas, Alabama and Texas,  widespread boycotts began.  Organized boycotts began in Atlanta, Rome and Augusta, Georgia; Mobile and Montgomery Alabama; Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi; Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee; and Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida and other cities. In some cities the boycotts were almost 100% effective. Those black people who dared ride public transportation were sometimes snatched off by boycotters or denounced at public meetings.

Even before the segregation laws were in place, entrepreneurs like Wiley Jones of Pine Bluff, Arkansas were involved in the transportation business. In 1886 Jones received a franchise to build and operate a mule-drawn street railway.  Jones’ company served the downtown black community, while the Citizens Street Railway Company served the white community and ran on tracks parallel to Wiley’s company.  In 1891 for the sum of $125,000 Jones bought the entire Citizens operations and operated it for four years.  Eventually he sold the consolidated company back to the original owners of Citizens for $90,000.

In June 1905 Nashville’s streetcar segregation law was put into place. The city’s white-owned transportation company initially resisted the idea of segregated streetcars. Some of the drivers threatened to quit rather than discriminate against black riders.  But legislators insisted on segregation in public transportation.

Two months later the Union Transportation Company was chartered in Nashville. The company was capitalized by Reverend Richard Boyd and Nashville businessman James Napier.  The company initially had five steam driven autobuses. But the steam engines were not powerful enough to carry passenger and navigate Nashville’s hilly terrain. So Union Transportation upgraded, replacing the steam cars with 14 electric cars.

The white-owned Railway and Light Company sabotaged these cars by charging the cars with the incorrect voltage and then reneged altogether on supplying power. But Union Transportation’s owners were not discouraged. Displaying heroic determination, they purchased their own dynamo to generate their own electrical power.  

But then the city of Nashville imposed a “special” municipal tax on the cars and limited the number of passengers to twenty per car. This affected the profitability of the company and it was forced out of business in 1906.

In 1901 black entrepreneurs in Jacksonville, Florida established the North Jacksonville Street Railway Town and Improvement Company, a bus company. The city of Jacksonville initially granted the franchise and floated a $150,000 bond to finance construction. But whites in Jacksonville held the principal on the bonds and they forced the black founders to accept the highest bid for construction. Despite all the barriers erected to cripple this new black-owned business, it turned a profit. But white bondholders imposed an unusually short window to pay the interest due on the bonds. In 1908 bondholders foreclosed and took control of the company.

The second wave of black boycotts came during the Depression. In an effort to get blacks to buy groceries at black grocery stores, the Colored Merchants of America (CMA) was founded in the late 1920s. The CMA was a black-owned cooperative. The CMA bought goods at wholesale prices so that their members could compete with white chain stores.  CMA stores were created in Washington, Richmond, New York and Baltimore. Other movements surface at the same time: the Colored Clerk Circle in St. Louis, the New Negro Alliance in Washington, D.C. and the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” movement in Atlanta. Unfortunately the Depression disrupted the “Buy Black” movement.

The third wave of black boycotts started with the historic Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. But as previous boycotts showed, Black Americans had not been sitting by patiently since the Civil War, while discrimination spread. In the same way they had found countless ways to resist slavery, black Americans took action to protect and extend their rights whenever and wherever discrimination threatened their freedoms.  

The Montgomery boycotts led to the dismantling of Jim Crow and segregation. But waves of black protests and entrepreneurship, dating back to the previous century, had set the stage for the historic success of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders of the 1960s.

* Nick Douglas’ book, Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery…. Blog: http://www.findingoctave.tumblr.com/