In 1904, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation allowing transit companies to segregate seating on the state’s streetcars. When the Virginia Passenger and Power Company announced that it would begin separating blacks and whites on its cars in Richmond, the city’s black residents participated in a boycott that began on April 20, 1904 and lasted until the early fall. The transit company declared bankruptcy in July and was sold at auction in December. Despite the efforts of the boycott, a stricter law was passed in 1906 that mandated segregation on streetcars.
Richmond Streetcar Boycott
The Richmond Planet’s masthead. The paper’s editor, John Mitchell Jr., urged black citizens of Richmond to boycott the city’s segregated streetcars.
Between 1901 and 1906 Virginia’s legislature passed laws to segregate the races in the state’s streetcars. Virginia legislators were not alone in their desire to begin codifying segregation. Every state of the former Confederacy passed a law requiring separate seating for whites and blacks on streetcars. Georgia passed the first law of this kind in 1891.1
The earliest Virginia laws provided an option for streetcar companies to enforce segregation in certain parts of the state, Henrico County, Alexandria, and Fairfax County. In 1904 the Virginia General Assembly enacted legislation that “authorized and empowered” transit companies to enforce segregated seating across the entire state. Soon after, the Virginia Passenger and Power Company announced its intentions to segregate the races on its lines in Richmond, Manchester, and Petersburg. Legislators and the trolley company heralded the law as a safeguard against racial amalgamation.
The black-owned Richmond weekly newspaper, the Richmond Planet, argued that blacks and whites had been riding the trollies together for the past forty years. The Planet’s editor, John Mitchell Jr., called on the city’s blacks to boycott the streetcars. Mitchell believed the boycott would be a peaceful way to take a stand against the new Jim Crow law without causing too much trouble. He and other leaders, like Maggie Walker, were concerned that some black citizens would try to openly defy the conductors and spark a race riot.2
The Richmond Planet spread the word about the boycott. , The boycott took effect on April 20, 1904. Richmond’s white newspapers instantly deemed it a failure while the Planet maintained that a closer look revealed nearly eighty to ninety percent of the black population was walking to work and avoiding the streetcars. Only one black woman was arrested for not complying with a conductor’s request to move seats. The woman, a visitor from New York, reportedly declared “the hell with Jim Crow” when she was asked to move. Whites, ironically, comprised the majority of arrests made in the face of the new law. Many were adamant about sitting where they pleased. 3
In late July, the Virginia Passenger and Power Company declared bankruptcy and was sold at auction in December. The black press declared the boycott a cause of the company’s financial demise. Despite the success of the protest, the General Assembly passed a stricter streetcar law during its next session in 1906. This time the law required streetcar conductors to separate the races. Boycotts sprang up in Lynchburg, Newport News, Portsmouth, Berkley, and Norfolk. Most, however, did not last long and the law remained.
Maggie Walker, along with John Mitchell Jr., led the efforts to boycott Richmond’s streetcars. The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century marked Jim Crow’s formal inauguration. Streetcar segregation laws were among the first Jim Crow laws enacted across the South. Black communities in twenty-five of Virginia’s cities engaged in boycotts of the segregated streetcars. Following the counsel of leaders like Booker T. Washington, who urged blacks to strive for slow and steady racial progress through education and economic opportunity, many African-Americans at this time tried to live their lives within the confines of Jim Crow laws and avoid potentially violent confrontation with whites. It is notable that in the context of race relations in the South at this time and the accomodationist philosophy espoused by black leaders that the Richmond boycott and so many others even occurred at all.
Reference /Original Source