She was shouting for someone to help her. She was wrestling for a better hold of the window frame so that he couldn’t pull her outside and throw her on the ground. No one got up from their seats to stop him. Instead, they watched, all of them, mouths open, as if it were happening far away. The conductor was bigger, older, and stronger than she was, and he yanked and heaved at her until her grasp broke. But now she was grabbing at his coat. As she held on, she could see her friend, a woman he had already thrown out of this boxy, airless streetcar, pressed up against its side, her face a picture of horror and rage. She was screaming at him, begging him. Get your hands off her. “You’ll kill her. Don’t kill her!”
The woman in this scene is Elizabeth Jennings, the twenty-five-year-old New Yorker who launched the first successful civil disobedience campaign in US history. On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings, an African American school-teacher and choir-mistress, stepped onto a “whites only” streetcar on Third Avenue. She knew that the conductor would eject her and that none of the white passengers would help her. She knew that she was putting her dignity, safety, and her life on the line to assert her right to ride in the same car they did.
Jennings was the first among a small army of young Black female New Yorkers to fight to forcibly desegregate their city, one close-packed trolley journey at a time. In the twelve years between her clash on that Third Avenue streetcar in 1854 and the end of the Civil War in 1865, Jennings and her fellow freedom riders turned New York’s streetcars into battlegrounds. In a series of high-profile showdowns, they forced the city to ban policemen from any role enforcing streetcar segregation and compelled these private companies to integrate their networks, bringing an end to apartheid on urban transit in New York.
Why were streetcars the locus of such frequent and fraught attempts to police the color line in the Jim Crow North and why were Black women the drivers of this extraordinary campaign for civil rights? This paper seeks to answer these questions by examining the nexus of gender, technology, mobility, confinement, and racism at play in these charged encounters. It argues that the close quarters within city streetcars brought people from all walks and of both sexes into unusual proximity; that intra-urban mass transit decoupled passengers from their familiar neighborhood customs and practices; that Black women’s pursuit of (and performance of) respectability met a blunt bludgeon of anti-Black corporate exclusion; and that the employment of working-class conductors to police the behavior of middle-class passengers produced explosive possibilities in which capitalism mobilized to thwart the slightest possibility of intersectional solidarity.
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