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“No Heat, No Water . . . and a Large Sign Reading ’Colored’”: Inequality in “Separate but Equal” Railroad Accommodations

The first laws passed in the South to impose statewide segregation in public facilities, instituted in the 1880s and 1890s, applied to railroad car seating. During this period, railway lines spread rapidly from cities to rural communities. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court validated these early “Jim Crow” laws when it ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana statute requiring “separate but equal” accommodations for white and black railroad passengers did not conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment clause guaranteeing all citizens equal protection of the laws. (Jim Crow, the colloquial term for segregation, referred to a blackface character popular on the minstrel stage.) Jim Crow legislation extended throughout the South to schools, hotels, restaurants, streetcars, buses, theaters, hospitals, parks, courthouses, and even cemeteries. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that a Virginia statute requiring segregated seating interfered with interstate commerce and was thus invalid, Jim Crow travel laws remained in effect in the South. The following letter submitted to a House committee holding hearings in 1954 on legislation to end segregated travel attested to the substandard condition of railroad cars for blacks. The bills under consideration never made it to the House floor for a vote. In 1956, following a boycott by the black community of Montgomery, Alabama, against the city’s segregated bus system, the Supreme Court ruled segregation on buses unconstitutional.


East Orange, N. J., May 10, 1954.


On or about April 22, 1954, Mrs. A. Cherry who lives at 251 Halsted Street, East Orange, N. J., and Mrs. Gertrude Williams who lives at 17 Winthrop Terrace, East Orange, N. J., traveled to Savannah, Ga., on train named Champion of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co. Not knowing their return date no reservations were made for returning.

At the railroad station in Savannah, reservation were made for returning on April 28, 1954, on train named Champion of the Coast Line, car No. 39, seats Nos. 13 and 14.

After getting in this car they found it to be completely segregated, no heat, no water, dirty, being half baggage and a large sign reading “Colored,” which sign was still on the car when they left the train in Newark, N. J.

This we believe to be in violation of Federal laws and we are sure are in violation of the laws of the sovereign State of New Jersey.

Names and addresses of witnesses gladly furnished on request.



Source: Amending Interstate Commerce Act (Segregation of Passengers), Hearings before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, May 12–14, 1954. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1954.