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transportation, segregation, Maryland, common carrier


When Rosa Parks refused to move to a seat in the back of the bus in Montgomery, it sparked the boycott and was a critical event in the Civil Rights movement. But Mrs. Parks was the culmination of a long tradition of resistance to segregation. Many teachers, ministers, businessmen and ordinary citizens refused to accept second class treatment on the railways and waterways of Maryland between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, and took their protest to the courts. Facing hostile state courts after the Civil War, African-American plaintiffs needed to access the federal courts through cases in admiralty or diversity of citizenship jurisdiction to deal with discrimination by the private companies that provided transportation. Diversity cases from 1866-1871 integrated the horse trolleys of Baltimore, and the federal district court in Maryland ordered equal accommodations on steamboats in an admiralty action in 1872. But the Courts invalidated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 and forced the plaintiffs to rely on the separate but equal principle for common carriers when they could get into federal court. Federal suits in 1885 and 1889 maintained the obligation of steamers to provide substantially equal conditions, and, despite growing racial hostility, the African-American community was able to sustain a good deal of integration in transport through the nineteenth century. However, the Supreme Court blatantly mischaracterized these suits in falsely claiming them as support for the principle of “separate but equal” as the standard for application of the Fourteenth Amendment. After the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, states began to mandate segregation in public transportation. Maryland statutes in 1904 and 1908 required carriers to segregate. Howard Law School professor W.H.H. Hart successfully fought to establish the proposition in Maryland that states could not mandate segregation for interstate passengers, but the Court said that intrastate passage was subject to segregation laws. The segregated conditions of railroads and boats made a mockery of equality, but African-American plaintiffs and lawyers continued to demand their rights before the Public Service Commission and in the state courts. When Maryland sustained its transport laws in State v. Jenkins in 1914, these courageous opponents of segregation were shunted into demands for equality in separation—a demand they continued until the Supreme Court finally admitted that segregation can never be equal.

Publication Citation

63 Maryland Law Review 721 (2004).


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Legal History