Jim Crow Cars on the Georgia & Florida Railroad

The opening of the Georgia and Florida Railroad on October 1, 1908 was a big day for Ray City, GA. For African-Americans, the passenger cars which ran on the Georgia & Florida railroad during the first half of the 20th century reflected the pervasiveness of segregation under  Jim Crow laws.    “Jim Crow legislation extended throughout the South to schools, hotels, restaurants, streetcars, buses, theaters, hospitals, parks, courthouses, and even cemeteries.” Jim Crow laws had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the  Plessy v. Ferguson ruling against a black man who had been arrested for riding a whites-only streetcar in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Georgia & Florida combine car No. 653

Georgia & Florida combine car No. 653 provided segregated riding space for white and black passengers.

First Jim Crow Railroad Cars

Segregated “Jim Crow” railroad cars predated the Civil War.

“The term “Jim Crow” originated in 1832 as the name of a character in a song and dance written by Thomas D. Rice, a well-known minstrel of the time. Minstrel shows were popular before the Civil War and featured white performers in black face portraying “musical, lazy, childlike blacks.”  In the 1830s, “Jim Crow Cars” referred to segregated cars on some northern railroad lines. “

When the Boston and Providence Railroad opened its route to New York, the company’s president  stated that “an appreciable number of the despised race demanded transportation. Scenes of riot and violence took place, and in the then existing state of opinion, it seemed to me that the difficulty could best be met by assigning a special car to our colored citizens.”  Massachusetts newspapers in 1838 reported frequent incidents of Negroes refusing to sit in Jim Crow sections and being forcibly removed from the train. Negroes also sought relief through the legislature and white abolitionists encouraged boycotts. As a result, a joint legislative committee recommended a bill to halt discrimination. Negative reaction followed. Fearing increased integration, one state senator declared that “such legislation would not stop at forcing the mixture of Negroes and whites in railroad cars, but would subsequently be applied to hotels, religious societies, and through all ramifications of society.” The act failed to pass. By 1841, intense efforts to end Jim Crow cars began. Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass refused to move to the Jim Crow car and did so only after being physically removed from their seats.15 In 1842, the black abolitionist Charles Lenox Redmond went before a committee in the Massachusetts legislature to protest his segregation in a “special railway car for negroes.” Touching upon the right to equality and inherent inferiority without it, Redmond stated that “the wrongs inflicted and injuries received on railroads by person of color . . . do not end with the termination of the route, but in effect, tend to discourage, disparage, and depress this class of citizens.” Protests, changing public opinion, and threats of legislative action caused rail companies in Massachusetts to abandon segregation practices in 1843. 

First Jim Crow Laws

The first Jim Crow laws are those of Florida and Mississippi in 1865 and Texas in 1866. The laws of Florida provided: “That if any negro, mulatto or other person of color shall intrude himself into…any railroad car or other public vehicle set apart for the exclusive accommodation of white people, he shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be sentence to stand in pillory for one hour, or be whipped, not exceeding thirty-nine stripes, or both at the discretion of the jury, nor shall it be lawful for any white person to intrude himself into any railroad car or other public vehicle set apart for the exclusive accommodation of persons of color, under the same penalties” [Laws of Florida, 1865, p. 25].

The law of Mississippi was: “That it shall be unlawful for any officer, station agent, conductor, or employee on any railroad in this State, to allow any freedman, negro or mulatto, to ride in any first-class passenger cars, set apart, or used by, and for white persons; and any person offending against the provisions of this section, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor…shall be fined not less than fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars; and shall be imprisoned in the county jail until such fine, and costs of prosecution are paid; Provided that this section, of this act, shall not apply, in the case of negroes or mulattoes, traveling with their mistresses, in the capacity of nurses” [Laws of Mississippi, 1865, pp. 231-232]

Texas simply provided that “every railroad company shall be required to attach to each passenger train run by said company one car for the special accommodation of Freedmen” [Laws of Texas, 1866, p. 97].
-The Separation of the Races in Public Conveyances

In Georgia, however,  following the 1868 rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the expulsion of elected African-American assemblymen from the Georgia legislature, the Camilla Massacre, and rejection of the Fifteenth Amendment, the state remained under military rule imposed by the U.S. Congress.

The African-American legislators were re-seated by the federal government, and briefly led an agenda concentrated on political and civil rights.  “In 1870, the Georgia legislature enacted a statute requiring the railroads in the state to furnish equal accommodations to all, without regard to race, color or previous condition, provided the same fare was charged.” (Georgia railroads had previously only charged half-fare for transportation of slaves.) Subsequently, similar civil rights legislation emerged in the Reconstruction legislatures in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and in some northern states.   But in Georgia, this early civil rights movement  was crushed by the end of 1870 as conservatives used terror, intimidation, and the Ku Klux Klan to “redeem” the state. One quarter of the black legislators were killed, threatened, beaten, or jailed. – New Georgia Encyclopedia

Despite prevailing conditions in Georgia, Jim Crow railroad laws seemed to be at an early end  when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 stating, “That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.”  Many northern states enacted their own civil rights legislation, adopting or adapting the language of the federal act. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Civil Rights Cases (1883) that the public accommodation sections of the act were unconstitutional.

With little or no effective legislation regulating civil rights in public transportation, the railroads made their own rules for providing white-only transportation, and segregating African-Americans in “Negro cars” or Jim Crow cars.

By the 1890s,  many southern states enacted legislation called Separate Coach Laws specifically mandating the segregation of railroad cars, although the legislation “did scarcely more than legalize an existing and widespread custom.”  An 1888 photograph of the wreck of the Savannah, Florida & Western Fast Mail Train appears to depict a Jim Crow Combine Car among the wreckage. Although the newspaper accounts of the wreck only mention the engine, tender, baggage car and smoker, one coach, the Pullman sleeper, and the private car of railroad president E. P. Wilbur, it seems unlikely that a Georgia train of this era would not include a “negro car” or Jim Crow car, especially since eight unidentified African-American men were among the victims of the wreck.

The SF&W route ran from Savannah through Valdosta, GA to Bainbridge, with connections to all points. The September 10, 1892 Albany Weekly Herald complimented the Savannah, Florida & Western Railroad for its segregated arrangement of cars:

The S.F.& W.  passenger is one of the best arranged trains in the State. First comes the mail and express car, then the Negroes’ car, then the baggage car and smoker, and last of all the first class coach. All trains would do well to adopt this arrangement with a car between the Negro and white coaches.

White passengers usually rode in the sections furthest from the smoke and coal ash of the steam engine.

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the legality of  the railroad “Jim Crow” laws and entrenched the discriminatory principle of “ separate but equal” accommodations for whites and blacks.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
The case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which supplied the occasion for the court’s landmark decision, had its origins in Louisiana. In 1890, Louisiana passed a law calling for “equal but separate” accommodations on railroads for “whites” and “coloreds.” Protesting this law was a group of Creoles and blacks who formed the Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law. This group arranged a test case along with the railroad that opposed the law  due to the expense of supplying another car.  An “exceedingly light-skinned Negro” named Homer Plessy agreed to test the law. Plessy was subsequently arrested for sitting in the white car.  In his defense, Plessy contended that the Louisiana statute requiring segregation was unconstitutional. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Plessy’s attorneys argued that if the segregation law was upheld, states could “require separate cars for people with different colors of hair, aliens, or Catholics or Protestants or to require colored people to walk on one side of the street and white people on the other side, or to demand that white men’s homes be painted white and black men’s homes black.”

In 1896, the Supreme Court decided against Plessy. Justice Henry Billings Brown writing for the majority concluded that legislative bodies were “powerless to eradicate racial instincts,” and that “if one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” Equal rights did not necessitate the “enforced commingling of the two races.”  In his lone and now famous dissent, Justice John Harlan offered that “Our Constitution is color blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”  Thus the notion of “separate but equal” had been judicially sanctioned by the nation’s highest court and Jim Crow had been given a new birth–a new license to “jump up and down.”  State laws mandating racial segregation quickly followed the Plessy ruling ensuring a Jim Crow system in the South. The  most blacks could aspire for was equal accommodations.  – NPS National Historic Landmarks Program

The New Georgia Encyclopedia observes, “These facilities were usually ‘equal’ in name only—in all the states with Jim Crow laws, the facilities that served blacks were almost always inferior to the facilities that served whites.”

Plessy v. Ferguson is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history.[3] – Wikipedia

During the Segregation Era, southern railroads operated segregated trains and depots.

Segregated Train Stations <br /> Signs above the doors at a Georgia railroad station in 1938, read "Colored Men" and "Colored Waiting Room." Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Segregated Train Stations
Signs above the doors at a Georgia railroad station in 1938, read “Colored Men” and “Colored Waiting Room.” Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Railroads built “combine” cars with segregated sections. The Georgia & Florida combine car pictured at the top of the post had a central baggage section separating the car into two passenger sections, one for black passengers and one for whites. In typical combine cars, each passenger section had a cast iron stove and a bathroom. Waste from the bathrooms was deposited directly on the rails. On some rail lines white drunks would be placed in the black car instead of one of those reserved for whites.

In a typical segregated railroad car, there were no luggage racks in the “colored” section, requiring travelers to cram their suitcases around their feet, and the “colored” bathroom was smaller and lacked the amenities of the “whites” bathroom.  “There are all these subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that ‘you are not as good as the people in the other section,’” says Spencer Crew, curator for the National Museum for African American Culture and History.

The story of travel segregation was not limited to trains and if you traveled by bus or boat or even airlines, such divisions were strictly enforced.

Pullman porters and coach attendants were key figures in the African-American community. “These were very well-traveled individuals, so they had a lot of experience and perspective to share with people they talked to as they were traveling across the country,” says Crew. “Their prominence and importance is an important part of the story.”

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 African-Americans. It describes conditions in a combine car  travelling from Savannah, GA in which half of the car was used for baggage and the other half for African-American passengers.

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

House of Congress, Washington, DC

The following matters were referred to the director of the Washington Bureau NAACP, Mr. Clarence Mitchell, who advised me that hearing would begin in the House very soon and that you are chairman of the committee covering such matters.

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.



P. S. This letter may be used in evidence if desired. D.T.D

A restored Jim Crow car is now on exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  The car belonged to the Southern Railway, parent company of the Georgia Southern & Florida Railroad which ran from Macon through Valdosta, GA to Palatka, FL.

Despite the institutionalized racism of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling,

the decision itself was never explicitly overruled.[4] However, a series of subsequent decisions, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, severely weakened it to the point that it is usually considered to have been de facto overruled.[1] In Brown, the Supreme Court ruled that Plessys “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional in the context of schools and educational facilities.

Students protest segregation at the state capitol building in Atlanta on February 1, 1962. The passage of the federal Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 ended legal segregation across the nation. - New Georgia Encyclopedia

Students protest segregation at the state capitol building in Atlanta on February 1, 1962. The passage of the federal Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 ended legal segregation across the nation. – New Georgia Encyclopedia

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