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Living with Segregation: On Public Transportation

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In 1896, Homer Plessy lost a civil rights case against John Howard Ferguson. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the classification of separate railway cars for whites and blacks on interstate trains as constitutional. The "separate but equal" Plessy v. Ferguson decision affirmed the countless local and state regulations that had been developing for more than two decades.

In 1905, the white majority in the Nashville city council passed a law that required the segregation of street cars.

Conductors are given police power and may abuse and arrest the colored people at will. The law, on its face, shows the mean, low spirit of race hate, for the whole object is to make the Negro feel that he is inferior to the white man, and therefore, unfit to ride on terms of equality with him.'
-- "The Voice of the Negro 2," Nashville newspaper, December 1905

Compared to other cities, Nashville segregated its streetcars relatively late. During the so-called Progressive Era in the early twentieth century, conditions for African Americans had generally deteriorated under the political leadership of people like Woodrow Wilson.

In Nashville and many other cities, African Americans boycotted the Jim Crow cars and founded their own transportation company.

The race means hereafter to make the white man pay for his prejudice.
-- "The Voice of the Negro 2," Nashville newspaper, December 1905

The following year, the boycott cost the Nashville Street Car Company $90,000 in revenue. But the city simply did not need two streetcar companies, and the smaller black company soon went out of business.

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