Joseph Guillaume: The Star Car, Part 1 of 3

Stop 1 of 4 in the Streetcar Integration During Reconstruction tour

Joseph Guillaume had had enough. The Civil War was over, Reconstruction was in full swing, yet still the practice of segregation on the streetcars of New Orleans continued. Every third streetcar—although it was sometimes less often—was supposed to be designated a “star car” and thus could be ridden by blacks. This inhumane system was especially galling for African-American passengers because whites were free to ride the star cars, and they often filled the seats that were supposedly allotted to people of color.

It was a cool, clear, pleasant day. Guillaume was incensed by the lack of progress being made toward ending segregation and the injustice of the star system. As he waited, he made a decision that might have been inconceivable to others: he wouldn’t take the star car that day.

Most White New Orleanians felt the system was abundantly fair. To many Whites, the star car system was far better than Philadelphia’s where integration occurred, as one noted: “On our lines are cars devoted specially to the use of colored people; they (the cars) are marked with large stars, and these are for whose use they are intended take care not to enter the others. White persons can ride in the ‘star’ cars if they choose but they have no right to object to the presence of darkeys there." In fact, some felt that there should be “at least FOUR white cars to ONE star car” or “to have some cars constructed with a special apartment for the colored people” so that Whites would never have to wait for a car.

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