Joseph Guillame: Streetcar Segregation, Part 2 of 3

Stop 2 of 4 in the Streetcar Integration During Reconstruction tour

No doubt Guillaume had heard of Dr. R. I. Cromwell, who had forcibly been thrown from a non-star car by five or six men who kicked him and tore his clothes. Cromwell noted the inequity of the star system, writing that “every seventh car is a star car, so we have to wait three-quarters of an hour before we can get a car, and then it may be full of whites, for star cars are generally filled with whites.”

Guillaume may also have known the story of a black soldier riding with his mother, only to watch her “brutally ejected from a city car…in accordance with the rules that the company have themselves made, which provides that soldiers with their military clothes on, are the only persons of color to be admitted in the ‘white cars.’”

These injustices happened despite the fact that General Benjamin Franklin Butler had abolished the star car system and “required the admission of decent colored people into all the public vehicles.” In fact, the Tribune, the city’s black newspaper, had called for an end to the star system for some time, keeping the injustice in the public eye, and calling it “odious” and “the most wicked thing ever seen.”

In August of 1865 the Tribune called for a public demonstration against the system. Noting that “at least ten percent more is made by the ‘star cars’ than by the ‘no star’ cars” because “a great many whites wait for a star car to crowd out colored persons, and a great many young ‘scions’ wait for a star car in hope of having the opportunity to insult respectable colored ladies” the Tribune suggested that “every colored citizen of New Orleans, on and after the fifteenth of August enter into any car of the C.R.R.C. and if ordered out—take a seat; and if afterwards he is ejected, sue the company.”

Two days later the paper noted “colored men have entered the ‘no star’ cars since two or three days, and the drivers have been unable to procure the assistance of the police to help them out. Police officers have no longer any right to interfere in such cases, and they know it. Let everybody get freely into all the public conveyances.”

Two years later, as Joseph waited for the train, he was still compelled to take a car with a black star instead of the first one available. No wonder he was feeling discontent. Reconstruction was in full swing, conditions for blacks were supposed to be improving, and yet this unjust transportation system persisted.

And he wasn’t alone.

In the spring of 1867 the discontent had reached a boiling point. In April, William Nichols stepped into a car on Canal Street and was told by the driver to leave or the car wouldn’t move. Mr. Nichols refused, saying “he saw no reason why he should travel in a star car, and that he intended to remain where he was unless ejected by force.” The Conductor and Starter complied, and Mr. Nichols was arrested, charged with taking forcible possession of a car. The city’s black citizens eagerly awaited the outcome of the trial, believing it would set a precedent upholding the Civil Rights Bill and outlawing discrimination in public establishments and institutions.

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