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The Political Economy of Segregation: The Case of Segregated Streetcars

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 March 2009

Jennifer Roback
Assistant Professor of Economics and Research Associate, Center for study of Public Choice, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030.


The introduction of segregation laws for municipal streetcars is examined. The economics of private and public segregation is analyzed first, taking note of the particular features of the streetcar industry, followed by a discussion of the contemporary debates on streetcar segregation laws in a number of southern cities. The evidence presented suggests that segregation laws were binding constraints and not simply the codification of customary practice. Furthermore, the streetcar companies were not the initiators of segregation and sometimes actively resisted it. These findings are related to several major interpretations of the origins of segregation.

Copyright © The Economic History Association 1986

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7 Richmond News-Leader, April 25, 1904. For Additional examples of enforcement problems, see the case studies in text for Augusta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama.Google Scholar

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15 Parts 526 and 527 of the Georgia criminal code, quoted in the Augusta Chronicle, May 15, 1900. The relevant passages of the law are as follows: Part 526: Railroads doing business in this state shall furnish equal accommodations in separate cars or compartments for white and colored passengers… Part 527: Conductors or other employees in charge of such cars shall assign passengers to their respective cars of compartments of cars, and conductors of dummy, electric and streetcars shall assign all passengers to seats on the cars under their charge, so as to separate the white and colored races as much as practicable and conductors of dummy, electric or streetcars shall have police powers to carry out the provisions of this and the preceding section.Google Scholar

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19 Ibid., May 15, 1900.

20 “ The killing of young Whitney and the subsequent lynching of his murderer brings to mind a similar tragedy in Augusta in August 1873, when Capt. Butler, a gallant confederate soldier was shot dead by a negro Saturday night upon a Broad streetcar,” Quoted in the Augusta Chronicle, May 16, 1900. I surmise that if a similar violent act on a streetcar had occurred more recently, the editor would have mentioned the more recent incident instead.Google Scholar

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25 Ibid., May 23 and 24, 1900. The judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the law in question was a state law, (the city ordinance was still in the proposal stages) and that he as a municipal judge had no authority to enforce a state law

26 Ibid., May 24, 1900.

27 Ibid., May 24, 1900.

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44 Ibid., June 3, 1904.

45 Floridia Times-Union, Nov. 6, 1901. The final vote was 11 in favor of the ordinance, 6 opposed.Google Scholar

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47 Ibid., Nov. 8 and 9, 1901.

48 The column comments that: “The backbone of the opposition originated with the women, who threatened a boycott of the men of the race if they dared to ride in the separate cars. The company has taken off the separate cars and all passengers are treated alike. Too much praise can not be given these women.” Indianapolis Freeman, Mar. 22, 1902.Google Scholar

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53 Meier, August and Rudwick, Elliot, “The Boycott Movement”; Florida Times-Union, July 3, 1905. It is also interesting to note that competition was mentioned during the 1901 boycott. At the first meeting at which the blacks discussed the possibility of a boycott, the newspaper reports that there was an “explanation of the hack system by which the negro race could ride from one end of the city to another for the same fare as on the streetcars, and also have the benefits of the transfer system. There were also a number of hackmen present, and also the president and secretary of the Coachman's Union and they made brief speeches and offered suggestions.” Florida Times-Union, Nov. 8, 1901.Google Scholar

54 Ibid., July 3, 1905 and July 19, 1905.

55 Ibid., July 14, 18 and 19, 1905.

56 Ibid., July 18 and 19, 1905.

57 Ultimately the law was declared unconstitutional because of a clause which made an exception for black nurses traveling with their charges. This was held to be class legislation. Ibid., July 26 and 30, 1905.

58 Ibid., July 23, 1905.

59 Ibid., July 25, 1905.

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