This letter from Richmond City Attorney H. R. Pollard, dated September 2, 1914, and the corresponding blueprint from the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad Company illustrate the enforcement of segregation or “Jim Crow” policies in public accommodations and transportation. On August 18, 1914, the City of Richmond passed a resolution requiring all transportation carriers to implement plans to provide separate waiting rooms for white and colored, (meaning African American), passengers. Richmond was responding to calls from the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which regulated corporate activity in the state. The blueprint provided in reply to Pollard's request shows the segregated spaces at Byrd Street Station. The large waiting room is divided into separate sections for African American and white passengers. There are also separate toilets or restrooms for blacks and whites.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Virginia General Assembly began passing a series of laws to segregate seating on public transportation by race. On January 25, 1900, it enacted a law paving the way for separate railroad cars for black customers, to go into effect in July of that year. The following year the legislature required segregation on steamboats. In January 1904, the assembly adopted laws that allowed transport companies to segregate public trolleys. When the Virginia Passenger and Power Company announced its plans to segregate its customers beginning April 20, 1904, African American leaders in Richmond instituted a boycott of the carrier. John Mitchell, publisher of the Richmond Planet, was particularly vocal in protesting the new segregation measures. While that effort failed, several other boycotts took place in the state, most notably in Newport News. In 1906, the General Assembly required segregation on all trolley cars in the state.
By the early twentieth century in Virginia and throughout the South, segregation or “Jim Crow” laws, sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision allowing separate but equal facilities for the races, became a firmly entrenched part of daily life. When it was absolutely necessary for both races to occupy the same place for the same function, separate spaces were provided, including separate waiting rooms in train stations, like Byrd Street Station, and in hospitals and doctors' offices. It also meant separate water fountains and restrooms, if any were provided at all for African American patrons. Jim Crow policies also crossed over into social etiquette between the races, which meant that African Americans were expected to step out of the way on sidewalks for whites, maintain an appropriate distance, and to avoid eye contact.
1. Describe the layout of the Byrd Street Station shown in the blueprint. How are the segregated spaces designated? What is notable about the size of some of the segregated spaces? Why is it important?
2. Do you think that African American women would have been able to use the space labeled as the “Ladies Waiting Room”? Why or why not?
3. What other public facilities required the segregation of the races?
4. What methods did African Americans use to protest Jim Crow policies? Were they effective?
1. Segregated spaces required signs to show who was allowed there and who was not. Research and find examples of “Whites only” and “Colored Only” signs that exist from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
2. African Americans struggled well into the 1960s to end segregation policies relating to public transportation. Compare the Richmond Trolley boycott to the case of Irene Morgan v. Virginia (1946), involving segregated seating on a Greyhound bus. What ultimately ended segregation policies in the United States?
Alexander, Ann Field. Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting Editor,” John Mitchell, Jr. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. “Negro Boycotts of Segregated Streetcars in Virginia, 1904–1907.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 81 (October 1973): 479–487.