Ride-in!

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But the Supreme Court did not exactly rush to make its ruling. Though two cases testing the 1875 act reached it in 1876 and a third in 1877, the Justices simply held them on their docket. In 1879, the Attorney General filed a brief defending the constitutionality of the law, but still the Court reached no decisions. In 1880, three additional cases were filed, but two years elapsed before the Solicitor General presented a fresh brief supporting the statute. It was not until late in 1883 that the Supreme Court passed upon the 1875 act, in what became famous as the Civil Rights Cases ruling. True, the Court was badly behind in its work in this period, but clearly the Justices chose to let the civil-rights cases “ripen” for almost eight years.

When they finally came to grips with the issue, six separate test suits were involved. The most celebrated had arisen in New York City in November of 1879. Edwin Booth, the famous tragedian and brother of John Wilkes Booth, had opened a special Thanksgiving week engagement at the Grand Opera House. After playing Hamlet, Othello , and Richelieu to packed houses, he was scheduled to perform Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas at the Saturday matinee on November 22.

One person who had decided to see Booth that Saturday was William R. Davis, Jr., who was later described in the press as a tall, handsome, and well-spoken Negro of twenty-six. He was the business agent of the Progressive-American , a Negro weekly published in New York City. At 10 o’clock Saturday morning, Davis’ girl friend (”a bright octoroon, almost white,” as the press put it), purchased two reserved seats at the box office of the Grand Opera House. At 1:30 P.M. , Davis and his lady presented themselves at the theatre, only to be told by the doorkeeper, Samuel Singleton, that “these tickets are no good.” If he would step out to the box office, Singleton told Davis, his money would be refunded.

It is unlikely that Davis was surprised by Singleton’s action, for this was not the first time he had encountered such difficulties. Shortly after the passage of the 1875 act, Davis had been refused a ticket to the dress circle of Booth’s Theatre in New York. He had sworn out a warrant against the ticket seller, but the failure of his witnesses to appear at the grand jury proceedings had led to a dismissal of the complaint. This earlier episode, as well as Davis’ activity as a Negro journalist, made it probable that this appearance at the Opera House in 1879 was a deliberate test of the management’s discriminatory policies.

Though Davis walked out of the lobby at Singleton’s request, he did not turn in his tickets for a refund. Instead, he summoned a young white boy standing near the theatre, gave him a dollar (plus a dime for his trouble), and had him purchase two more tickets. When Davis and his companion presented these to Singleton, only the lady was allowed to pass. Again Davis was told that his ticket was “no good.” When he now refused to move out of the doorway, Singleton called a policeman and asked that Davis be escorted off the theatre property. The officer told Davis that the Messrs. Poole and Donnelly, the managers of the Opera House, did not admit colored persons. “Perhaps the managers do not,” Davis retorted, “but the laws of the country [do].”

The following Monday, November 24, Davis filed a criminal complaint; on December 9, this time with witnesses in abundance, Singleton was indicted in what the press described as the first criminal proceeding under the 1875 act to go to trial in New York. When the case opened on January 14, 1880, Singleton’s counsel argued that the 1875 law was unconstitutional. “It interferes,” he said, “with the right of the State of New York to provide the means under which citizens of the State have the power to control and protect their rights in respect to their private property.” The assistant United States attorney replied that such a conception of states’ rights had been “exploded and superseded long ago.” It was unthinkable, he declared, that “the United States could not extend to one citizen of New York a right which the State itself gave to others of its citizens—the right of admission to places of public amusement.”

The presiding judge decided to take the constitutional challenge under advisement and referred it to the circuit court, for consideration at its February term. This left the decision up to Justice Samuel Blatchford of the Supreme Court, who was assigned to the circuit court for New York, and District Judge William Choate. The two judges reached opposite conclusions and certified the question to the United States Supreme Court.