Ride-in!

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Davis’ case, under the title of United States v. Singleton , reached the Supreme Court in 1880. Already lodged on the Court’s docket were four similar criminal prosecutions under the act of 1875. U.S. v. Stanley involved the refusal of Murray Stanley in 1875 to serve a meal at his hotel in Topeka, Kansas, to a Negro, Bird Gee. U.S. v. Nichols presented the refusal in 1876 of Samuel Nichols, owner of the Nichols House in Jefferson City, Missouri, to accept a Negro named W. H. R. Agee as a guest. U.S. v. Ryan involved the conduct of Michael Ryan, doorkeeper of Maguire’s Theatre in San Francisco, in denying a Negro named George M. Tyler entry to the dress circle on January 4, 1876. In U.S. v. Hamilton , James Hamilton, a conductor on the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad, had on April 21, 1879, denied a Negro woman with a firstclass ticket access to the ladies’ car.

There was a fifth case, with a somewhat different setting. On the evening of May 22, 1879, Mrs. Sallie J. Robinson, a twenty-eight-year-old Negro, purchased two first-class tickets at Grand Junction, Tennessee, for a trip to Lynchburg, Virginia, on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Shortly after midnight she and her nephew, Joseph C. Robinson, described as a young Negro “of light complexion, light hair, and light blue eyes,” boarded the train and started into the parlor car. The conductor, C. W. Reagin, held Mrs. Robinson back (“bruising her arm and jerking her roughly around,” she alleged) and pushed her into the smoker.

A few minutes later, when Joseph informed the conductor that he was Mrs. Robinson’s nephew and was a Negro, the conductor looked surprised. In that case, he said, they could go into the parlor car at the next stop. The Robinsons finished the ride in the parlor car but filed complaints with the railroad about their treatment and then sued for $500 under the 1875 act. At the trial, Reagin testified that he had thought Joseph to be a white man with a colored woman, and his experience was that such associations were “for illicit purposes.”

Counsel for the Robinsons objected to Reagin’s testimony, on the ground that his actions were based on race and constituted no defense. Admitting the constitutionality of the 1875 law for purposes of the trial, the railroad contended that the action of its conductor did not fall within the statute. The district judge ruled that the motive for excluding persons was the decisive issue under the act: if the jury believed that the conductor had acted because he thought Mrs. Robinson “a prostitute travelling with her paramour,” whether “well or ill-founded” in that assumption, the exclusion was not because of race and the railroad was not liable. The jury found for the railroad, and the Robinsons appealed.

These, with William Davis’ suit against the door-keeper of New York’s Grand Opera House, were the six cases to which the Supreme Court finally turned in 1882. The Justices were presented with a learned and eloquent brief for the United States submitted by Solicitor General Samuel F. Phillips, who reviewed the leading cases, described the history of the Civil War amendments to the Constitution, and stressed the importance to the rights of citizens of equal access to public accommodation. Four times since 1865, Phillips noted, civil-rights legislation had been enacted by a Congress filled with men who had fought in the Civil War and had written the war amendments. These men understood that “every rootlet of slavery has an individual vitality, and, to its minutest hair, should be anxiously followed and plucked up. …” They also knew that if the federal government allowed Negroes to be denied accommodation “by persons who notably were sensitive registers of local public opinion,” then “what upon yesterday was only ‘fact’ will become ‘doctrine’ tomorrow.”

The Supreme Court Justices who considered Phillips’ brief and the six test cases were uncommonly talented, among them being Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, a man underrated today; Joseph P. Bradley, that Court’s most powerful intellect; and Stephen J. Field, a laissez-faire interpreter of American constitutional law. John Marshall Harlan, the youngest man on the Court, had already started on the course which was to mark him as the most frequent and passionate dissenter in the Gilded Age.

As a whole, the Court might have appeared to be one which would have looked favorably on the 1875 Act. All were Republicans except Justice Field, and he was a Democrat appointed by Abraham Lincoln. All except Justice Harlan, who was the Court’s only southerner, had made their careers primarily in the northern and western states. Without exception, all had supported the Northern cause in the war, and none had any hostility toward Negroes as a class.