6.5.2 Deep South (1877-1920): Transportation Segregation


Railroad and streetcar segregation:  the origins of “separate but equal”

Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railroad Co. v. State – Mississippi, 1889 (6 So. 203), affirmed, 133 U.S. 587 (1890); Ex parte Plessy – Louisiana, 1893 (11 So. 948), affirmed, 163 U.S. 537 (1896); Patterson v. Taylor – Florida, 1906 (40 So. 493); Alabama & Vicksburg Railroad Co. v. Morris – Mississippi, 1912 (60 So. 11)

  • After the federal Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. DeCuir (see § __) that laws prohibiting segregation in public places could not be applied to interstate transportation, most Southerners thought the same would be true for laws requiring segregation.  But in 1889, Mississippi’s supreme court began chipping away at that assumption:  in Louisville, it indicated that even if the state could not require interstate railroads to segregate passengers, it could require them to provide separate cars for those who wished to segregate.  This was a meaningful distinction in law but not in every-day Deep South life:  it effectively ended integration on all trains traveling through the region.    
  • In Plessy – the most famous American civil rights case between the end of the Civil War and the modern civil rights revolution of the 1950s – Louisiana’s supreme court upheld a streetcar segregation law, reasoning that the federal 14th Amendment’s safeguards against racial discrimination did not require integration or social equality of the races.  “Separate but equal” facilities were sufficient.  Both Louisiana’s judges and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Homer Plessy’s argument that segregation imposed a mark of inferiority on blacks.  Racial separation was so much a part of the natural order that with the exception of federal Justice John Harlan, who dissented, they literally could not conceive of another point of view.
  • Encouraged by Plessy, Southern courts continued to chip away at limitations on segregation in interstate transportation.  In Morris, Mississippi’s supreme court defied the DeCuir rule and held that at least in Mississippi, interstate trains must be segregated like all others.  Applying a uniquely Southern perspective on progressivism, the court reasoned that segregation was a safety measure in that it would minimize interracial violence and thus was a proper use of the state’s police power.  In Patterson, Florida’s supreme court employed similar reasoning to uphold Jacksonville’s streetcar segregation law.   


“The addition of a [segregated] car, at the state line, to each of its trains may impose additional expense on the company, but how it is a burden or obstruction to commerce it is difficult to conceive.” – Justice __ Cooper, in Louisville

“The dissatisfaction felt with it [streetcar segregation] by a portion of the people seems to us so unreasonable that we can account for it only on the ground of some misconception.  Even were it true that the statute is prompted by a prejudice on the part of one race to be thrown in such contact with the other, one would suppose that to be a sufficient reason why the pride and self-respect of the other race should equally prompt it to avoid such contact, if it could be done without the sacrifice of equal accommodations.” – Justice  Charles Fenner, in Plessy

“If the peculiar conditions existing here demanded this legislation to conserve the peace of the state, and our lawmakers have so decided, the mere fact that the passenger is going out of the state, coming into the state from without, or traveling across the state, does not alter the complexion of affairs, nor render the danger less should a negro or white man be required, against his will, to occupy a car with passengers of another race.” – Justice __ Cook, in Morris