2.4.3. The Mid-Atlantic States (1865-1900): Civil Rights in the Postwar Era


Full black male suffrage

School segregation

State accommodations law enacted

New York




New Jersey


1881 – school segregation abolished




1881 – school segregation abolished

1867 – segregation outlawed on railroads

  • New York and Pennsylvania granted property-owning blacks limited voting rights before the Civil War; New Jersey did not allow blacks to vote.  Unlike some other Northern states, none of the mid-Atlantic states moved to extend black suffrage until the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1870) extended that right to all states.  All three states eliminated school segregation shortly after the Civil War ended. 
  • In 1875 Congress, at the urging of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, enacted a federal “accommodations law” prohibiting racial discrimination in restaurants, hotels and other public places.  The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 1883; in reaction, New York and Pennsylvania enacted their own versions of the accommodations law.  New Jersey did not.

Key cases:

West Chester & Philadelphia R. Co. v. Miles – Pennsylvania, 1867 (55 Pa. 109); People ex rel. King v. Gallagher – New York, 1883 (93 N.Y. 438); Pierce v. Union District School Trustees – New Jersey, 1884-85 (46 N.J. Law 76; 47 N.J. Law 348); People v. King – New York, 1888 (18 N.E. 245)

  • In West Chester, the Pennsylvania supreme court upheld a railroad regulation requiring segregation in passenger cars.  Postwar Southern courts often cited this case to show that racial discrimination prevailed in the North as well as the South, but in fact West Chester was an anomaly:  the Pennsylvania legislature outlawed such discrimination shortly before the case was decided, and state courts consistently enforced the law in later years.  In Pierce, New Jersey’s highest court strictly enforced the state’s 1881 anti-segregation law and held that a black student was entitled to attend an integrated school near his house rather than a special school the district had reserved for blacks.
  • New York’s highest court divided over segregation well into the late 19th century.   In Gallagher, the court upheld by a 4-2 vote an 1864 law allowing school districts to segregate their schools and adopted the “separate but equal” rule later endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Two dissenting judges argued vigorously that the postwar amendments to the U.S. Constitution prohibited school segregation and that an 1873 law had effectively abolished segregation in New York. 
  • After New York enacted its accommodations law, the court changed its tune in King:  the majority upheld the new law and endorsed integration in ringing terms.  But two judges dissented and Chief Justice William Ruger, who had written the majority opinion in Gallagher, supported the new law only reluctantly. 

“Both justice and the public interest concur in a policy which shall elevate [blacks] as individuals, and … give them a fair chance in the struggle of life … [I]t is evident that to exclude colored people from places of public resort on account of their race, is to fix upon them a brand of inferiority, and tends to fix their position as a servile and dependent people.” – Justice __, in King.

Dispute over segregated seating in New York City, 1862 - courtesy New York Public Library

“The danger to the peace engendered by the feeling of aversion between individuals of the different races cannot be denied … However unwise it may be to indulge the feeling, human infirmity is not always proof against it.  It is much wiser to avert the consequences of this repulsion of race by separation, than to punish afterward the breach of the peace it may have caused.” – Justice Daniel Agnew, in West Chester

“The attempt to enforce social intimacy between the races, by legal enactments, would probably tend only to embitter the prejudices, if any such there are, which exist between them, and produce an evil instead of a good result … [I]nstitutions organized … for the exclusive use and benefit of the colored race … have effected much for its improvement and advantage.” – Chief Justice William Ruger, in Gallagher