The District’s Rosa Parks

An African-American woman tries to sit in a seat on public transportation implicitly reserved for whites only. She refuses to get up when ordered to move, and is forcibly evicted by the police.

Her case draws national attention, and eventually causes the Supreme Court to confront the issue of racial segregation.

Rosa Parks, by Marshall D. Rumbaugh, 1983
Rosa Parks by Marshall D. Rumbaugh at The National Portrait Gallery

If you’re thinking of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, you’re about a hundred years too late.

I’m talking about Kate Brown, a resident of the District, who in 1868 refused to leave the car reserved for white ladies in a train bound for Washington.

Her story is found in a new book – An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle for Equality in Kate Masur's An Example for All the LandWashington, historian and Northwestern professor Kate Masur. I heard her speak at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s bookstore on Wednesday, one of the many events in the District planned throughout February for Black History Month.

Masur’s book examines the special place the District holds in the early struggle for civil rights – during the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. Brown’s story is one of many interesting parallels to the modern civil rights movement that flourished almost a century later.

Today the District has a majority African-American population, and it has always been home to a strong black community. Even before the Civil War – when slavery was still legal in the District – about 60 percent of blacks living in the city were free.

During and after the war, African-Americans flocked to Washington. Over the next fifty years, the District became home to a burgeoning black middle and upper class, many of whom worked for the federal government.

At the Portrait Gallery, Masur talked about the early activism of members of this community, who pushed the limits of segregation and tested new civil rights laws. She described how their efforts – and Lincoln’s Republican Party in Congress – turned the District into a testing ground for racial integration after the Civil War and during Reconstruction.

Kate Masur Book-Signing at National Portrait Gallery
Professor Kate Masur speaks at a book-signing at the National Portrait Gallery’s bookstore.

The title of her book comes from a statement by Senator Charles Sumner, a member of the Radical Republicans and an early civil rights advocate from Massachusetts. He declared that the District would be “an example for all the land.”

One of those examples came in 1865, when D.C. outlawed racial discrimination on all modes of transportation in the city, such as streetcars and trains.

In 1868, Kate Brown tested the law while riding in a train bound for Washington. Brown lived in the District, and worked at the U.S. Capitol building as a ladies’ restroom attendant for the Senate.

She boarded the ladies’ car on a train in D.C. that was headed across the river for Alexandria, Virginia. As she entered the train, a conductor on the platform ordered her to move to the rear car, because the ladies’ car was implicitly reserved for white women only. She refused, and made it to Alexandria without incident.

But when she entered the same car for the return trip, she was confronted by a policeman working for the railway line. When she refused to budge, he proceeded to beat her knuckles, twist her arms, and grab her collar, forcibly ejecting her from the car and dragging her to the platform below.

Brown was seriously injured and shaken by the incident. She was found on the platform by a Senate clerk, who escorted her back to the District on the train. Because she was an employee of the Capitol, Senator Sumner and others called for an official investigation into the incident.

The senator who was chairman of the committee that governed D.C. affairs actually traveled to Brown’s home, where she was convalescing from her injuries, to take her testimony.

She explained her actions simply: “I came down in that car, and in that car I intended to return.”

Kate Brown didn’t let the matter rest there. She sued the railroad company for damages, and the case made it to the Supreme Court, where she actually won in 1873. In Railroad Company v. Brown, the high court rejected the claims that there were other “separate but equal” train cars for black passengers.

To find out more about this fascinating case, watch a C-SPAN video of a presentation given by Kate Masur in Washington in 2005. It has more details on Kate Brown and her fellow black federal employees during this time period.

The kind of racial equality that was briefly established in the District was later applied nationally in legislation authored by Senator Sumner – the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

Unfortunately, these laws and other Reconstruction reforms were short-lived. The Civil Rights Act was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883. In 1896, the Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld racial segregation on the railway system, and declared “separate but equal” the law of the land.

According to Masur, although many of D.C.’s progressive laws remained on the books, they ceased to be enforced. While streetcars, buses, and trains were generally not segregated in the District, most other areas of life were – including department stores, public schools, and entire neighborhoods.

The equality affirmed by Railroad Company v. Brown wouldn’t surface again until 1954, when Brown (no relation to Kate) v. Board of Education declared school segregation illegal. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that separate was inherently unequal.

After Masur’s talk and book signing, I went upstairs to check out a similarly themed exhibit that’s part of the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection – called The Struggle for Justice.

It highlights important figures in the fight for equality – including leaders of movements to end racial discrimination, win women’s suffrage, and secure gay rights.

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Exhibit - The Struggle for Justice
The Struggle for Justice exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.

Many Washingtonians are featured in the exhibit, although Kate Brown isn’t one of them. I’m not even sure if an image of her exists.

One of the more unique parts of the collection is a wooden sculpture of Rosa Parks being taken away by the police, almost one hundred years after Kate Brown took a similar stand against segregation.

Parks became a well-known symbol of resistance to segregation, and her actions eventually led to the Supreme Court decision that declared bus segregation illegal. After her death in 2005, Parks became the second African-American – and the first woman – to lie in state in the Capitol’s Rotunda.

This rare honor – afforded to few public figures – happened in the very same building where Kate Brown worked until 1881.

It was a sign of how far the country had come since Brown tested the limits of equality on a Washington-bound train so many years ago.

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