A century before Rosa Parks, a Black woman fought for her rights on an S.F. streetcar—and won

Charlotte Brown filed two lawsuits in 1863 asserting her right to be treated as an equal passenger

Not all battles of the Civil War were fought on the front lines. Some were fought right here in San Francisco, where courtrooms, public schools and streetcars were the battlegrounds for racial justice.

On April 17, 1863, Charlotte L. Brown, who was Black, refused to get off a horse-drawn streetcar when the conductor would not accept her ticket and instead told her to leave. When other white passengers got involved, Brown was eventually forcibly removed from the vehicle.

It was two years before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and almost a century before the pinnacle of the civil rights movement, but Brown would file two lawsuits against the streetcar’s owner, Omnibus Railroad and Cable Company, asserting her right to be treated as an equal passenger.

“Streetcars became the platforms on which women of color interpreted the meaning of emancipation on the northern home front,” writes Judy Giesberg, a Civil War historian, in her book Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front.

Racism in San Francisco

February is Black History Month, yet Brown remains largely unheralded and The City’s own history of racism is often overlooked.

“Contrary to popular belief, San Francisco was a heavily racist town,” said Emiliano Echeverria, who has written numerous books about The City’s early history. “There’s always been a lot of diversity — but tolerance, not so much. And even tolerance is just putting up with your neighbors, not really learning how to accept and get along with them.”

Diversity does not equal acceptance.

Going back to the Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s, San Francisco was home to many Chinese and Latino immigrants. Black residents accounted for only 2% of The City’s total population, and they were “well established, literate and resolutely middle class,” Giesberg writes in her book. Many emigrated from the West Indies and enjoyed a cosmopolitan lifestyle of travel and relatively expensive clothes.

However, their civic participation was curtailed by discriminatory laws. They could not serve on juries or attend public schools. Black residents were forbidden from voting and until just months before Brown was removed from the streetcar, they couldn’t testify in court cases involving white residents.

One of the earliest to avail herself of this new right, Brown was successful in her first lawsuit against Omnibus Railroad. After many months spent in appeals court, however, she received only $500 in damages, and no changes to public transportation law were made.

Shortly after the first court case was settled, Brown was kicked off another Omnibus streetcar while riding with her father.

The two returned promptly to court and won, this time with a decisive and effectual ruling from the 12th District Court of San Francisco that deemed streetcar segregation indefensible.

Judge Orville C. Pratt acknowledged that railroad laws give transportation companies the right to make exceptions to their duty to carry passengers, such as when a person might cause danger, transmit illness or refuse to pay fare. However, the judge determined that skin color does not qualify.

“The accident of color is not legitimately embraced among the causes that justify exceptions to the rule,” an Oct. 3, 1864, newspaper article in the San Francisco Bulletin said. “The Judge shows no disposition to lend the power of the court to perpetuate a ‘relic of barbarism,’ and he intimates that the logic of events is fast disposing of prejudices and unfounded repugnances of one class of Americans to another class.”

Though discrimination would continue, Brown’s victory gave other people the courage to take their own experiences of segregation to court. It was also seen as the “end of streetcar segregation from the day the white-owned Omnibus Railroad company paid Charlotte Brown for the injury she suffered when forced to leave the car on account of her race,” according to Giesberg’s writings.

Transit justice

Understanding the legacy of Omnibus Railroad’s discrimination — and the fight Brown waged to combat it — is essential to understanding the full role racism played and continues to play in San Francisco’s transit infrastructure today.

Though not racist in name, urban planning and transportation policies have historically cut out communities of color from economic centers and isolate them from job opportunities, health care services and quality of life amenities such as parks. Governments have dumped emissions in poor neighborhoods and allowed infrastructure to crumble.

“That example forces us to reconcile with the fact that racism is everywhere,” said Josephine Ayankoya, the racial equity officer for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “It is the water that we drink, the air that we breathe, and we have to be intentional and rigorous and data-driven in the way we understand it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic shone a light on the relationship between public transportation and racism.

When SFMTA suspended all but a skeletal network of transit lines in March 2020, it affected low-income families, many of which are people of color, the most. They could not work from home, nor afford the steep fees for takeout or hop into private vehicles for trips to pharmacies and the grocery store.

Recognizing this disproportionate impact, the transit agency prioritized restoration and modifications of bus routes to best serve high concentrations of essential workers and lower income communities, including the 14-Mission, 15-Bayview Hunters Point Express and the 9-San Bruno. SFMTA installed transit-only lanes to speed up Muni service in certain neighborhoods, and it experimented with increased discount programs, though never reached an entirely fare-free pilot that was called for by many.

None of these interventions was a panacea for some of The City’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Bayview Hunters Point and the Tenderloin, that continue to be underserved by mobility infrastructure, including bus shelters, bike lanes and frequent transit service. However, they did result in recognition from officials that transportation plays a key role in achieving real equity.

SFMTA was also forced to look inward at how it perpetuates racial inequity within its own rank and file.

Employees of color at the agency are less likely to reach management roles than their white counterparts and more likely to receive disciplinary action or report feeling uncomfortable sharing feedback with leadership, according to a presentation given at a November 2020 SFMTA board meeting.

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin acknowledged the transportation industry’s “long history of destroying Black wealth,” and his own agency’s “long and well-documented history of racism, sexism and discrimination.”

Transportation officials unveiled a racial equity plan to assess past and current failures, develop performance indicators to monitor progress and create a path forward for a workplace free of discrimination as well as an equitable transportation service plan.

Along those same lines, as the agency seeks to hire for the growing number of operator vacancies, it will look for ways to improve treatment of the people who drive Muni buses, trains and cable cars.

Most of these operators are people of color. They’ve always faced the threat of discrimination while working in such a public-facing capacity. The pandemic exacerbated this phenomenon as people grew irascible and even violent, coupled with the tangible fear of contracting COVID-19 on the job.

“The way we invest in them and support their career growth and ensure they are supported in daily work conditions will be critical,” Ayankoya said. “They are not the buses they drive. They are people with lived experiences, people who have shown up for us throughout the most difficult and uncertain times.”

In a similar way, Brown knew that her ability to ride a streetcar wasn’t just about getting from one destination to another. It was about challenging the racist system that it represented.


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