Can you provide any information about a boycott of the New Orleans streetcar lines around 1902? I recently found a pinback button announcing "I Won't ride the Street Car." I understand that boycotts were launched in New Orleans, Mobile, and other southern cities to protest Jim Crow laws and racial segregation on the transit system.
Here in New Orleans there was some boycotting, but not to the extent that there was in other southern cities.
On Oct. 13, 1902, the Jim Crow law requiring the separation of the white and black races in the streetcars went into effect. House Bill No. 22 Act No. 64 began thus: "To promote the comfort of passengers on street railways, requiring all street railways in this State to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing separate cars or compartments so as to secure separate accommodations ..."
The law stated that either two or more cars must be provided or that the cars had to be divided by wooden or wire screen partitions. In addition, no person would be allowed to occupy seats in cars or compartments other than the ones assigned to them according to the race they belonged to. The law also stated that the officers of the streetcars had the power and were required to assign each passenger to the car or compartment used for that passenger's race. Any passenger who insisted on going to a car in which he did not belong would be liable to a fine of $25 or imprisonment for up to 30 days. The same penalties applied to any streetcar officer who assigned a passenger a seat in the wrong compartment.
The streetcar companies attempted to follow the law, but their efforts were rather crude at first. They used ropes to divide the front seats from those in the rear, but most of the people who got on the streetcars didn't know what the ropes were for. Other conductors rigged up screens of cheesecloth or old pieces of clothing. In the first days, all passengers were mixed up, blacks sitting in white sections and whites sitting in black sections. Most were good-natured about the new law.
Almost immediately, however, there was confusion about who would be assigned to the white section. The streetcar companies objected to the new law on practical grounds because it was often difficult to know whether or not some Louisianans had black blood. In one notable instance, a black man protested over the fact that a Chinese man was assigned to the white section. Some citizens wondered what would happen when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show came to town with Indians, Japanese, Mexicans, Cossacks, Arabs, Filipinos and Egyptians.
A few weeks later, the white passengers were complaining loudly. Since they were only allowed to sit in the seats assigned to them, they often found themselves standing in a streetcar on which there were no black people. The conductor told them in no uncertain terms that if they wished to sit in a seat designated for the blacks there would be a fine or a jail term. Anyone who refused to comply could also be put off.
The problem, as the white passengers saw it, was that too few seats were being assigned to them, especially on lines that carried very few blacks. Early in November, over a thousand citizens filed a petition claiming poor service by the streetcar company -- too few cars, too many people. The petition sent to City Hall claimed that the whites were being discriminated against, that far too many seats were being provided for black passengers since only one in 10 blacks rode the streetcars. The petitioners provided the following figures: Of 90,448 seats on the streetcars, 25,488 were allotted to blacks, while only 64,960 seats were provided for the 131,500 white passengers.
The streetcar companies yielded to public sentiment and made an adjustment. After this, the company claimed that blacks were boycotting, but generally there were just as many riding after the law was passed as before.