Monday, February 29, 2016

This Train is Bound for Glory

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On August 1, 1851, R.W. Thompson, a black barber from Owego, New York, purchased a first class ticket to travel to Seneca Lake on the New York and Erie Railroad along with his wife and sister-in-law.  Upon reaching Elmira, they were approached by the conductor, John McWilliams, and asked to move to the colored section of the train car.  Thompson refused and that’s when the story got complicated.  According to the Owego Gazette, Mr. Thompson was tackled by 8 or 10 railroad employees and forcibly thrown off the train while Mrs. Thompson was locked out on the platform of the rear car until the train reached Horseheads.  The Elmira Gazette, however, reported that Thompson was forcibly moved to the colored car and then chose to remove himself from the train in protest.  Within a week, Thompson and his attorney George Sidney Camp, Esq. had filed suit against McWilliams and the railroad.  I was unable to find any record of who won.

The press coverage of the incident was, unsurprisingly, painfully racist, even the stuff which supported Thompson.  Here are some choice examples:

Owego Gazette, August 7, 1851.  This is an example of what modern civil rights activists call "respectability politics."
Elmira Gazette, August 14, 1851.  Why bother fighting racism when it's just so upsetting and inconvenient for everyone involved?

In 1890, Louisiana became the first state to mandate that railroad companies have separate cars for blacks and whites with the infamous Separate Car Act.  The act was wildly unpopular with both blacks, who thought it was racist, and the railroad companies, who thought it was too expensive to implement.   On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a mix-race civil rights activist working with the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens), boarded a whites-only train car on the East Louisiana Railroad in deliberate defiance of that state’s Separate Car Act.  Plessy and the Comité des Citoyens, along with the railroad company, had arranged to have Plessy arrested specifically so they could challenge the constitutionality of the law under the grounds that it violated the Thirteenth and Fourteen Amendments to the Constitution.  Unfortunately, the plan backfired.  Badly.  After losing at every level of the courts, Plessy brought to case to the Supreme Court of the United States where, on May 18, 1896, the court upheld the law in a 7-1 decision establishing ‘separate but equal’ as the law of the land.  It was not until Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) when the court realized that separate was inherently unequal.  Even then, it took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to officially prohibit segregation. 


  1. yes indeed it is a very interesting article and I am sure there are many more stories of this same type that occurred not only in our area here in New York but all over the country