I'm imagining people of color taking a train (or bus, for that matter) from the south to the north during the period when segregation was largely phased out in the north but still law in the south. When they get on the train or bus, the law forces them to sit in a separate area, use "colored only" facilities, etc.

Then the train or bus enters a state where segregation is no longer law. Do they get to sit where they want, use whichever restrooms they want, drink from whatever water fountain they choose, etc?

Would the same system apply to a trip from the north to the south?


First of all, the segregation of trains was a rare event. The Alabama law which triggered the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, was an unusual law and most states, even in the south, did not have such laws. The reason for this is that trains had relatively few colored passengers, so setting aside a whole car was impractical. In those cases where a company had gone to the trouble of making a separate car, the passenger would be normally be seated in that car for the whole trip, even in states where the law would not have effect.

Segregation was found primarily in the south due to the relatively large of former slaves in the south. In the north, where Africans were in most places a rarity, there was never felt a need to go to the complexity of setting up segregation. A school is not going to build 20 extra drinking fountains if they only have 1 African student.

You should have no illusions that racial exclusion was unique to the south. It was just as bad or worse in the north. In the north it was not whether you got a separate car, it was more whether you were allowed on the car at all. It was very difficult for Africans to get good hotel rooms in the north until the 1970s. In fact, even in the 1950s it was common to refuse rooms to Jews or anybody else the hotelier considered undesirable. Also, renting an apartment anywhere in the north outside of segregated neighborhoods was extremely difficult for Africans. So, segregation was not just a southern phenomenon.

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    +1. Do you have any reference for the 1950s and 70s claim? – taninamdar Aug 12 '16 at 13:08
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    I don't think "African student" is correct here. There were virtually no African immigrants to the US by the 20th century, most people of color were descendants of those who were brought to the US many generations ago. – Eric Urban May 27 '17 at 11:10

First of all, it was a Louisiana law that resulted in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, not an Alabama law.

Second, my reading of primary sources -- contemporary newspapers, biographies, and autobiographies -- tells me that black men and women traveled frequently by train. Well into the 20th century, trains were the only practical way to travel long distances.

Third, on north-south routes, segregation seems to have ended in Washington, D.C., if you were going north. (Conversely, it began in Washington if you were traveling south.) Traveling east, blacks were required to move to segregated cars in Cincinnati before the train crossed into Kentucky.

I suspect whether black passengers moved to "white" cars depended on the individual. There were still bigoted whites who might make a journey unpleasant, even in states were there was no segregation.

Fourth, while it is true that many Northern states had racially based laws, only in the South was segregation essential to the framework of white supremacy by circumscribing what blacks could and could not do and delineating in tiresome detail how the races could and could not interact. In some states, for example, blacks could not check out library books set aside for whites.

(This Wikipedia link gives examples of Jim Crow laws by U.S. state over a period of years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jim_Crow_law_examples_by_state#California.)

Fifth, apologists for segregation liked to claim "separate but equal" facilities were provided black people. This was simply not true. Blacks schools in the South were funded at 1/10th the rate of white schools. Black teachers were paid half (or less) of what white teachers were paid. And, on trains blacks were relegated to substandard cars that lacked luggage racks. Bathrooms were inferior to those in white cars. In some cases, the cars set aside for black people were also the smoking cars. Worse, black women feared to travel alone because of the possibility they might be assaulted by white men in the "colored" cars.

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    The answer would be improved by citing a few more sources to support the assertions. – sempaiscuba May 26 '17 at 23:38
  • Citations would help, but anyone who corrects the god king gets an upvote. – Mark C. Wallace May 27 '17 at 19:37

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