Say the words “Jim Crow” and “protest” and you probably think of the 1950s and 60s, when lawsuits, boycotts and sit-ins began to chip away at discriminatory rules. But across the nation, the fight against segregation laws actually began as soon as they went into effect. 110 years ago this month, Nashville’s black community took a bold step that made its streetcar boycott one of the most successful of its generation.
Nashville was a changing place at the turn of the last century. New neighborhoods and elaborate amusement parks had sprung up along electric-powered streetcar lines. The city was expanding from its core in a way that made walking less and less of a viable option for getting around. In navigating the newly sprawling city, black and white Nashvillians found themselves in fairly close quarters.
Attempts to segregate transit lines happened in fits and starts over the course of several years. But as state legislators considered enacting "separation laws," letters to the editor flooded into the Nashville American newspaper (a precursor to The Tennessean). Letter writers complained of the odor when sharing a car with black workers coming off their shifts at a West Nashville fertilizer plant. They cited incidents of white girls standing while African-American students sat. They argued that segregation was a "crying need" that would be good for both races, and they claimed it was only necessary because of bad behavior. As one letter writer (who called himself "Melchizekdek") put it: "If the Negroes, as a general rule, were as polite now as they were before the war, we do not think that the necessity for this law would have existed."
Most didn’t sign their real names, but J. A. Jones did. He was a leader in the city’s black community, the pastor of St. Paul A. M. E. Church. Jones predicted 9 out of 10 African-Americans would rather give up riding on streetcars than accept a second-class status. “The self-respecting, intelligent colored citizens of Nashville will not stand for Jim-Crowism on the street car line and in this city," he wrote. "The shoe stores and the livery stables will very likely profit by this move.”
That's exactly what happened. A statewide segregation law went into effect on July 5, 1905, and in the lead-up to that day the rallying cry went out to "trim your corns, darn your socks, wear solid shoes and walk!"
There were boycotts in each of Tennessee's major cities, as there would be in nearly 30 cities across the nation as similar laws were enacted. The efforts in Chattanooga, Memphis and Knoxville followed the norm; short-lived cries snuffed out by the need to get to work or church on time. But the arrest of one Nashville woman galvanized this city's black community.
Much like Rosa Parks would fifty years later on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama (and as New Yorker Elizabeth Jennings had done on a horse-drawn omnibus in 1855), Mrs. W. B. Phillips refused to give up her seat on a Nashville streetcar. Told to stand so that a white woman might have a place to sit, Phillips refused, insisting a white man should be willing to give up his seat, instead. The conductor called a plainclothes policeman over; Phillips was taken into police custody. Black business leaders set out to make sure that wouldn't happen again.
In September, 15 men signed the charter of an alternate streetcar line, the Union Transportation Company. The main officers include names you still see around town: Preston Taylor was a prominent undertaker who had recently opened an amusement park for blacks, R. H. Boyd founded the National Baptist Publishing Board, and lawyer James Carroll Napier had held political office before efforts to disenfranchise black voters essentially made it impossible for African-Americans to win elections.
"Not only were they boycotting this Jim Crow new law," says historian David Ewing, "but they were providing an alternative, and an alternative that was black-owned and that they would control."
Union Transportation set out to service places where African-Americans lived and the black business district near the state capitol, with the same 5-cent fare as the white-owned line charged. A little more than a month after forming the company, they debuted a small fleet of steam-powered cars. Unfortunately, the vehicles weren't up to the job of climbing the steep hill near the capitol.
The company purchased electric replacements. Finally, the streetcars were working. Four lines snaked out from downtown, carrying passengers North, South, West, and across the river into East Nashville.
But the electric cars used batteries that needed to be charged by the electric company, which also ran Nashville’s main streetcar line. Nashville Rail and Electric wasn't particularly interested in helping a rival, especially not during a boycott. The firm didn't refuse Union Transportation's business. Instead, they regularly delivered "charged" batteries that were badly damaged from overcharging.
Wynn puts it plainly: "The Union Transportation Company was sabotaged."
As if that wasn’t enough, in April of 1906 the city council adopted a tax on privately owned streetcars. Forty-two dollars a car was a lot at the time — more than the struggling company could afford.
A year after the boycott began, Union Transportation suspended service, still hoping to raise enough money to start the cars back up again. That never happened.
However, despite the effort it took to walk or line up transportation, it took many black Nashvillians, particularly the women, another year to totally give up. Altogether, the boycott lasted two years — longer than any of the other 30 or so streetcar boycotts of that era, and longer than the Montgomery bus boycott.
Technically, the boycott was a failure, but Linda Wynn thinks working together for a common goal did something positive to the psyche and resolve of the people who participated. That generation of black Nashvillians had an outsized number of founders and entrepreneurs, and she sees the boycott effort as one building block that lead to later accomplishments.
A newspaper — formed to get out the word about the boycott — lived on as a major voice in the community until the 1960s. The same people who tried to make a go of the Union Transportation Company established the One Cent Savings Bank, which is still in operation as Citizens Bank. They organized a "colored state fair" and fought against a law that would have closed their Greenwood Park. They also convinced the state to establish Tennessee State University in Nashville. And eventually, students from that school played a pivotal role in finally doing away with Jim Crow.
Our thanks to Paige Hendrickson, Julius Turnipseed and Chuck Cardona for voicing letters to the editor in the audio version of this story.