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Beyond Black History Month: Making Mobility Equitable

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  • The Black community has transformed U.S. transportation through inventions, policy reform, and activism
  • While transportation has improved mobility for the Black community, it has also been used as a tool for segregation and limiting freedom
  • Understanding the influential people and events that have shaped transit today helps us strive towards a more just and equitable transportation system

Transportation history cannot be separated from Black History.

In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating the transformational contributions of the Black community to the transportation industry, and acknowledging how transportation has been used as a tool for — and against — the freedom of movement for Black people. 

Use the links below to jump to different eras.

Pre-Civil War America: Slavery to Emancipation (1619-1865)

It is difficult to concisely summarize nearly 250 years of enslavement and abolition. During this time period, people relied upon their feet and horse-drawn wagons, coaches, and carriages for transport. But when the first train was built in the early 19th century, a new era of industry and transportation appeared.

  • 1619: The first enslaved Africans arrived in today’s Virginia through involuntary transportation across the Atlantic Ocean. 
  • Late 1700s to mid 1800s: The Underground Railroad, an organized network of secret routes and safe houses, supported the mobility of escaped enslaved people from the South. Key conductors of the Underground Railroad include Samuel D. Burris, Frederick Douglass, Leonard A. Grimes, Stephen Myers, Harriet Tubman, William Still, and many others. 
  • 1841: Frederick Douglass and James N. Buffman refused to leave a train car reserved for white passengers — the first recorded act of resistance against segregated public transportation. 
  • 1854: Elizabeth Jennings Graham refused to leave a “Whites Only” streetcar and took the Third Avenue Railway Company to court over their forceful removal of her. She won. 
  • 1863: Charlotte Brown boarded San Francisco’s streetcars, which were ordered only to accept white passengers, and sued the streetcar company after every incident. 

Reconstruction & The Gilded Age (1865-1900) 

Following the Civil War, the United States grappled with how to reintegrate the seceded Confederate states and reconstruct a social structure previously based on slavery. Between 1865 and 1875, Reconstruction governments established public education and the first government-provided social services passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which nominally guaranteed the civil rights of Black people and outlawed racial discrimination on public transportation. Yet, gains for the Black community were met with increasingly violent opposition by white supremacists that the Reconstruction government failed to counter. By the turn of the 20th century, many Southern political leaders stripped Black people of the civil rights they had gained after emancipation by passing racist laws and encouraging discriminatory policies and practices. 

  • 1868: Kate Brown was violently accosted by a rail line’s private police officer after she boarded a train. She sued the railway company, and the case eventually went before the U.S. Supreme Court. They ruled in her favor in 1873. 
  • 1870: Horace Pearce and Robert and Samuel Fox refused to leave a streetcar in Louisville, Kentucky. 
  • 1883: Ida B. Wells was forcefully removed from a train after refusing to move from the ladies’ car to the smoking car. She sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company, but lost when her case was brought to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. 
  • 1887: Granville T. Woods invented the induction telegraph system, allowing trains to communicate with one another to mitigate collisions. 
  • 1888: Matthew A. Cherry received a patent for creating the tricycle. In 1895, he also developed a streetcar fender that lessened damages during collisions. 
  • 1892: The Comité des Citoyens, a group founded by Rodolphe Desdunes and Louis Martinet, organized Homer Plessy’s act of resistance against segregated train cars. The incident culminated in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, in which the Court ruled that racial segregation laws did not violate the U.S. Constitution. 
  • 1893: Katherine “Kittie” Knox becomes the first Black person to be accepted into the League of American Wheelman, a membership organization that promotes cycling for fun, fitness, and transportation. 
  • 1893: Elbert R. Robinson received a patent for improvements in trolleys for electric railways. His invention focused on securing wheels to the wire when the trolley rounded curves or went down hills. 
  • 1897: Andrew J. Beard invented the first automatic railroad car coupler, dramatically reducing serious injuries to railroad workers. 

The Turn of the 20th Century (1900-1930)

In the early 1900s, the Black community continued to face the system of racial segregation that became institutionalized through Jim Crow laws. At the same time, the invention and mass production of automobiles revolutionized individual transportation by providing Americans with greater autonomy over personal travel. In 1913, Henry Ford’s Model T became the first car to be factory mass-produced. Automobile ownership was still considered a luxury during this time, and many Americans relied on public transportation. 

  • 1904: Maggie Lena Walker organized a boycott protesting segregated streetcars in Richmond, Virginia. 
  • 1906: Barbara Pope was arrested and fined for refusing to move from the train compartment reserved for white people. She appealed her conviction, and the Supreme Court of Virginia overturned her verdict and ordered the fine to be refunded. In 1908, she sued the Southern Railway Company for mistreatment, asking for damages of $20,000; the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia found her in favor but awarded her only one cent. 
  • 1923: Garrett A. Morgan patented a T-shaped traffic signal — the first to include a “caution” position. 
  • 1925: Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, Pullman porters — Black men hired to work on railroads assisting passengers on sleeping cars — formed the first all-Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
  • 1926 to 1972: The Safe Bus Company provided transportation to Black people in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The company began providing transportation to all city residents in 1968, making it the largest Black-owned and operated transportation business in the world. 
  • 1936: Victor Hugo Green began publishing “The Green Book,” an annual guide of stores, hotels, gas stations, and restaurants that welcomed Black people. 
  • 1938: Ellen Harris refused to move to the back of a bus when a white passenger boarded in Durham, North Carolina. She was arrested and fined, but her criminal conviction was later overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court. 

Birth of the Civil Rights Movement (1940-1950)

While acts of resistance against racial discrimination have existed since the social construct of race was fabricated to support white supremacy, they began to be more organized and frequent (or at least frequently documented) in the 1940s. The New Deal and World War II hastened the urbanization and industrialization in the U.S. This caused a decline in the power of the planter elite — particularly for the South. Furthermore as the nation fought for democracy and human rights in Europe, the political tumult of World War II presented an ideal opportunity for Black leaders to press for racial change at home in the U.S.

  • 1940: Pauli Murray and Adelene McBean were arrested for resisting segregation on a Greyhound bus. The NAACP came to their defense, but the state withdrew charges of violating segregation statutes which made it impossible to try the case as a civil rights test case. 
  • 1941: Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. led a boycott against two private Manhattan bus lines who refused to hire Black people for any non-porter jobs. After one month, the lines signed an agreement to hire 100 Black drivers and 70 Black maintenance workers. 
  • 1942: – The 93rd, 95th, and 97th Engineer Regiments helped connect the continental U.S. to Alaska by building the 1,600-mile Alaskan Highway. 
  • Mid 1940s: Maya Angelou becomes San Francisco’s first black streetcar operator.
  • 1944: Lieutenant Jackie Robinson — also known as #42 for his successful baseball career — refused to move to the back of a bus in Camp Hood, Texas, and received a court martial. He was later acquitted of all charges. 
  • 1944: Irene Morgan was arrested and fined for refusing to give up her Greyhound seats to a white passenger. With the help of the NAACP, her case was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she ultimately won.  
  • 1944: Arcola Philpott is hired as the Los Angeles Railways’ first Black streetcar operator. 
  • 1947: Residents of Clarendon County, SC, filed a lawsuit to provide bus transportation for Black schoolchildren. Their case was dismissed, but ultimately fueled the Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended segregation in public schools through holding the doctrine of separate but equal to be unconstitutional.

The Civil Rights Era (1950-1970)

This era of history is defined by mass protests, marches, and boycotts of the more than 400 state laws, constitutional amendments, and city ordinances that legalized segregation and discrimination during this time. Public transportation was a pivotal space for civil rights activism. Jim Crow laws and policies limited Black people’s access to transit, and diminished the quality of the transit options and amenities available to them. This impacted Black mobility and, as a result, the health, well-being, and quality of life of Black people. 

  • 1953: Lois Cooper becomes the first Black female transportation engineer to be hired at Caltrans. 
  • 1953: The Baton Route Bus Boycott lasted eight days and protested the segregated seating system on city buses. 
  • 1955 to 1956: The 13-month long Montgomery Bus Boycott was a foundational moment in the civil rights movement, culminating in the federal ruling Browder vs. Gayle that the Alabama and Montgomery laws that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Famous participants included Jo Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, Ann Robinson, Mary Louise Smith, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others. 
  • 1956: McKinley Thomspon becomes the first Black automotive designer when he is hired at Ford Motor Company. His sketches were influential in the final design of the first-generation Bronco. 
  • 1956: The Tallahassee Boycott lasted seven months and sought to end racial segregation on city buses. 
  • 1956: The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways to connect the nation. When the highway system was constructed, it cut through Black communities across the country. Between 1957 and 1977, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that more than 475,000 households were displaced for the highways’ construction, most of whom were urban, lower-income communities of color. 
  • 1961: For seven months, student activists from the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) sought to challenge segregation on interstate buses. Five years prior, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) explicitly denounced the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal” treatment in interstate bus travel. The ICC failed to enforce its ruling and Jim Crow travel laws remained in effect. 
  • 1965: Marion Barry leads a bus boycott of D.C. Transit over proposed fare increases that adversely impacted lower-income District residents, most of whom were Black. The boycott resulted in the loss of $30,000 in fare revenue over a single day and the fare increase did not go into effect. 
  • 1967: Albert William Johnson became the first Black General Motors franchisee and later became a leading Cadillac dealer. 
  • 1967: Willie James became the first Black president of New York City’s Bus and Subway Workers Union. 

Post-Civil Rights Era (1970 – 1990)

The civil rights movement resulted in substantial wins for Black Americans through legal protections against racial discrimination. In the decades that followed, many Black activists continued to fight for justice and equality for themselves and people of other identities. This era saw a particular focus on gender, Native American, Mexican-American, and LGBTQ rights. In addition, many industries — including transportation — welcomed more Black people to leadership positions than ever before.  

  • 1970: Lawrence Bailey became the first Black board member and officer of the New York City Metro Transportation Authority. 
  • 1975: William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr. became the first Black person to serve as U.S. Secretary of Transportation. 
  • 1978: Gary Gayton crafted the Minority Business Enterprise and Women Business Enterprise Program after President Carter requested all departments in the government adopt it in his 1978 domestic policy speech. 
  • 1983: Carmen E. Turner is the first Black woman to lead a major transit agency as the general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. 
  • 1987: Barbara J. Wilson became the first Black female automobile dealer. 

The Movement for Social Equity (1990s – Today) 

Though generations of civil rights activism have led to important gains in legal, political, social, and educational spheres, Black communities still experience disadvantageous, deep-seated systemic racism, and inequities that are woven into the fabric of our institutions.

In the past 60 years, activists have challenged the country to uproot systemic practices of racism in all fields, including transportation. There has been a push to move beyond equality in favor of equity. Despite the continued legacy of racism, there is plenty to celebrate whether it’s growing Black leadership in the transportation industry to successful organizing campaigns against racial injustice. 

  • 1992: The Bus Riders Union (BRU) is formed to organize against racial discrimination of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (LACMTA). This was one of the first citizen groups to use Title VI to fight racial disparities in transportation systems. In 1996, LACMTA signed a 10-year consent decree with BRU that forced the transit authority to reduce monthly and bi-weekly pass fares, purchase over 100 new buses to ease overcrowding, and create new routes to connect people of color to employment and medical destinations. 
  • 1993: Rodney Earl Slater became the first Black administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. 
  • 2009: Oscar Grant is shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer, sparking dialogue and protest around policing transit. 
  • 2009: Urban Transit and other Bay Area nonprofits sued BART for failing to analyze how their Oakland International Airport Connector rail project would impact the community it would be built in. The nonprofits won, marking the first time that activists had successfully challenged a transit project on the grounds that it violated the civil rights of local residents. 
  • 2010s: Transit and transportation-focused civic groups are founded to focus community organizing efforts on improving transit service, particularly for lower-income riders and people of color. Between 2010 and 2020, over 20 grassroots community organizations were founded to advocate for equitable, affordable, and sustainable transportation in cities across the country.

Understanding the past opens the door to the future. The Black community has profoundly influenced the transportation industry for generations. Reflecting on the influential people and events that have shaped our world today affords us the opportunity to work toward a more just and equitable transportation system — a goal that we at TransLoc strive to achieve every day in our pursuit of bringing the freedom of movement to all.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post where we hear from Black transportation professionals and advocates on their recommendations for a more just and equitable transportation system.