Railroad Company v. Brown, 84 U.S. 17 Wall. 445 445 (1873)

In 1868, Catherine Brown, an African American woman, was ejected from the "ladies car" on the Washington, Alexandria, and Georgetown Railroad Company when traveling from Alexandria, Virginia, to the District of Columbia. Brown sued the rail company and the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court - the first case addressing race and public transportation to appear before the Court. Although the legal status of the railroad under Congressional rulings that had applied to earlier iterations of the company became a basis for appeal, the rights of African Americans became the most notable outcome of the Supreme Court's decision for Brown in 1873.

In 1863, the company [Alexandria & Washington Railroad Company] got a further grant of power, authorizing it to extend its road northward so as to connect itself with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. This grant was, however, accompanied with a provision "that no person shall be excluded from the cars on account of color."

In 1866, the Washington, Alexandria & Georgetown Railroad Company, which had succeeded to the chartered rights of the old Alexandria & Washington Railroad Company, obtained from Congress an amendment to the last-mentioned act -- the act of 1863 - so as to change the route of extension, and for other purposes. This act speaks of "the Washington, Alexandria & Georgetown Railroad Company" as "a corporation lawful succeeding to the charter, rights, and privileges of the Alexandria & Washington Railroad Company." The road, under its new name, was at the time of this act leased to two persons named Stevens and Phelps. The new company not very long after fell into pecuniary difficulties, and the portion of it within the District of Columbia, by a decree of the Supreme Court of the District, was placed in the possession of a receiver, and the whole road was worked on the joint account of the lessees on the Virginia side and the receiver on the District side. In this condition of things, one Catharine Brown, a colored woman, on the 8th of February, 1868, anterior to the adoption of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, bought a ticket to come from Alexandria to Washington. The ticket was issued in the name of "the Washington, Alexandria & Georgetown Railroad Company," as were, indeed, all the tickets at each end of the route. No tickets were distinguished as for white persons or colored persons, nor for any particular sort or class of cars. All were exactly alike.

When the woman went to take her place in the cars there were standing there two cars, alike comfortable - the one, however, set apart for colored persons and the other "for white ladies, and gentlemen accompanying them," the regulation having been that in going down from Washington to Alexandria, the first should be occupied by the former, and the last by the latter, and that in coming back, the use should be simply reversed. When about to get into one of the cars, a servant of the persons managing the road, stationed near the cars to direct passengers, told the woman not to get into the car into which she was about to enter, but to get into the one before it; that he had been instructed by persons in charge of the road not to permit colored persons to ride in the car in which she was getting, but to have them go in the other. The woman, however, persisted in going into the car appropriated for white ladies, and the man put her out with force, and as she alleged, some insult. She then got into the car into which she had been directed to get - the one assigned to colored people - was carried safely into Washington, and got out there.

Hereupon she sued the Washington, Alexandria & Georgetown Railroad Company in the Supreme Court of the District.

[Ed Note: The case was decided in Brown's favor and the rail company appealed to the Supreme Court; in addition to asserting the legality of separate accomodations, the Washington, Alexandria, and Georgetown Railroad Company referred to the legal status of the company and the application of Congressional regulations to its operation. The following section is from the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Brown.]

The third and last assignment of error asserts the right of the company to make the regulation separating the colored from the white passengers.

If the defendant in error had the right to retain the seat she had first taken, it is conceded the verdict of the jury should not be disturbed.

It appears that the Washington & Alexandria Railroad Company, in 1863, was desirous of extending its road from the south side of the Potomac near to the Baltimore & Ohio depot in Washington, and Congressional aid was asked to enable it to do so. The authority to make the extension was granted and the streets designated across which the road should pass. This grant was accompanied with several provisions, among the number was one that no person shall be excluded from the cars on account of color. In 1866, the plaintiff in error, which had succeeded to the chartered rights of the previous company, obtained from Congress an amendment to the former act so as to change the route of the extension and for other purposes. The latter act leaves all the provisions of the former act in full force, and the present company therefore is obliged to observe in the running of its road all the requirements imposed by Congress in its previous legislation on the subject. This leads us to consider what Congress meant in directing that no person should be excluded from the cars of the company on account of color.

The plaintiff in error contends that it has literally obeyed the direction, because it has never excluded this class of persons from the cars, but on the contrary has always provided accommodations for them.

This is an ingenious attempt to evade a compliance with the obvious meaning of the requirement. It is true the words, taken literally, might bear the interpretation put upon them by the plaintiff in error, but evidently Congress did not use them in any such limited sense. There was no occasion in legislating for a railroad corporation to annex a condition to a grant of power, that the company should allow colored persons to ride in its cars. This right had never been refused, nor could there have been in the mind of anyone an apprehension that such a state of things would ever occur, for self-interest would clearly induce the carrier - south as well as north - to transport, if paid for it, all persons, whether white or black, who should desire transportation. It was the discrimination in the use of the cars on account of color where slavery obtained which was the subject of discussion at the time, and not the fact that the colored race could not ride in the cars at all. Congress, in the belief that this discrimination was unjust, acted. It told this company in substance that it could extend its road within the District as desired, but that this discrimination must cease and the colored and white race, in the use of the cars, be placed on an equality. This condition it had the right to impose, and in the temper of Congress at the time, it is manifest the grant could not have been made without it. It was the privilege of the company to reject it, but to do this it must reject the whole legislation with which it was connected. It cannot accept a part and repudiate the rest. Having therefore constructed its road as it was authorized to do, and in this way greatly added to the value of its property, it will be held to a faithful compliance with all the terms accompanying the grant by which it was enabled to secure this pecuniary advantage.

In our opinion, there is no error in the record, and the judgment below must be

About this Document

  • Source: Railroad Company v. Brown, 84 U.S. 17 Wall. 445 445 (1873)
  • Author: United States Supreme Court
  • Published: Washington, D. C.
  • Date: 1873