The Battle to Desegregate San Francisco Streetcars

Mary Pleasant

by William Loren Katz on April 30, 2013

Only months after San Francisco’s horse-powered streetcar companies during the Civil War dispatched their streetcars—with orders to only accept white passengers—African American citizens began to directly challenge this discrimination.

On April 17, 1863 Charlotte Brown, a young African American woman from a prominent family, boarded a streetcar and was forced off. Determined to assert her rights, by the year’s end Ms Brown boarded cars twice more and twice more was ejected. Each time she began a legal suit against the company.

Meanwhile in May 1863 William Bowen, an African American, was stopped from boarding a car. He brought both a civil suit and a criminal assault suit. Their legal actions came after the African American community’s successful campaign to remove the state’s ban on their court testimony. Lifting this ban opened the state to court challenges by men and women of color.

After several years of direct actions and legal challenges the campaign launched by Charlotte Brown against the city’s car companies achieved success. This was largely because Mary Ellen Pleasant stepped into the picture. She was a financial supporter of John Brown, had sponsored cultural institutions for her Black community, and had ridden her wagon into the California countryside to rescue enslaved men and women. When she boarded a city streetcar in 1866 and was ejected she sued in court. After two years of court battles the company ended its discrimination.

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