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Philadelphia African-Americans desegregate trolley cars, 1865-1869
In 1865, the Civil War shook the foundation of the United States when the South was forced to give slaves their freedom. Although the slaves were granted their freedom, African Americans were still severely restricted in their everyday activities. One of those activities was getting around. The segregation laws in the U.S. made it difficult for African Americans to safely move from one destination to the next. Despite paying the same fares and using the same service, African Americans had to deal with more hazardous, and unsafe conditions when they were travelling in trolley cars and buses.
In Philadelphia many protests were held in order to bring attention to the injustice of trolley car system segregation. On May 17th, 1865, a major Civil Rights activist engaged in more direct action to bring attention to segregation. Octavius Catto, a black man who was one of the major players of this campaign, sat in a passenger car and refused to leave it.
He sat in the car all night and eventually attracted a crowd, and brought African Americans one-step closer to achieving desegregated transportation.
The protests continued as the unjust treatment of African Americans by the trolley system became more visible to others and highlighted by the Union League of Philadelphia. In one of the protests, trolley car conductors forcefully removed African American women and children from the cars. In response, a meeting was held in Samson Street Hall, June 21, 1866, to protest this treatment of African American women and children and to demand more respect and justice for the African Americans. A speech given by Catto explained the ways in which African Americans have given to America and expressed that they should be given equal rights to transportation, but also equal rights in general.
After many protests, a bill that desegregated the Philadelphia trolley system was passed. Thaddeus Stevens and William D. Kelley, who were US Representatives from Pennsylvania, helped pass the bill. With the new bill, African Americans were allowed to use the trolley system and transportation with the same treatment as whites.
Catto’s fight for equal rights did not end with the passage of the trolley system bill. He inspired other civil rights advocates to continue to broaden the sphere of freedom for African Americans.