African-American Transportation History: Caroline LeCount, Civil Rights Pioneer

About two years after the Civil War ended, a milestone in the continuing civil rights struggles of African-Americans took place in Philadelphia, and it involved the city’s transportation network. On March 25, 1867, schoolteacher Caroline LeCount (1846-1923) attempted — as she had on previous occasions — to board one of Philadelphia’s horse-drawn streetcars traditionally not made available for her and other African-Americans.

African-Americans had been prohibited from riding on streetcars (except for just a handful, a few of which were completely segregated) from the time the vehicles first began operating in the City of Brotherly Love in 1858. These widespread racial restrictions posed huge transportation difficulties for Philadelphia’s African-American community, particularly women who needed to visit various local hospitals and military camps to provide medical care and other forms of relief work for wounded Union Army soldiers during the Civil War.

To protest these discriminatory public transportation policies, LeCount became one of several courageous women in Philadelphia who regularly risked ejection off horse-drawn vehicles and even worse treatment by trying to board the city’s streetcars. Over time, the efforts to fully integrate Philadelphia’s streetcars grew notably larger and stronger. Finally, on March 22, 1867, Pennsylvania Governor John W. Geary signed into law a measure banning racial discrimination on streetcars.

With a law prohibiting segregation on streetcars now in place, Le count bravely tested whether it would actually be enforced in her hometown. Three days after the law took effect, she attempted to flag down a streetcar at Eleventh and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia. The streetcar’s conductor did not stop for her, calling her a racial slur and snarling that she was not allowed to ride on the vehicle.

​LeCount quickly filed a complaint in court. She had to provide documentation to a skeptical magistrate that such a state law did indeed exist, but ultimately justice prevailed. The offending conductor was arrested, and all 18 of Philadelphia’s streetcar companies were put on notice that discrimination would no longer be tolerated. A major civil rights battle of nearly a decade was finally won.

For more information on Caroline LeCount and her fight against discrimination on public transit, please check out https://thephiladelphiacitizen.org/caroline-lecount-biography/ and https://exhibits.library.villanova.edu/institute-colored-youth/graduates/caroline-lecount-bio.

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