Ellen Anderson: New York’s Rosa Parks, 1864

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John Hartwell

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NYC-Horse-Railway-3x5-300dpi - Edited.jpg

New York Horse-car
Late in the morning of Friday, June 17, 1864, a well-dressed colored woman, about 35 years of age, stood at the corner of Broadway and Eighth Avenue in New York City. She was tired and unwell, and wanted nothing so much as to get home. She was dressed in deep mourning. Not long before, she had received official notice that her husband, Sgt. William Anderson, Co. F, 26th USCT, had accidentally drowned while in the course of duty, at Beaufort, S.C.

Car No. 2 of the Eighth Avenue Railway drew to a halt, and Mrs Ellen Anderson mounted the horse-drawn car. She sank onto the bench, glad to get off her feet, and reached for her pure, to pay the fare. But, the conductor, rather than taking her money, told her she would have to get off. The smaller, more rickety car, clearly marked as for colored patrons, would be by shortly.

"I told him I was sick and wished to go home. He said this car is only for white people. I told him I am as good as any white people, and I wished to ride this car; he started up and put his hands on me. I told him not to touch me. Then he went out and brought in a police officer; this is the man here; he came in and told me there would be another car along soon. I said I knew nothing about another car, and had a right to ride there as anywhere else. He said I can not ride and must go out. Then he got hold of me and dragged me, and called to the conductor for assistance; the conductor came, and they got me off the seat; I took hold of the straps of the car and then they both pulled me and dragged me so that I was very sore, and they at last succeeded in dragging me into the street. The conductor said he did not care for me or my husband; I had money with me to pay my fare; no one asked me for any money; I had a basket in my hand." [N.Y. Tribune June 30, 1864]​

Out on the street, Ellen Anderson had no choice but to wait for the “colored” car. But, she was angry now, and she wasn’t going to let this outrage pass unchallenged. The very next day, letters from eyewitnesses began to appear in the press -- a vocal portion of the pubic, it seemed, agreed that injustice had been done.

She went to see Charles C. Whitehead, a white lawyer known for welcoming colored clients, to see what her options were. She found that there was no law prohibiting a railroad company from making rules regarding the use of its cars. Their charter, however, requires that they provide service for the entire population. About 10 years earlier, a ruling was made that as long as “adequate” service was made available to colored patrons, the service could be segregated: “Separate but adequate,” you might say. But, the Directors of the Eighth Avenue line said that they had established no policy regarding separate cars. It was a decision of lower management, simply a development of “how things were done,” rather than a company policy.

Attorney Whitehead suggested that they
“ask what right these conductors have to call on police officers to help them do their dirty work, and what right the police officers have to lay their hands on anyone who is not an offender against the law. It is a question whether the railway companies may, by their charters, exclude colored people but it is not a legal obligation for them to do so; and it is no offense to law by a colored person to be found in a public conveyance. I infer, then, that any officer who lends himself to this business is personally liable to a prosecution for assault and battery.”
So it was that at 9:30, on the morning of Wednesday, June 24, a charge was brought before the Police Commissioners of the City of New York against Officer William Tyler for assault and battery, having exceeded his authority as a law officer. Commissioner Thomas Acton presided.

A number of witnesses were called, all of whom essentially supported Ellen Anderson’s account, though some emphasized that no “excessive violence” was used by either police officer or conductor, beyond what was “necessary” to remove the woman from the car.

Conductor Isaac Sweet also substantiated Ellen Anderson’s testimony, but stated that “the conductors had orders to remove colored people.” He ‘presumed’ the order came from Col. May, the Superintendent of the road. But he admitted that “Col. May never directed me personally to turn colored persons out of the cars; I never received any letter or writing directing me to do so; it was not in the printed books, but I supposed it was the rule of the road."

Officer Tyler, when asked why he had ejected the woman, replied
Christian_Watchman_1864-07-14_4 - Edited (1).jpg

[Christian Watchman, 14 July 1864]
Atty Whitehead made a statement to the Court that “he had no vindictive feelings against the officer, who, he dare say, imagined he was doing his duty.” The complainant would be satisfied with a mere verbal reprimand, that would “prevent the recurrence of such scandals” in future.

In the end, New York Police Commissioner Thomas Acton addressed Officer Tyler in these words:

"It was your duty to preserve the peace, and there was no breach of the peace until you broke it. It was rather your duty to have arrested the conductor than the woman, if he was breaking the peace. I don’t care what you supposed; you ought to exhibit some common sense in these matters. There was no law against these people riding the cars, and he had no right to make such a law; nor was there any order requiring policemen to do the work of the conductors."

The Directors of the Eighth Avenue Railroad also reprimanded conductor Isaac Sweet. On the morning of June 23rd, the following notice appeared in New York newspapers:
54rty.jpg
It would not be until 1873, that the Sixth Avenue line, the last street railway in New York City was integrated, but Ellen Anderson’s “I’m as good as any white people” spirit was an important step in that process.


Sources for the above;
New York Tribune, 20 June 1864
New York Evening Post, 21 June 1864
New York Tribune, 24 June 1864
New York Tribune, 30 June 1864
Hartford Courant, 2 July 1864
Christian Watchman, 14 July 1864​
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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Yes, NYC had had more than its share of turmoil- makes this even more ridiculous. Draft riots tore the city up, pretty much. Creating more by picking a fight with a widow? Puhleeze.
 

John Hartwell

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There were doubtless many in NY who wanted to keep the cars segregated, but they didn't write to the newspapers about it. Believe me, I have looked, and have yet to find a single comment against Ellen Anderson's case.
 
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