FRONTLINE: Retrospect

Mary Miles’ Long Ride
Before Rosa Parks, there was a brave woman from Chester County.

Mary Miles’ Long Ride
Before Rosa Parks, there was a brave woman from Chester County.

Beware of unintended consequences. Do the right thing, and sometimes the result can be very wrong.

Consider Mary E. Miles, an African-American woman from Chester County who, in the spring of 1866, refused to move to the “black” seats on a Philadelphia-to-Oxford trolley. A 19th-century Rosa Parks, Miles eventually won the right to sit where she pleased. But, in the process, she spawned a legal precedent for the oppression of blacks.

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Little is known of Miles’ early life. Born free in Philadelphia, she was a teacher who worked among the freedmen for years. From the late 1850s until the mid-1860s, she served in Africa as a missionary with her husband, whose name was probably James. In 1865, due to his ill health, they sailed for home. But he died in England.

In 1866, Miles applied for a teaching position with the Friends Freedmen’s Association (FFA), a Quaker group that sent teachers into the Reconstruction South to teach freed slaves. When her court case was reported the following year, the National Anti-Slavery Standard newspaper described her as “a woman of education and refinement.”

Finally hired by the FFA in 1869, she taught until 1875 in Virginia and North Carolina. While awaiting her FFA appointment, Miles taught locally and seems to have lived at Hinsonville, a rural community of free blacks that became the site of Lincoln University. Hinsonville was part of a belt of black settlements that stretched from West Philadelphia through places such as Darby, Morton and Media to Kennett Square and beyond. These settlements had existed since at least the 18th century and may explain why, when George Washington’s slave, Hercules, escaped in 1797, he ran toward the southwest. (Hercules’ trail was lost near Darby.)

When Miles arrived home, slavery was no longer the primary civil rights issue. That was dying along with the Confederacy. Instead, practical-minded activists were demanding equal access to streetcars and trolleys, which were the only way for many black workers to reach their jobs.

Blacks had always worked on the railroads. In the South, slaves had provided most of the manpower to build and operate the lines. In Pennsylvania, the first African-American was hired in 1840 by the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad to handle baggage. Many others followed, mostly working in similar support jobs as porters, passenger-car attendants, dining car chefs and waiters.

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Riding as a passenger was another matter. Beginning in the 1840s, blacks were segregated if they were lucky, banned if they weren’t. Austrian engineer Franz Ritter von Gerstner, who visited the United States from 1838 to 1840, found segregation in both the South and North. On the Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad, which ran from Baltimore to York, he noted an eight-wheel baggage car with three sections—one for luggage, one for “latrines” and one for “Negroes.”

Blacks had few ways to resist; revision of the state constitution in 1838 had deprived them of the right to vote. Black children were even excluded temporarily from some public schools. (Robert Purvis got one such decision reversed when he refused to pay his property taxes.)

Perhaps because their cars were smaller and more intimate, local trolley and streetcar operators were more likely to prohibit black passengers. Access to these lines was also more essential to daily life, however, and protests began before the Civil War. In 1864, coal merchant William Still used a support-the-troops strategy to argue that the policies harmed wounded veterans in West Philadelphia Army hospitals.

“The 1,500 wounded soldiers at the Summit and Satterlee hospitals received but few visits from their colored brethren, simply because the rules enforced on these cars would not allow decent colored people to ride,” wrote Still in 1864. “The presence and succor of such mother, wife or sister might save a life.”

IN HARRISBURG, ABOLITIONISTS LED by state Sen. Morrow B. Lowry introduced a bill in 1865 prohibiting “any passenger railway company from excluding any race of people from its passenger cars on account of color.”

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The bill would pass, but not until 1867. In 1866, activist Octavius Catto launched an organized protest in which white supporters boycotted the cars or—on lines that allowed blacks to ride, but only outside with the driver—stood with them on exterior platforms. “Our dear friend, Lucretia Mott, now so ill, has taken her stand beside them in that exposed position,” wrote Alfred H. Love to the National Anti-Slavery Standard newspaper in 1867.

In this environment, Miles walked one day into the Philadelphia depot of the West Chester & Philadelphia Railroad (WC&PR) at 31st and Chestnut streets. The WC&PR—with a spur that ran from Wawa west through Chadds Ford, Kennett Square and on to Hinsonville—was a relatively progressive company. Blacks were allowed to ride, though required to sit in a separate section. Miles paid for her ticket and took a seat.

The details of what happened next have not survived. Miles would later sue in Philadelphia Orphan’s Court, but most of that court’s older records were discarded in the mid-1980s. The short version is that Miles was put off the train. This might have happened before it left the station, or somewhere in Delaware County.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision stated that Miles took a seat in the middle of the car. The conductor reminded her of company rules that she sit at the end of the car. “She declined positively and persistently to do it,” said the court. “The conductor warned her that he must require her to leave the cars if she refused, and at last put her out.”

And this curious sentence: “There was no allegation,” according to the decision, “that any force was used greater than was necessary to accomplish the object of compelling her to leave the cars.” (Which begs the question: How much force was that?)

Miles sued WC&PR for “trespass”—essentially assault—for forcing her from the train and charged that any rule “which prohibits a well-behaved colored person from taking a vacant seat is not a regulation which the law allows.”

The court agreed and awarded Miles $5 in damages. But the railroad appealed and won before the state Supreme Court. The decision was read by Chief Justice Daniel Agnew, a native of Trenton, N.J., who had lived in Mississippi as a child. Agnew was a unionist during the Civil War but may have retained some sympathy for Southern ways. According to a history of Beaver County, Agnew’s home, the judge said more than once that, had his family remained in Mississippi, he would be a rebel. And there were family connections: His first cousin was Varina Howell, wife of Jefferson Davis.

The decision Agnew read in April 1867 asserted that whites shouldn’t be expected to behave decently when in close quarters with blacks; that railroads were within their rights—and were perhaps performing a duty—to segregate; and that separate-but-equal was OK.

“It is not an unreasonable regulation for a common carrier to seat passengers so as to preserve order and decorum,” said the court. “If a Negro take his seat beside a white man or his wife or daughter, the law cannot repress the anger or conquer the aversion which some will feel.”

WC&PR, noted the decision, had not refused to transport Miles and had not asserted her inferiority. It merely assigned separate seats. “The ladies’ car,” said the court by analogy, “is known upon every well-regulated railroad, implies no loss of equal right on the part of the excluded sex and its propriety is doubted by none.” (Ironically, this was more than 50 years before women acquired the right to vote.)

Finally, Agnew’s court sympathized with the railroad’s need to maintain order, concluding, “It is much wiser to avert the consequences of this repulsion of race by separation, than to punish afterward the breach of the peace it may have caused.”

A few months later, the decision became moot when Lowry’s bill became law. That law prohibited discrimination and effectively overruled the decision’s effect in Pennsylvania. But the decision remained on the books for 30 years until resurrected by another, higher court.

Ironically, three days after Lowry’s bill became law, Catto’s fiancée, Catherine LeCount, was refused entry to a streetcar by a conductor who shouted in her face, “We don’t allow niggers to ride.”

She appealed to a magistrate, who refused to act because he had not yet received official notice of the law. LeCount obtained an official copy of the bill and took it to the magistrate, who then arrested and fined the conductor $100.

In 1892, in Louisiana, a black man named Homer Plessy boarded a “white” car on the East Louisiana Railroad, sat down and refused to leave. He was arrested, jailed and later convicted for violating the state segregation law. Plessy’s appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the court ruled that the separate-but-equal doctrine was constitutional and cited WC&PR v. Miles, among other cases.

Accommodations were never equal. Under the “Jim Crow” system blessed by “Plessy,” white and black schools were not funded equally. Black moviegoers got the lousy balcony seats. Public drinking fountains, restrooms and parks were segregated.

White motorists had the right of way at intersections. This continued until 1954 when, in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Plessy—and the unintended consequences of Mary Miles’ refusal to ride home to Hinsonville with the other black folks.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at

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