Charlotte L Brown: First Legal Racial Segregation Challenge

On Friday 17 April 1863 at 8pm a Black woman named Charlotte L Brown took a seat on a horse-drawn streetcar in San Francisco, California. She was one block away from her house on Filbert Street and was heading to see Dr. Geay whose office was at Howard Street. The streetcar was owned by the Omnibus Railroad Company and conductors had orders to accept only white passengers.

San Francisco in 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Brown entered the rear platform. There were three other passengers at the time and Brown testified that she seated herself midway on the left-hand side. The streetcar reached the corner of Jackson and Stockton when Thomas Dennison, the conductor, appeared. She later testified:

“When he came to me I handed him my ticket and he refused to take it. … He replied that colored persons were not allowed to ride. I told him I had been in the habit of riding ever since the cars had been running. He answered, colored persons are not allowed to ride and I would have to get out. I answered that I had a great ways to go and I was later than I ought to be. At the same time he pulled the strap for me to get out, I said I would not get out.”[1]  

She also reported that she told him that she had a “right to ride” and again reiterated that she was not leaving. He asked her several more times to exit the streetcar but each time she refused. A white person on the bus then objected to a “colored person” being there. At that point according to Brown, Dennison grabbed her by the arm. She said that she realized it was useless to resist and he escorted her off the streetcar.

Charlotte L Brown also maintained that before she left, she told Dennison she would seek “redress” and that his reply was “very good.” Once on the sidewalk, Brown decided to wait and board another streetcar. She then testified:

“I did not take the next car, but another one of the same company and went to the doctor’s. I got into the second car afterwards, and the conductor of that car did not object. I had a veil, but did not wear it down. I had it as I have it now. I never wore it down, at night, neither myself nor my family had ever been ejected from any car before that time.”[2]

Charlotte L Brown - plea

Page from Charlotte L Brown’s plea. Courtesy of California Historical Society.

At trial Dennison testified about how he remembered the incident. He stated:

“I didn’t see Plaintiff at all until she got in the car. When she got in, I was in front part of car, inside, getting my overcoat from under the seat. She got in at the corner of Greenwich and Powell, at SW corner. My attention was first called to her when I went to collect the fare on Union St. She had her veil down. I commenced collecting at front end and she was the last person, and as she handed me her ticket I discovered her to be a colored person, and I told her her color would not allow her to ride in the car in the inside, and she said she couldn’t possibly get out, as she had a long distance to ride and was tired. Having few passengers in the car, and they making no objection at the time, I allowed her to ride to Stockton St, telling her that she would have to get out after getting up street … a ways. We stopped for a passenger, who got in and said there is a colored person in the car. At corner of Jackson and Stockton I told her that she had her choice of going out quietly, or being put out, and she answered that I would have to put her out. I said, very well, I’ll put you out, and I stepped into the car, and put my hand lightly on her shoulder and she got up quietly and walked out. I did not take hold of her arm. I did not hold on to her arm and lead her out of the car in the way that she has testified … I did not lead her out, nor hold onto her arm.”[3]

Being ejected from the car must have been a humiliating experience for Charlotte L Brown. It must also have taken guts for her to openly defy the conductor’s orders. Fortunately, Brown had what I define as “gumption,” a word that was originally found in British and Scottish dialects and that by the 1860s implied tenacity. Brown would need it because she ultimately file a lawsuit that would become the first legal challenge to racial segregation in the United States.

In the lawsuit Brown asked that the streetcar company pay her $200 for their treatment of her. Moreover, three days after her first trial, she boarded another Omnibus Railroad Company streetcar and was once again ejected. She brought a second suit against the company, but this time requested $3,000 in damages. Thus, long before Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger, Charlotte L Brown was refusing to be discriminated against because of her race.

Rosa Parks. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Brown’s story begins with her birth in Maryland in 1839. She was born to a free seamstress named Charlotte, who was married to a slave, James E. Brown. The elder Charlotte worked hard, saved her money, and purchased her husband’s freedom. By 1850 the family was living in Baltimore, Maryland, as free people of color (gens de couleur), a term used at the time that arose in the French colonies and was used to describe people of mixed African, European, and sometimes Native American descent who were not enslaved.

Sometime between 1850 and 1860, the Brown family relocated to San Francisco. The city was booming because of the California Gold Rush and by 1864 would attract such well-known people as Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Ina Coolbrith. When the Brown family arrived in San Francisco they found a burgeoning Black middle class population of nearly 1,200, which was about 2 percent of the population at the time.

Brown’s father began running a livery stable and became a partner in a Black-owned newspaper called the Mirror of the Times. It was founded in 1856 after Black delegates attended the First Colored Convention of California in Sacramento. Brown’s father also became an active antislavery campaigner and joined the San Francisco Library Society to discuss and debate with other prominent African American men subjects important to the Black community.

Charlotte L Brown thus grew up in a household and community where she believed she had worth and where being Black was valued. This was also likely one reason why she became determined to assert her rights. In addition, just before Brown filed her case, African Americans had won the ability to testify against white citizens in court.

To aid his daughter in her lawsuit Brown’s father hired Wellington C. Burnett, a very capable attorney. He was born in Connecticut in 1828 and later joined the U.S. Army. He then served in the Mexican War before attending Harvard Law School.

At trial Charlotte L Brown argued that she had a “right to ride” no matter the color of her skin. The Omnibus Railroad Company argued that Dennison’s actions were justified and that he had done the right thing in escorting her off the streetcar. The company also claimed that racial segregation protected white women and children who might be fearful or “repulsed” by riding in the same car as African Americans.

Charlotte L Brown ultimately won her case against the Omnibus Railroad Company but instead of an award of $200 as she had wanted, she was awarded only $25. In addition, Dennison was charged and convicted of assault and battery upon Brown’s person. Nonetheless, appeals tied up Brown’s case for the next two years and at one retrial, Brown was awarded only the cost of her five cent ticket.

On 30 January 1864 while Brown’s case was being litigated, San Francisco’s Pacific Appeal wrote about how one of the San Francisco railroad companies was “importuning” that state’s Legislature to alter their charter so that they could charge an advance fare. The newspaper noted that in the meantime the railroad company had continued to deprive a large population (“respectable colored people”) of the opportunity to travel on their lines. Thus, the Pacific Appeal noted:

“Had they afforded them accommodation from the first, no one will deny that they would have yielded some revenue, and that, too, with no more detriment to them or their passengers than it is … [for] colored persons to ride inside their cars. The very people of whose feeling they have been so tender, have began to view the subject in the same light in which most of the respectable colored people do; that is, they consider it no great honor or privilege to ride a short direct distance through a couple of streets … in their business intercourse through the city … These companies are now seeking a remedy before the Legislature … They should be scrutinized severely about their proscription, and if their request should be granted, we hope that they will abandon the folly of preventing well-behaved and respectable colored persons from riding in their cars. We hope that no colored man will accept to ride on the platform of a car, while his wife is refused a seat inside. A sense of self-respect compels us, as a class, to pursue this course while at the same time if the companies were more liberal, none would be more generous in giving them respectable patronage than the colored people of this city.”[4]

Ultimately, Judge Orville C. Pratt of the 12th District Court heard Brown’s well-publicized case. He must have been feeling much like the Pacific Appeal that Black people should be allowed to use streetcars because he upheld the earlier verdict that favored Charlotte L Brown. In his biting judgment given on 5 October 1864 he clearly noted that it was illegal to exclude passengers from streetcars because of their race and further stated:

“It has been already quite too long tolerated by the dominant race to see with indifference the negro or mulatto treated as a brute, insulted, wronged, enslaved, made to wear a yoke, to tremble before white men, to serve him as a tool, to hold property and life at his will, to surrender to him his intellect and conscience, and to seal his lips and belie his thought through dread of the white man’s power.”[5]

Orville C. Pratt. Public domain.

Pratt’s message was clear as noted by the San Francisco’s Bulletin who re-summarized the case stating:

“The adjudged cases of similar nature are very scant ― the books are almost barren in precedents for a decision either way. But the Judge holds that the case is very simple. The Company, by the railroad laws of the State, is a common carrier of passengers, and its duty is to carry all who apply, the obligation being subject to exceptions of course; as when the passenger applies at the wrong place or time, or is shockingly filthy, or has a contagious disease, or refuses to pay the ordinary fare, and so forth. The accident of color is not legitimately embraced among the causes that justify exceptions to the rule. The company has a right to make rules for the management of its business, but not to declare that duties imposed upon them by law shall not be performed.

The rule of this company involved simply a question of power to omit the performance of a duty; it was a question of law alone, not of fact for a jury to determine. The right of the passenger to be carried is superior to the rules of the company, and cannot be affected by them, nor would any question of the company’s profits or loss by carrying colored persons affect the right of a person to be carried. The Judge shows no disposition to lend the power of the court to perpetuate a ‘relic of barbarism,’ and he intimates that the logic of events is fast disposing of prejudices and unfounded repugnances of one class of Americans to another class. His argument is lucid, and his decision chimes in, we believe with the growing sentiment of the people.”[6]

Of course, not everyone was happy about Pratt’s ruling and when he made another one on 18 January 1865 the San Francisco Examiner reported on “our Congo judge” stating:

“Judge Pratt of the Twelfth District Court, has made another African decision, Pratt is sound on the negro. We can’t understand the secret of his addiction to that race. Perhaps others are wiser than we, as to the mystery of his affiliations and antipathies.”[7]

There was also a local white-owned newspaper that published a racist cartoon showing Blacks seated alongside whites in a streetcar. The paper accused Pratt of being partial to African Americans and questioned whether Charlotte L Brown, who was light-skinned, was Black. They also alleged that perhaps her case was really about money rather than racial discrimination. Nonetheless, despite the accusations, sentiments were changing when it came to the rights of Black Americans and when Dennison was charged with assault and battery upon Brown’s person, he was convicted in criminal court.

Charlotte L Brown - racist cartoon

Racist editorial cartoon published in 1864 after Charlotte L Brown won a lawsuit against a segregated San Francisco streetcar company. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The American Civil War was also raging around the time of Charlotte L Brown’s litigation. Fought between the northern states loyal to the Union and the southern states that had seceded to form the Confederate States of America, it began in 1861 primarily over the long-standing controversy of enslaving Blacks. In the end the war would result in the abolishment of slavery and a presidential proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln that freed Blacks. However, despite the headway made at this time, Blacks would find that they still had a long road ahead and even to this day they are advocating for racial justice in what Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi have coined, “Black Lives Matter.”


  • [1]Charlotte Brown court transcript,” California Historical Society, p. 1.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 2.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 3–4.
  • [4] Pacific Appeal, “The City Railroad Companies Before the Legislature,” January 30, 1864, 44, p. 2.
  • [5] P. S. Foner, Essays in Afro-American History (Temple University Press, 1978), p. 38.
  • [6] The Liberator, “Rights of Colored People in California,” November 18, 1864, p. 3.
  • [7] The San Francisco Examiner, “Our Congo Judge,” October 30, 1865, p. 3.

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  1. Catharine Ferree on February 27, 2021 at 11:07 am

    Thank you so much for writing interesting, well documented articles to help broaden our understanding of history. As a longtime resident of California I’m particularly grateful to learn of Charlotte L. Brown and Orville C. Pratt, both outstanding individuals worthy of more attention.

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