Barbara Pope: Newspaper Accounts of a Civil Rights Pioneer

Rosa Parks is widely known and studied for her role in sparking the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. By disobeying an Alabama law requiring Black passengers to relinquish their seats to White passengers in a full bus, Parks started a chain of events that led to a Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation. But there’s more to the story of striving for equal rights than that moment. And, of course, there’s more to the story and the striving than one person.

In August of 1906, nearly 50 years before Rosa Parks was arrested, Barbara Pope was removed from a train from Washington, D.C., after it reached Falls Church, Virginia. The following January, she filed suit against the railway company for damages resulting from being physically removed from the train. A June 1907 article reporting on the successful outcome of the suit emphasized that, though the jury awarded Pope only one cent in damages, the value of the judgment was that the Virginia separate-car law could not be upheld for interstate passengers.

1907 newspaper article: Sues to recover $25,000

“Sues to recover $25,000,” Evening Star, Jan. 19, 1907

Detail of headlines from article "Virginia Jim-Crow Law Smashed"

“Virginia Jim-Crow Law Smashed,” Sedalia weekly conservator, June 15, 1907

In an April 1906 letter to the editor responding to a proposal to add “Jim Crow” cars to DC street car lines, Pope explained:

We want…our rights as citizens, and we demand the respect due reputable human beings the world over. What right has the white man of America to insult and humiliate us?”

Students seeking more context might read this article about the representative who made the proposal that sparked the letter.

Clearly, Pope’s experience was not unique. A section of the June 1907 article from the Sedalia Weekly Conservator describes another, similar incident involving Georgia Edwards. Sidestepping the question of segregation, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled in the case that comparable accommodations must be provided for Black and White ticket holders paying similar fares. The example included in several news reports was that if a basin and towel, or a smoking car, were provided for White passengers, the same must be provided for Black passengers.

Experiences like Barbara Pope’s and Georgia Edwards’ might not always be included in history books, but abound in reports from the early 20th century. Students can uncover these stories and discover new research opportunities by studying these primary sources.

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