February is Black History month, a time when we reflect on the brave men and women of color who fought (and still fight) for racial justice. While most are familiar with civil rights leader Rosa Parks, fewer people know about another black woman who also refused to give up her seat 92 years earlier.
Her name was Charlotte L. Brown, and her story is a fascinating piece of San Francisco history! The gold rush brought many entrepreneurs to California including Charlotte’s father, who owned a livery service and helped protect fugitive slaves seeking freedom in the west.One morning, young Charlotte boarded a horse drawn streetcar on her way to a doctors appointment. When the conductor walked down the aisle to collect tickets, he refused to accept hers. Brown wrote “He said that colored persons were not allowed to ride.” The conductor demanded that Brown remove herself from the streetcar. She refused and was forcibly removed by an attendant.
African Americans had just won the right to testify against whites that same year. Brown’s father brought a lawsuit against Omnibus Railroad Company on her behalf in a California court. The judge sided with Brown, but the damage awarded was only 5 cents — reimbursement of the cost of the streetcar fare.
Only days after this court judgment, however, another Omnibus streetcar conductor forced Charlotte Brown and her father from a streetcar. Another lawsuit ensued. This time Brown was awarded $500 from the jury. It’s also worth mentioning that all this happened without the support of the 14th Amendment — which did not exist at the time. When Charlotte took a stand against racial justice on the streets of San Francisco, she fueled a long tradition of civil rights activism among San Franciscans of color that continues today.