"STEWART vs. THE
One of the final Reconstruction measures which
Congress passed was the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It supposedly,
entitled full and equal usage of public accommodations, in trains,
ships, hotels, theaters, and businesses generally open to the public.
To ensure enforcement of the statute, Congress gave the federal
courts exclusive jurisdiction in cases which arose regarding it.
Nevertheless, this act was a sham from its day
of passage because the political climate of the north had changed
by the 1870's. The new leaders of Congress no longer had any interest
in any crusades to save African Americans, and were concentrating
on the problems of industrial expansion and business prosperity.
Thus the argument frequently heard was that the south should be
left to resolve its own problems.
The Supreme Court, in 1883 declared the Civil
Rights Act of 1875 to be unconstitutional. Declaring that the Fourteenth
Amendment applied only to the states; therefore, segregation by
private individuals or companies was constitutionally legal. In
this instance, the Supreme Court was following a pattern of decisions
which it had previously set precedent.
The result was that nearly all public accommodations
for African Americans became dirty or unkempt. In 1885, Washington
Cable said, "The Negro compartment on a train in every instance
and without recourse, is the most uncomfortable, uncleanness, and
un safest place and the uncleanness, unsafely, and discomfort of
most of these places are a shame to any community pretending to
practice public justice."
During the 1880's Lucy, Mary, Winnie, and Martha
Stewart came to Baltimore, Md. to reside and work. There they became
members of the Union Baptist Church, which was under the leadership
the Reverend Harvey Johnson. During their early years of travel
aboard the steamship "Sue," the Stewart sisters purchased second
class tickets, but found the condition of the segregated sleeping
cabin to be filthy and offensive. They then purchased first class
tickets, which permitted the use of the saloon (a large room or
lounge area for the common use of passengers) but still limited
sleeping to the second class cabin. This arrangement they still
found unsatisfactory, the second class cabin being offensively dirty
with defaced mattresses, soiled sheets, no blankets, and no conveniences
for washing. The Stewart sisters in 1883 staged a "sleep in" aboard
the steamer "Sue" by occupying the white women's cabin which in
contrast to the cabin assigned to them was "clean pleasant and inviting."
Lucy, Mary, Winnie and their aunt Pauline "Polly" Braxton who was
traveling with them occupied the white women's cabin and were undressed
and in bed when the ship's officer ordered "all colored passengers
to vacate the white women's cabin." Being undressed, Lucy, Mary
and their aunt Polly refused to leave the cabin, Martha and Winnie
were forced to leave and spent the night in chairs in the saloon.
The following year while traveling home on August
15, 1884, the Stewart sisters purchased first class round trip tickets
to Kinsale, VA aboard the "Sue," placed their baggage in the white
women's cabin, and went to the upper deck. Later the chambermaid
arrived with their baggage and placed it in front of them, stating
that the captain had ordered the bags removed, the door to the white
women's cabin locked and "directed that no colored passengers were
to be allowed to sleep there." The Stewart sisters were told to
use the colored passenger's cabin to which both first and second
class colored passengers were assigned, which the Stewart sisters
refused to do and instead spent the night in the saloon sitting
On September 18,1884, at the District Court
of the United States in and for the Maryland District, the Stewart
sisters filed Libel charges against the owners of the steamer "Sue."
On February 2, 1885, Chief Justice C.J. Morris pronounced in favor
of the Stewart sisters, and signed a decree awarding each a sum
of one hundred dollars.
It is important to note that the "Stewart vs.
The Sue" case was a deliberate attack on racial discrimination in
public accommodations and the recently declared unconstitutional
"Civil Rights Act Of 1875." The Reverend Harvey Johnson, who was
one of the leaders in numerous struggles for racial advancement
in Maryland, assisted the Stewart sisters in their successful attack
on the "Sue" and discrimination in interstate commerce. In all probability,
from this success came the idea to form the "Mutual United Brotherhood
of Liberty", which on a local level compared to the "NAACP" of a
later period. The Brotherhood set goals, "to use all legal means
within our power to procure and maintain our rights as citizens
of this common country." As the Brotherhood's president, Reverend
Harvey Johnson is believed to have written it's constitution which
opened with the following statement, "Since it is a scriptural truth
that God has made of one blood all nations of men, and since it
is equally true by the Declaration of Independence that all men
are endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness; therefore it is the solemn duty of every man
to seek to maintain these rights."
To attract public attention and interest for
this case, Frederick Douglass spoke at a meeting arranged by Rev.
Johnson (It is possible that the Stewart sisters personally met
Frederick Douglass). Ten Years later, in 1896, "Stewart vs. The
Sue" became one of the cases used in the Supreme court decision
"Plessy v. Ferguson."
For a more in-depth look at the court case click here Stewart
vs The Sue (also in Adobe Acrobat pdf)
If you don't have the Adobe Acrobat
Reader get it from here