The Stewart Sisters

Martha Stewart
Winnie Stewart
Mary Stewart
Lucy Stewart



    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 in chairs.

    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)  

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