Refusing to Give Up One’s Seat Might Set Off a Melee — 1919

by Paula Bosse

streetcar-fight_dal-express_100419The Dallas Express, Oct. 4, 1919

by Paula Bosse

On this, the anniversary of Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks‘ act of defiance in refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Alabama in 1955, it’s interesting to note a couple of accounts of similar incidents in Dallas, but 36 years earlier. And more violent.

The article above — which appeared in The Dallas Express, a weekly newspaper printed by and for Dallas’ black community — describes a melee (or “riot” as The Dallas Morning News called it) that occurred when an unnamed black woman refused to give up her seat (which was in the part of the streetcar reserved for white passengers) when a white man demanded that she move. When she steadfastly refused, he slapped her (!), and that set off a wild fight between black and white male passengers … on a moving streetcar! When the car stopped, everyone spilled out into the street and scattered. Only one person was arrested, Mr. A. G. Weems, a black businessman and former school teacher who was active in the black community and later represented African-American interests and residents as a member of the Negro Chamber of Commerce.

The Dallas Morning News also carried a report of the incident:

streetcar-fight_dmn_092519Dallas Morning News, Sept. 25, 1919

It sounds as if Weems could have gotten away, had he wanted, but perhaps he was making a statement.

In the previous months of 1919, there were several similar incidents reported in the pages of The Dallas Express. Sometimes altercations were a result of black passengers sitting in “whites-only” sections of streetcars, but sometimes trouble arose when the white section was full, and white passengers sat in the seats designated for black passengers:

streetcar-fight_dal-express_071219Dallas Express, July 12, 1919 (click for larger image)

There was also an incident that had occurred in February of that year in Birmingham, Alabama in which a white conductor was shot (and presumably killed) after he threatened to slap a black woman in a dispute over the fare. A black vigilante had appeared out of nowhere, shot the man, and disappeared into the night.

The antagonism, disgust, and violence caused by this “peculiar law of the Southland” continued until 1956 when the Supreme Court finally banned segregation on public transportation.


Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.