Before there was Homer Plessy, there was William Nichols. And before there was Rosa Parks, there was Joseph Guillaume. And before there was the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, there was The New Orleans Tribune-led streetcar protest. 

Plessy’s courageous decision to board a whites-only train car in New Orleans in 1892 led to the Supreme Court establishing separate-but-equal as the law of the land, an injustice that would eventually be overturned by the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. And Parks’ fearless refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955 launched a non-violent boycott that would spark the modern Civil Rights Movement. 

But barely two years after the end of the Civil War, Nicholls, Guillaume, The Tribune and others would stand against a system of racially segregated streetcars in New Orleans and gain an early civil rights victory in the Deep South during the Reconstruction era.

Thanks to their bold action, New Orleans streetcars would be desegregated on May 8, 1867, and stay that way for the next 35 years, when the next round of civil rights protests was needed to shatter segregation..

When streetcars were first used in New Orleans in the 1830s, white residents insisted on separate cars. A system was put in place in which a small number of cars marked with a star were reserved for Black residents. 

New Orleans’ Black residents despised the star system. There were fewer streetcars set aside for the Black riders and they were always overcrowded.

A photo of an 1888 New Orleans streetcar. Credit: The Historic New Orleans Collection. Gift of Mr. Elmer Freed, New Orleans Public Service, Inc. 1988.31.285

After the Civil War, The New Orleans Tribune, a Black-owned newspaper, helped organize an effort to get rid of the star system. The paper assisted in the coordination of a weeklong demonstration to desegregate the streetcars. 

On April 28, 1867, painter William Nichols, a Virginia native, “forced his way onto a whites-only streetcar and was physically removed by the driver, Edward Cox.” Nichols was arrested for breaching the peace, but the charges were dropped two days later. 

Nichols’ actions encouraged others to protest the star system. Five days after Nichols jumped on a whites-only streetcar, Philippe Duclos-Lange boarded one and had an hours-long standoff with the driver. On May 4, Joseph Guillaume attempted to hail a whites-only streetcar, and when the driver did not stop for him he jumped aboard the streetcar and took control of it, leading the police on a chase.

The next day, two Black women boarded a whites-only streetcar at the corner of Frenchman and Great Man (now Dauphine). They waited until all the passengers had gotten off the car and persuaded the driver to take them to their stop. At the same time, there were intense protests in the Marigny and Tremé neighborhoods. A crowd of more than 500 Black demonstrators gathered at Congo Square while a white mob gathered on the uptown side of Canal Street.

But before the two groups could converge into what seemed certain violence, Mayor Edward Heath asked the crowds to disperse, assuring them that streetcar policies would be reconsidered. 

After several meetings, railroad officials decided that the integration of streetcars was the best option and ordered drivers to allow Black residents on all cars. On May 8, 1867, New Orleans’ streetcars were integrated and passengers of all colors were able to board all streetcars. 

The streetcars would remain integrated until 1902, when a Louisiana law mandated segregation again, remaining in place until 1958.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Homer Plessy’s courageous decision to board a whites-only train car in New Orleans in 1892 led to the end of separate-but-equal as the law of the land. Plessy v. Ferguson actually established the separate but equal legal concept, an injustice that was not overturned until the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. The article has been updated.

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J’Brionne Helaire is a senior mass communication major at Dillard University. She is the editor-in-chief of Dillard University’s newspaper, The Courtbouillon. Helaire has interned for The Times-Picayune,...