Transportation Inequality in the United States: A Historical Overview

Vol. 34 No. 3


Marc Brenman is executive director of the Washington State Human Rights Commission and was formerly senior policy advisor for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Transportation. With Thomas W. Sanchez, he has a book forthcoming from the American Planning Association, Moving to Equity: Transportation Equity for the 21st Century.

Three major kinds of infrastructure in the United States contribute to the separation of races: housing, education, and transportation. Of these, transportation receives the least attention by those interested in social justice. Yet people must get from place to place. Social mobility is an important part of the story we tell ourselves as Americans. But historically, it has not been available to all, or available only in a way that has channeled some people to specific places and inequitable opportunities, sometimes involuntarily and even in chains. Ideas and their implications also have to get from one place to another. The notion of progress, enshrined in liberal thinking, often has not served people of color when the progress was mechanical. This article sets the context for examining the inequality caused by, and supported by, transportation. In some cases, existing extreme inequality make forced transportation impossible to resist. In the first section, a new view is taken, seeing slave ships as bringing inequality to America, and the Underground Railroad as an important part of transportation, civil rights history, and the escape from inequality. The next section discusses the legal context as it relates to transportation inequity. The third joins education to transportation inequity. The fourth shows how the modern civil rights movement has a transportation base. The fifth ties together the joining of America by railroads and the civil rights movement. The sixth brings road building and shipping into the discussion. The last section brings us up to date by referencing Hurricane Katrina and gasoline prices.

The Original Discriminatory Transport: Slave Ships

Civil rights in transportation in the United States has a long history, beginning with the involuntary transportation of slaves to the American colonies. One of the major points about transportation in the United States is made early—it is not necessarily voluntary. The U.S. Constitution addressed this importation, banning its regulation until 1808. An organized system to assist runaway slaves seems to have begun toward the end of the eighteenth century. In 1786, George Washington complained about how one of his runaway slaves was helped by a “society of Quakers, formed for such purposes.” The system grew, and around 1831 it was dubbed the Underground Railroad, after the then emerging steam railroads. The system even used terms used in railroading: the homes and businesses where fugitives would rest and eat were called “stations” or “depots” and were run by “stationmasters,” those who contributed money or goods were “stockholders,” and the “conductor” was responsible for moving fugitives from one station to the next. It effectively moved hundreds of slaves northward each year; according to one estimate, slave states lost 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850.

Legally Institutionalizing Transport Inequity

In part to address this system, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, ch. 60, 9 Stat. 462 (1850), legislated the return of runaway slaves to their owners. Thus we introduce a second point that runs counter to the American mythic story of social mobility—restrictions on travel. We will much later see echoes of such restrictions in the form of travel to Cuba, starting in 1962, with the U.S. embargo against Cuba. It was codified into law in 1992 with the purpose of bringing democracy to the Cuban people. A third point appears—restrictions on travel as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

The Fugitive Slave Act provides an extensive legal structure for enforcing the requirement of Article IV, Section 2, of the Constitution and lays out penalties for those impeding its enforcement. The necessity to do so reflects the growing conflict between opponents and proponents of slavery in the United States. The issue ultimately appeared before the Supreme Court, producing one of the most famous of the early race cases, Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), known to history as the Dred Scott decision. The U.S. Supreme Court declared that all blacks—slaves as well as free—were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The Court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus permitting slavery in all of the country’s territories. Scott, a slave who had lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri, had appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted his freedom. The Court’s majority opinion stated that, because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The framers of the Constitution, the opinion stated, believed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.” Id. at 407.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875, 18 Stat. 335 (1875), required equal accommodations for blacks and whites in public facilities (other than schools). It represents the last congressional effort to protect the civil rights of African Americans for more than half a century. It stated that “all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water . . .”

This legislation was effectively voided by the Supreme Court in 1883, through the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883). These were a collection of cases involving the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Over a strong dissent by Justice John Marshall Harlan, the Supreme Court held the act unconstitutional as an exercise of Congress’s powers under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court ruled 8–1 that Congress had overstepped its authority, and therefore the act was invalid.

In 1878, in Hall v. DeCuir, 95 U.S. 485 (1878), the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot prohibit segregation on public transportation. A Louisiana Supreme Court had awarded damages to Josephine DeCuir, an African American woman denied access to a cabin set aside for white passengers during her voyage from New Orleans to Hermitage, Louisiana. The Court held that the Louisiana law on which the damages were based did not apply because the steamboat was a business involved in interstate commerce, which could only be regulated by the U.S. Congress. States could not require carriers engaged in interstate commerce to provide integrated facilities, even for trips that took place only within state borders. The Court’s opinion is said to have clearly indicated its interest in preserving existing racial customs and to have provided a rationale that was eventually used to support the “separate but equal” doctrine.

In 1890, in Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railway v. Mississippi, 133 U.S. 587 (1890), the Court permitted states to segregate public transportation facilities. In 1898, in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law compelling segregation of the races in rail coaches. To test the law’s constitutionality, Homer Plessy, a Louisianan of mixed race, made a point of exposing himself to arrest for sitting in the whites-only section of a train car. He was acting on the behalf of a Louisiana Citizen’s Committee formed to protest laws established to keep blacks and whites separate. When his case reached the Supreme Court, Plessy argued that enforced segregation in theoretically separate-but-equal
accommodations compromised the principle of legal equality and marked blacks as inferior. The Court decided that the Louisiana law did not take away from the federal authority to regulate interstate commerce, nor did it violate the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Additionally, the law did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave all blacks citizenship, and forbade states from passing any laws that would deprive blacks of their constitutional rights. The Court believed that separate but equal was the most reasonable approach, considering the social prejudices that prevailed at the time.

The years 1900 to 1920 brought full extension of segregation to all southern public transportation. More than four hundred state laws, constitutional amendments, and city ordinances legalizing segregation and discrimination were passed in the United States between 1865 and 1967. Several states even prohibited hearses from carrying both races. Even the dead could not be transported equally.

The Transportation-Education Nexus

Transportation is closely intertwined with education. For example, in Clarendon County, South Carolina, residents filed a lawsuit in 1947 to provide bus transportation to black children. That suit was dismissed, but in 1950, 107 parents and children signed onto a second lawsuit seeking equal school buildings, equal teacher pay, equal textbooks, and equal transportation. This case, Briggs v. Elliott, 342 U.S. 350 (1952), was combined with lawsuits in Delaware, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Kansas to become Brown v. the Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), ending segregation in public schools through holding the doctrine of separate but equal to be unconstitutional.

Historian C. Vann Woodward has estimated that 106 new segregation laws were passed between the Brown decision and the end of 1956. By May 1964, the South had enacted 450 laws and resolutions to frustrate the Supreme Court’s decision.

The Importance of Transport to Civil Rights

The modern civil rights movement is tied up with transportation modes, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Riders, and the desegregation of the interstate bus system. The Interstate Commerce Act, 49 U.S.C. 316(d), as early as 1887 had forbade any interstate common carrier by motor vehicle to subject any person to unjust discrimination.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress and secretary of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, was arrested for refusing to obey a Montgomery, Alabama, bus driver’s order to give her seat up for a boarding white passenger, as required by city ordinance. Outrage in Montgomery’s black community over her arrest sparked a boycott against the city’s bus line, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Working closely with a long-active African American leadership in Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which organized the boycott. As the MIA’s demands expanded beyond more flexibility in bus seating to include more equal access to other municipal services, racial tensions increased. Preaching a course of nonviolence, Dr. King was convinced that the cause could be won through a combination of dignified behavior and economic pressure by the protesters. The boycott ended in December 1956, over a year after it began. That year, the MIA filed suit in federal district court to challenge the constitutionality of local bus segregation laws. The court ruled in favor of the MIA in June 1956, but the city challenged the ruling and the case went to the Supreme Court. This resulted in a ruling on November 13, 1956, that segregation on city buses was unconstitutional. The defendants were represented by Thurgood Marshall.

In Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960), the Supreme Court stated, “When a bus carrier has volunteered to make terminal and restaurant facilities and services available to its interstate passengers as a regular part of their transportation, and the terminal and restaurant have acquiesced and cooperated in this undertaking, the terminal and restaurant must perform these services without discriminations . . .”

The Freedom Rides occurred in 1961, when journalists reported on the bus rides of whites and blacks who set off from Washington in a heroic action to test compliance with the court’s ruling. Angry white mobs attacked the Freedom Riders as they got off the buses. The Freedom Rides, organized primarily by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), were one of the first times in which the civil rights movement consciously used the power of the media, in this case mostly print journalists, to win people over to its cause.

At the same time as African
Americans were being victimized and deprived of their rights through transportation, so, too, were Native Americans. By 1842, Presidents Jackson and Van Buren had forcibly removed most of the Seminoles and Cherokee to Oklahoma along the now infamous Trail of Tears. In one of the meaner ironies of American history, some Cherokees brought their own slaves along.

Railroads benefited from displacing Indians from the land on which they lived and hunted. President Lincoln and succeeding presidents gave the Union Pacific more land than the combined area of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe received over 2,928,928 acres in Kansas. By 1872, the giveaway to the railroad owners of land taken by force from the Native Americans had amounted to 155,000,000 acres, an area almost equal to the New England states, New York, and Pennsylvania combined.

Transportation is a tool of social policy, removal, and repression. Again, the issues reverberate in the present. Some tribes in the North Central states object to transportation of nuclear waste by railroad across their lands. This is a major environmental justice issue for Native Americans in that part of the country.

During slavery, companies purchased slaves to work on the railroads. For example, it is documented that, as early as 1838, a southern railroad company purchased 140 slaves for $159,000 to work on constructing a railroad line in Mississippi. We see a similar use of people of color to build the nation’s transcontinental railways, by Chinese and Irish. We forget today that at that time the Irish were often considered colored.

How Transport Spread Civil Rights

From their beginning in 1868, plush Pullman train cars (named for George Pullman, owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company) were staffed mostly by black porters, many of them newly freed slaves. African Americans were concentrated in railroad work because they were excluded from many other occupations, while the Pullman Company and the railroad industry actively recruited them. By the 1920s, the Pullman Company, with 20,224 black employees, was the largest employer of black workers in the United States and Canada. The Pullman porters organized and spread the word of possible social mobility across the United States.

The troubled relationship between African Americans and the labor move?ment is shown by the all-black Brother?hood of Sleeping Car Porters Union, because it was denied membership by the American Railway Union. Therefore, the porters did not join the famous 1894 strike against the Pullman Car Works in Chicago, led by Eugene Debs.

Similarly, blacks were not permitted to join longshoremen’s and dockworker’s unions, and were used as scabs in the West Coast strikes in the 1930s until a deal was brokered, initiated by African Americans, to not be used as scabs if they were admitted to the unions. The Pullman Company had often used Asians to weaken the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ union recognition drive, and it is believed that this led to the opposition to Asian immigration to the United States by the leader of the sleeping car porters, A. Philip Randolph. This can be seen as one of the unfortunate antecedents to today’s tensions between Asian Americans and African Americans in inner cities, as the recently remembered fifteenth anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots pointed out, which in part pitted African Americans against Korean American business owners. This is another theme of transportation equity in the United States—the setting of one group of people of color against another.

There is a direct connection between the Sleeping Car Porters Union and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. E. D. Nixon was a leader in the union and a close associate of Randolph. He became president of the Voters League of Montgomery in 1944 and was also the leader of the NAACP in Alabama. He was a major organizer in building the bus boycott and became chairman of the MIA.

Another veteran of the Sleeping Car Porters Union was Bayard Rustin, who worked with Randolph to open unions to black workers and set up apprentice training programs. Bayard became head of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in 1964, training black workers to move into decent union jobs. In Canada, the black porters’ struggle for unionization and equality is considered to be one of the great achievements of Canadian black history.

Building—and Using—American Roads

As the road net in the United States was improved, the chain gang was created. In several southern states, the criminal justice system was used to sentence blacks to chain gangs, where the mortality rate in some camps was over 40 percent. Many of these chain gangs worked on building roads. Chain gangs originated as a part of the mass organization at the turn of the twentieth century to create quality roads. In the 1890s, Good Roads Associations were developed in each of the southern states. They established a statutory labor system, in which every able-bodied road hand in the state was required to work for four or five days a year on public roads and highways. In one county in Florida in the 1920s, about 60 percent of those imprisoned and forced to work on chain gangs was black. Just as African Americans provided the free labor to build and maintain the economy of the pre–Civil War South, they did so again to build the South’s road net.

In 1940, 74 percent of American blacks lived in the South. Approximately five million migrated north over the next twenty-five years. During the northern black migration, African American sleeping car porters who worked for railroads were an important link between North and South. Porters traveled the country, had connections in the black communities in the rural South and in northern cities, and facilitated the northern migration.

Transportation has been an opportunity for advancement (for example, Pullman porter and teamster jobs), a way to obtain social mobility (the internal migration north of African Americans following the Civil War), a means of separation (“the wrong side of the tracks”), and a form of destruction of minority neighborhoods (Urban Renewal, also called Negro Removal). During World War II, many African Americans served in stevedore and transportation units in the segregated Army forces.

The demands of the transportation industry helped fuel the migration of African Americans to the West Coast. During World War II, there was great demand for workers in shipyards and aircraft plants. Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle all experienced large influxes of African Americans from the South and Texas to work in war industries.

After World War II, the creation of the interstate highway system made white flight from cities possible and exacerbated social problems in inner cities. Lack of employment in African American communities was not addressed by this massive construction program because of a lack of local hiring preferences. Lack of economic opportunities for African Americans helped create the demand for affirmative action and disadvantaged business enterprise programs. Even today, the affirmative action programs of the U.S. Department of Transportation are controversial and subject to challenge. See, for example, the Adarand line of court decisions concerning preferences in contracts for road construction.

There is also a close intersection between transportation and housing. Housing segregation contributed to the disconnect between workers and jobs. Many African American workers were confined to inner city neighborhoods, while jobs increasingly became located in outer suburban areas and around airports, requiring inordinately long and costly commutes. This disconnect has led to welfare-to-work programs, to try to join together those who use social welfare or benefits programs with work.

Traveling to Where, Exactly?

Transportation, education, and housing make up the three-legged stool that continues the vestiges of previous illegal (and legal) segregation. Today, we still see these vestiges. African American car ownership is the lowest of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. While some environmentalists may find this fact delightful, it has real negative implications when disaster strikes. In Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many African Americans could not evacuate using plans based on cars.

At this writing, polls show that the rapidly rising price of gasoline in the United States is not yet a hardship for most of those polled. But African Americans, who have far less family wealth and discretionary income than whites, will inevitably feel the pinch of gasoline prices more than others. The travel of a group that already travels less than other groups will be restricted further. African Americans have made progress in the United States, but only from actual shackles on slave ships to the economic shackles of high gasoline prices, predatory lending, foreclosure, poor inner city schools, continuing job discrimination, and regressive taxes.


  • About the Magazine

  • Copyright Information