Early Civil Rights Protest and the Steamer Sue Case

Today’s post is written by Dr. Dennis Patrick Halpin, an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech whose research examines how race, class, and gender shaped the 19th and 20th century urban experience in the United States. He’s been conducting research at the National Archives at Philadelphia, focused primarily on the records of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.

Sometimes when researching the past, small seemingly insignificant items can make a huge difference.  In this case a stenographer’s receipt helped me draw connections that I had been searching for over the course of 10 years.

On 15 August 1884 a group of black Baltimoreans purchased first-class tickets to board the Steamer Sue, which plied the waters between Maryland and Virginia. The group included four sisters, Martha Stewart, Winnie Stewart, Mary M. Johnson, and Lucy Jones along with the women’s aunt, Pauline Braxton, Mary’s husband James, and Lucy’s husband Charles. About an hour into the voyage, the ship’s chambermaid informed the group that the captain would not permit them to occupy the first class cabin because the ship’s regulations prohibited African Americans from that part of the vessel.  The travelers protested their treatment by staying up all night in the ship’s saloon.  When the women returned to Baltimore they filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore, Chesapeake, and Richmond Steamboat Company.[1]

Rules and Regulations of the Baltimore, Chesapeake & Richmond Steamboat Company, submitted with the Stenographer’s Record, Martha Stewart et al. v. The Steamer Sue, United States District Court for the District of Maryland Admiralty Case File No. 90, National Archives at Philadelphia (Series NAID: 278848)

I first encountered the Steamer Sue case approximately ten years ago while doing preliminary research for my forthcoming book on Baltimore’s early civil rights struggles, A Brotherhood of Liberty (The University of Pennsylvania Press, Spring 2019).  The case was immediately intriguing.  It took place approximately eight years before Homer Plessey initiated his own test case by crossing the color line on a Louisiana train.   In addition, it bore striking resemblance to Rosa Park’s act of defiance nearly seventy years later on a Montgomery bus.  But the short article in the Baltimore Sun said nothing of the women’s intentions or motivations. A number of questions sprang to mind: Did the women engage in an act of civil disobedience?  If so, how did they plan their actions?  Did they receive support from activists in Baltimore’s black communities?  These questions all piqued my interest.

The next clue I found added more layers to the story.  Newspapers closely followed the case and reported the verdict.  I was surprised to learn that the women won their case but the devil was in the details. When the women filed their lawsuit they wanted the judge to rule on two issues: first the legality of separating passengers by race and second whether the conditions of the cabins in this particular case were truly equal.  In the 1880s, Jim Crow was in its infancy and had not yet become settled law.  Up to this point, common carriers (which we would call mass transportation today) could legally separate people by race if their rules were clearly stated and the accommodations truly equal.  The judge decided not to rule on the first question, which would have had larger implications concerning the legality of racial separation, instead arguing that it was the job of Congress to regulate interstate travel.  Rather, he narrowly ruled on the question of whether conditions in the first and second-class cabins were equal in this particular case. He found that they were not and awarded the women $100 each in damages, not the $500 they had asked for when they sued.

The ruling, which the Sun printed in full, shed a little more light on aspects of the story. The fact that the women asked the judge to rule on the legality of racial separation indicated that they pursued the case for more than just personal hardship.  In addition, buried in the judge’s ruling was another interesting clue: the judge noted that the women had taken the journey before and had been denied access to the first class cabins.  The potential implication was that the women expected this to happen again and were prepared to lodge a protest in 1884.  These two clues taken together at least helped build a circumstantial case that the sisters were engaged in activism.[2]

In the course of my research, I discovered that shortly after the conclusion of the Steamer Sue case, Union Baptist’s Reverend Harvey Johnson formed an early civil rights organization, the United Mutual Brotherhood of Liberty.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Johnson was the city’s foremost civil rights activist.  The Brotherhood was the city’s first civil rights organization and one of the earliest in the nation.  His potential involvement in the case had the potential to significantly change the story of the black freedom struggle in Baltimore.

Unfortunately, the Brotherhood left behind precious little documentation.  In 1891, however, they published a pamphlet about their history in which they highlighted the centrality of the Steamer Sue case to their founding.  The group wrote that, “The favorable termination…prompted and hastened the organization of the Brotherhood of Liberty, as the most effective medium through which the laws in Maryland and other States repugnant to the interests of the colored people could be most speedily expunged.” The organization also listed its backers, which included Mary M. Johnson and Martha Stewart.  They further noted that the four women were all parishioners of Johnson’s Union Baptist Church.  Now the pieces were falling into place.[3]

It was clear that Johnson was involved but I was still missing two big pieces of the puzzle: the precise details of the women’s experience and the extent of Johnson’s contribution. The biggest missing piece of evidence was the women’s testimony.  When I first began researching I came across the website of a Stewart family descendent, Mr. Julius Pinkney, who excerpted portions of the women’s testimony.[4]  In the interim I had asked numerous archivists about the testimony.  I was repeatedly told that it likely did not exist.  In the 19th century, one of the litigants would have had to pay for a stenographer’s services or else the court did not record the testimony.  At a loss, I felt that at least I had already built a strong circumstantial case with other archival resources.

As I was finishing final edits on the book I decided to try one more time to find the trial transcripts.  In Barbara Y. Welke’s article about women’s activism against segregation on mass transportation before Jim Crow I saw she cited Martha Stewart’s testimony.  I immediately contacted the National Archives in Philadelphia.  To my great delight the file, found in the Admiralty Case Files, 1790-1966 (NAID 278848), was rich with important details.  Indeed, the women had testified that they had refused to follow the Steamer Sue’s Jim Crow regulations on a number of previous journeys.  In fact, the ship’s chambermaid, Elizabeth Francis, told the court that, “all those girls, when they came on to the boat of course they always raised a disturbance.”  It was clear that this was an act of protest.[5]

Potomac Transportation Line First Class Ticket, submitted with the Stenographer’s Record, Martha Stewart et al. v. The Steamer Sue, United States District Court for the District of Maryland Admiralty Case File No. 90, National Archives at Philadelphia

Not only did it have the women’s testimony in full but also the testimony of supporting witnesses which demonstrated the support network that aided the women. A number of witnesses were associates of Harvey Johnson, including a number of men (including its future president) who became members of the Brotherhood of Liberty.  It was clear by this point that the Steamer Sue case was a coordinated effort and that a network of activists supported the sisters in their act of civil disobedience.

The final piece of the puzzle was located in one of the file boxes at NARA:  a receipt for stenography services paid for by Johnson.  It is unclear why he paid for a stenographer.  He may have wanted to preserve the record, viewing the trial as a possible test case to snuff out Jim Crow before it became settled law.  It is also possible that he hoped to bring another suit against the steamship line if they continued to discriminate against their black travelers.  Whatever the case may have been, what this receipt did demonstrate without a doubt was Johnson’s involvement in the case.[6]

[1] “Local Matters,” Baltimore Sun, 19 September 1884, p. 4.

[2] “Colored Passengers,” Baltimore Sun, 3 February 1885, p. 6.

[3] W. M. Alexander, “The Brotherhood of Liberty or Our Day in Court: Including the Navassa Case” (Baltimore: Printing Office of J. F. Weishampel, 1891), p. 1, 6, and 43.

[4] Mr. Pinkney’s website can be found at: http://www.johnspinkstew.org (accessed November 2018)

[5] Barbara Y. Welke, “When All the Women Were White, and All the Blacks were Men: Gender, Class, Race and the Road to Plessy, 1855–1914,” Law and History Review 13, no. 2 (Autumn 1995): 261–316.  Elizabeth Francis’s testimony can be found in: Testimony of Elizabeth Francis (witness for respondent), Martha Stewart, et al v. The Steamer Sue (30 January 1885) pp. 60-61, District of Maryland Records, Admiralty Cases 90-93 (NAID 278848), National Archives and Record Administration, Philadelphia.

[6] “Stenographer Receipt,” District of Maryland Records, Admiralty Cases 90-93, National Archives and Record Administration, Philadelphia.


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