During the years 1830-1845, the treatment of African-Americans as passengers on public transportation in the Boston area was discriminatory. The prejudicial treatment of African-Americans on railcars such as those owned by the Eastern Railroad Company led to petition campaigns against racial discrimination at the state and local levels.
In the mid 1830’s, New Englanders were interested in the anti-slavery question. There was no place in the United States that allowed African-Americans to travel in the same class as white people. Slave owners traveling with their slaves were able to travel in first class but free African-Americans were forced to travel in second-class cars. On September 29, 1841 Fredrick Douglass and his friend James N. Buffum protested their not being allowed to travel in first class with white passengers on the Eastern Railroad Company. These two men, who were well-known as champions of the anti-slavery cause, entered the cars in Lynn, Massachusetts on their way to Newburyport.The conductor of the train approached the two men and ordered them to leave the car. Refusing to do so, two brakemen tried to physically remove the men. Before they could, a fight broke out between the two cars. For several days the train did not make the stop in Lynn knowing in the event that Douglass would come aboard again. Douglass’ and Buffum’s actions led to similar incidents on the Eastern Railroad.
Charles Lennox Remond was an influential abolitionist that delivered many speeches around the state, including one at Boston’s Marlboro chapel. In a speech delivered to a special committee of the Massachusetts House of Representatives he opened by saying:
Trusting, as I do, that in this country, this State, ay, this city, the Athens of America, the rights, privileges and immunities of its citizens are measured by complexion, or any other physical peculiarity or conformation, especially such as over which no man has any control. Complexion can in no sense be construed into crime, much less be rightfully made the criterion of rights.
Remond’s audience applauded after statements such as these. Remond went on to say that “our right to citizenship in this State has been acknowledged and secured by the allowance of the elective franchise and consequent taxation, and I know of no good reason, if admitted in this instance, why it should be denied in any other.” He stated that African-Americans are discriminated in their own country and while he traveled Europe for nineteen months in England, Ireland, and Scotland he was received, treated, and recognized, in public and private society without “any regard”. Remond noted that “there is a marked difference between social and civil rights. It has been well and justly remarked, by my friend Mr. Phillips that we all claim the privilege of selecting our society and associations; but, in civil rights, one man has not the prerogative to define rights for another.”
Railroad executives argued that all Massachusetts corporations had been granted the power to make “reasonable and proper” by-laws for the management of their business, and “the established usage and the public sentiment of this community authorize a separation of the blacks and whites in public places.” A Boston newspaper claimed that recent legislative proposals, designed to make Massachusetts a “paradise of colored people,” had resulted in a large increase in African American immigration to the area. The legislature refused to adopt the proposed act.
Through constant campaigning the abolitionists got their desired result. In 1842, a joint legislative committee, after conducting hearings, reported that the railroad restrictions violated African-Americans’ rights as citizens, conflicted with the state constitution, and “would be an insult to any white man.” The committee recommended a bill which would prohibit any distinctions in accommodations because of descent, sect, or color. One state senator predicted as a warning that legislation would not stop with the segregation of whites and blacks on railroads but would eventually be applied to religious societies, hotels, “and through all the ramifications of society”. 
The growing impact of public opinion, and the threat of legislative action prompted the railroad companies to abandon segregation. A Joint Special Committee, to whom was committed the petition of Francis Jackson and “sundry other petitioners”, suggested a law securing to colored persons equal rights in railroad accommodations . An act relating to the rights of railroad passengers enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives, in General Court assembled, and by the Authority of the same read as follows:
Sec.1 No rail corporation shall, by themselves their directors, or other, make or establish by-law or regulation, which shall make any distinction, or give a preference in accommodation to any one or more persons over other, on account of descent, sect, or color.
Sec.2 Any officer or servant of any rail-road corporation, who shall assault any person for the purpose of depriving him of his right or privilege, in any car or other rail-road accommodation, on account of descent, sect, or color, or shall aid or abet any other person, in committing such assault, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail not less than six days, or by fine not less than ten dollars; and shall also be answerable to the person assaulted, to the full amount of his damage in an action of trespass.
Even after the bill was eventually passed in 1843, there were still cases of segregation reported. These incidents occurred despite the fact that Governor Marcus Morten suggested, in the following year, that if any citizens, in railroad cars or elsewhere, sustained injuries because of their descent or color for which no legal redress was available, they should be provided with “remedies adequate to their protection in the enjoyment of their just and equal rights. The bill did not stop segregation of all transportation in the state, as described in an article in The Liberator entitled “Treatment of Colored Passengers”, published November 15,1844. In New York City, African-Americans formed the “Legal Rights Association.”
In one instance railroad executives stated that public sentiment required separate cars for Negroes and pointed out that African-Americans could stand on the front platforms of any cars. In a case involving the expulsion of an African American woman from a segregated car, the presiding judge informed the jury that African-Americans, “if sober, well behaved, and free from disease,” possessed the same rights as whites and could not be excluded by force or violence from public conveyances.
Railroads were not the only type of transportation that discriminated against African-Americans. When Philadelphia streetcars began operation in 1858, African-Americans were only allowed to ride on the front platform. Many protested and one newspaper claimed that Philadelphia was the only northern city that excluded African-Americans from public conveyance, which prevented them to move away from the city into cleaner residential areas with cheaper rates. In 1867, a legislative act discontinued the segregation in public conveyances.
The circumstances that gave rise to these petitions were matters of frequent disrespect toward other races throughout Massachusetts. Railroad corporations such as the Western, Nashua, Boston and Portland, Norwich, Lowell, and Worcester, made no distinction between the race of passengers and even every person was allowed to purchase any ticket—whether it was second or first class—a and choose a car and seat that suited them best. On the other hand, the Eastern Railroad, Taunton and New Bedford, and Providence, often placed African-Americans where they pleased, whether or not they had to ride in a car by themselves, or in cars that were exposed to inclement New England weather. African-Americans requested amends, not only on observing that colored people were not treated equally with their fellow white passengers, but on the “broad principle that the state constitution prohibited distinguishing public privileges among different classes of citizens of this Commonwealth “.
1 Bradlee, Francis, Eastern Railroad, (Melrose: Panorama Publications, 1972.
2 “Testimony by Charles Lennox Remond”, Black Abolitionist Papers: Volume III United States 1830-1846. Document 52. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
6 Litwack, Leon, North of Slavery, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961
8 New York Daily Times, May 29, 1855; Fredrick Douglas’ Paper, July 28, 1854, march 2, 1855