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The Streetcar Boycott of 1903

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

The Streetcar Boycott of 1903, led by black leaders in Little Rock, boycotted streetcars in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, and Hot Springs leading to a 90% decrease in black passengers in all three cities.

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In 1903, the Arkansas legislature passed the Streetcar Segregation Act. It mandated “separate but equal” streetcar sections for white and black passengers which required white passengers to sit at the front of the streetcar while black passengers sat at the back. The Act, modeled after legislation in Virginia and Georgia, was a more conservative version of the initial bill which demanded the use of separate streetcars for black and white passengers.

On March 10, 1903, a group of black leaders which included Little Rock physicians, Dr. D.B. Gaines and Dr. G.W. Hayman, gathered at the First Baptist Church in Little Rock to demand an end to segregated streetcar legislation. The Arkansas General Assembly was unmoved by the protest meetings. On March 27, 1903, Arkansas governor Jeff Davis signed the Streetcar Segregation Act into law. That same day, black leaders organized the “We Walk” protests and boycotted streetcars in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, and Hot Springs.

The effects of the protests were recognized by both local newspapers and streetcar companies. On May 28, 1903, the Arkansas Gazette reported that, “The Negroes have organized a ‘We Walk’ league of which the porter at a Fifth Street saloon is president, and at a recent meeting there is said to have been a resolution adopted providing that any member found riding on a street car should be fined a stated sum, each ride to constitute a separate offense.”

The streetcar companies quickly saw a 90% decrease in the number of black passengers in all three cities as the "We Walk League" enforced the boycott throughout the black community by charging a voluntary "fine" for those who broke the boycott. On the rare occasion that black passengers did ride the streetcars because of the great distance they needed to travel, they refused to sit inside the car and instead stood outside on the platform.

In an interview with the Arkansas Gazette, J. A. Trawick, general manager of a Little Rock streetcar line, reported that “all the trouble we have had was from whites.” Many white passengers became angry because they could no longer sit where they wanted as the new law required them to vacate streetcar sections reserved for black passengers. In addition, getting on and off of the streetcars took longer and streetcar drivers and city policemen were now solely responsible for enforcing the law.

The protests lasted at least until June 17, 1903 when the Arkansas Gazette reported that black citizens leaving Wiley Jones Park in Pine Bluff “paid no attention” to “a number of cars [that] were banked to carry them away.”


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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