Nearly sixty years before Freedom Riders started a campaign to open restaurants, motels, bars, and other public places to all travelers on Route 40, Cecil County found itself in the middle of another Civil Rights divide. The Maryland Legislature decided the State needed a “Jim Crow” law in 1904 that required steamship lines and railroads to maintain “separate but equal facilities.”
Once the segregation requirement went into effect on July 1, 1904, African-American ticket-holders on the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington Railroad trains and the Ericsson Line steamers heading south from northern points had to move to the “colored compartment” after the train rumbled across the Mason Dixon Line.
To comply with the Maryland regulation signed by Governor Edwin Warfield, the railroad constructed Jim Crow coaches at the Wilmington shops. Two worked the Delaware Road, traveling branch lines up and down the Delmarva Peninsula. These were ordinary coaches, divided off by partitions capable of seating 15 people at one end of the car with a sign saying “colored” on the compartment. On the main line, the accommodation train running down to Baltimore had a “colored coach” attached.
The segregated cars appeared promptly on July 1, the midnight train reaching Elkton being equipped in accordance with Maryland’s rule. About noon that day, a Philadelphian, an African-American, objected to the order at Iron Hill. After a “parley” with the conductor, he was put off the train in North East. “His actions showed pretty conclusively that he was hunting for trouble in order to bring suit against the railroad company,” the Cecil County News informed readers.
But the practical working of Jim Crow got it first real test as the people observed Independence Day in 1904. The Elkton African-American community sponsored a grand picnic, celebrating the Fourth of July. Several hundred people from Pennsylvania and Delaware received invitations so the coaches were crowded on the holiday with festive passengers heading to Elkton. Most of them were surprised, this being their first experience with the “Separate Car Act.” While riding quietly along on the coaches with white ticket-holders, the conductor called out as they rumbled across the Mason Dixon Line, “colored coach in the rear.”
As the significance of the conductor’s announcement surprised many, some moved to the segregated seats, but several refused to obey the Jim Crow law. The conductor thus ordered the train held at Iron Hill Station, and a number of passengers were put off, having to walk to Elkton. A band from Newark was in this group, as they refused to move. One African-American passenger, a lawyer made “a ten-minute speech, in which he tried to console his companions, asking each one to try to find out just exactly who was responsible for the obnoxious law,” the Cecil Democrat reported.
A few days later a train was delayed at Perryville because of refusal to give up the seat and move to the designated coach. In North East William King, an African-American from Philadelphia was put off the train. When the train reached Iron Hill the conductor read the Maryland law to him. He refused and at North East the railroad man forcefully ejected him from the train.
Sheriff Biddle made the first arrest in Cecil County for a violation of the new Jim Crow Law. When a southbound train reached Elkton, James Griffin refused to go to the designated seats. Sheriff Biddle was notified and he placed Griffin under arrest, taking him to the jail. The next day he appeared before Magistrate Henry Gilpin who held him under $200 bail for his appearance in the September term of the Circuit Court.
On the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, William T. Finley, an African-American physician from Atlantic City was traveling on the Philadelphia and Baltimore Steamship Company (The Ericsson Line) to Baltimore. He filed a suit to recover $5,000 in damages for having been subjected to the Jim Crow Law of Maryland.
Finely purchased a first class ticket for passage from Philadelphia to Baltimore. About midnight when the steamer reached the Maryland Line, he was aroused from his sleep by an official of the company who ordered him to the upper deck of the boat. When the doctor objected, saying he had purchased first-class passage, he was told that the “colored apartment was above.
Another person who had the courage to resist the order to move was an attorney and Howard University Professor of corporate law, William Henry Harrison Hart and his sister Clementine Bartlett of Washington, D.C. Conductor George C. Alcron sent for the sheriff and when the southbound 12:34 pulled into the Elkton Station Deputy Sheriff J. Wesley McAllister boarded. “At the sight of the officer the woman gracefully yielded and took her place in the car. The lawyer was given the choice of the proper car or the jail, and refusing the former was escorted to a cell,” the Cecil Whig reported.
Hart spent two days in the Elkton Jail, the Whig wrote, noting that the professor was “somewhat of a philanthropist.” He conducted a school for boys, the Hart Farm School and Junior Republic for Dependent Colored Boys, largely at his own expense. It was situated on 700 acres of land he also purchased. “He is a lecturer at the Howard (colored) University Law School and is said to enjoy the esteem of the Bar and Courts of the District, having served for twenty years. He will probably take through trains, to which the law does not apply, hereafter, when passing through Maryland.”
Hart also practiced law for the United States Treasury and the United States Department of Agriculture, and served as the Assistant Librarian of Congress. He was the first black lawyer appointed a special U.S. District Attorney for the District of Columbia, in 1889.
The attorney challenged Maryland’s law that made it a crime for blacks and whites to ride together in the same car in the courts. He was traveling in the whites only section, which had been okay until he crossed the Mason Dixon Line. Having refused to move into the blacks-only car, Hart was charged and convicted of violating the “separate car law” and was fined $50 in the Circuit Court.
The fine was not paid, the defendant immediately filing an appeal with the Court of Appeals. The lawyer added that if necessary, he would take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court as the Jim Crow Law was not only unconstitutional, but was also in conflict with the Interstate Commerce Law, the Baltimore Sun reported.
When the State vs. Hart made it ways to the bench at the Court of Appeals, the judges “sustained the Jim Crow Law, but held that the provisions of that measure cannot apply to interstate passengers,” as the distinguished Howard University Professor argued, the Washington Post reported. Hart was on a through train from New York to Washington so the decision of the lower court was reversed but the law was sustained.
Hart did not like Rosa Parks become a household word, observes C. Frazer Smith in “Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland. “Such moments of defiance got little attention and probably not by accident.”
Maryland lawmakers had created this legislation after the Supreme Court legitimized segregation in the case of Homer Plessy v. Ferguson. a decision that upheld the constitutionally of state laws requiring segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of separate but equal.
Incident continued but after a number of decades enforcement of the frequently modified legislation quietly stopped. Finally in 1951, after many years of trying to repeal the laws requiring separation of passengers on intra-state railroads and steamboats, it was put to rest in 1951, the language being pulled from the State Codes.
Every challenged injustice building up to the post-World War II Civil Rights movement put a spotlight on the fight for equal rights, while chipping away at Jim Crow. The brave stand of Hart and others had made it clear that segregation wasn’t permitted for interstate passengers traveling on Maryland railroads and steamships. Each step inspired other advocates to push for equal treatment, and Cecil County, bordered as it is by the Mason Dixon Line on two sides, sometimes found itself on the front lines when people had to take risks, standing up for equal treatment.