Art by Carmen Jones (tumblr, portfolio)
Kate Brown was a free black woman who began working for the US Senate as a laundress in 1861. Within a year, she was promoted to supervisor of the ladies retiring room. This was a noteworthy position for a young woman of color and Kate became known to Senate employees as a woman of intelligence and refinement.
On February 8, 1868 she boarded a Washington, DC bound train in Alexandria, Virginia after visiting a sick relative. The carriage she boarded was reserved for ladies, but a railroad policeman ordered her to leave on the basis of her skin color. Kate refused and two employees physically forced her out of the carriage, leaving her bruised and injured on the railroad platform. Kate was bedridden for several weeks after the altercation, coughing up blood from a lung hemorrhage.
Horrified by what had happened, Senators Charles Sumner and Justin Morrill called for an investigation into the event. The Senate issued a report critical of the railroad which reaffirmed Kate’s right to travel without racial restrictions. Although segregation was legal on trains in some parts of the country at this time, the 1863 congressional charter authorizing the Washington & Alexandria Railway barred racial segregation. The clause “That no person shall be excluded from the cars on account of color” was included in the railroad’s charter at the instance of Charles Sumner.
Empowered by the support of the Senate, Kate sued the railroad for $20,000 ($360,000 in today’s money) and a District of Columbia court awarded her $1,500 ($27,000 in today’s money). The Washington & Alexandria Railway appealed the decision, arguing that they complied with the charter by providing two separate but identical cars. The US Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision and Kate was compensated by the railroad.
Kate returned to her job within months of her assault in Alexandria and she remained a Senate employee until 1881.
The Senate’s 1868 report can be found here.