Two years before slavery was officially abolished by the 13th Amendment, and a full 92 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Charlotte L. Brown took on San Francisco's racially segregated Omnibus Railroad and Cable Company and changed the city's public transportation laws forever.
On April 17, 1863, seven months before President Lincoln had even given the Gettysburg Address, Charlotte boarded a horse-drawn streetcar, a relatively new form of transport that ran at a speed of 6 mph. When the conductor reached her, he refused to take the ticket she had bought and asked her to leave, saying that "colored persons"—two percent of San Francisco's population at the time—were not allowed to ride. Charlotte had successfully circumvented streetcar segregation laws many times before (sometimes by wearing a veil) so she refused to move. When a white woman, one of only three other passengers, joined the conductor in demanding she go, Charlotte was grabbed by the arm and physically removed.
Charlotte was not one to go quietly however, thanks in large part to the way her tenacious parents had raised her. Her father, James E. Brown, made a living running his own stable, but in his personal life, James was a co-founder of the Bay Area's first African-American newspaper, Mirror of the Times, and was an outspoken abolitionist rumored to protect fugitive slaves. James had once been a slave himself, released from servitude only when his wife, a seamstress whom Charlotte was named after, had raised enough money to buy his freedom. This was no easy feat, given that in 1850, healthy male slaves cost on average $2,000, around $60,000 in 2019 money.
Once slavery had been declared illegal in California in 1849, it made sense for James and Charlotte Sr. to move west from Maryland to take advantage of the Gold Rush to provide for their growing family. By the time Charlotte Jr., at the age of 24, was forced from that streetcar, the family was living in North Beach and had become prominent figures in the local black community.
Charlotte and her father decided to take action by bringing a lawsuit against Omnibus Railroad, an extraordinarily brave movie, given that it had only been a matter of months since African Americans in California had gained the right to testify against white people in court. During the case, Omnibus defended its racist policies, arguing that people of color should not be permitted to ride streetcars in case they made white women and children feel “fearful or repulsed.”