Rebel Girls From Bay Area History: Charlotte L. Brown, Gold Rush-Era Civil Rights Champion

A 19th century horse-drawn streetcar owned by the Omnibus Streetcar company in San Francisco  (Wikipedia)

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 and Harriet Escape in Deep Mourning, Underground Railroad” depicts Charlotte Giles and Harriet Elgin, slaves who used mourning veils to ride the railroad and escape to freedom. As seen in 'Army at Home' by Judith Giesberg.
“Charlotte and Harriet Escape in Deep Mourning, Underground Railroad” depicts Charlotte Giles and Harriet Elgin, slaves who used mourning veils to ride the railroad and escape to freedom. As seen in 'Army at Home' by Judith Giesberg.

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.”

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While Charlotte ultimately won the case and was awarded $25 and costs, appeals by Omnibus kept her tied up in court for months. The end result saw her award sum reduced to just five cents, the cost of Charlotte's original ticket. What's more, the case did not change Omnibus policy. Just days after the first case was finally over, Charlotte was removed from another Omnibus streetcar.

Charlotte and her father went straight back to court, this time finding themselves arguing in front of a very sympathetic judge. Judge Orville C. Pratt of the 12th District Court deemed segregation "barbaric," awarded Charlotte $500 and, in his landmark October 1864 ruling, stated:

“It has been already quite too long tolerated by the dominant race to see with indifference the Negro or mulatto treated as a brute, insulted, wronged, enslaved, made to wear a yoke, to tremble before white men, to serve him as a tool, to hold property and life at his will, to surrender to him his intellect and conscience, and to seal his lips and belie his thought through dread of the white man’s power.”

Charlotte continued to follow in the footsteps of her fierce family later in life. A decade after winning her court case, Charlotte married fellow activist James Henry Riker, who had been one of the organizers of the 1865 California State Convention of Colored Citizens, which brought together black activists, churches, social clubs and literary societies to plan courses of action. The couple went on to live on the edge of Chinatown, while Charlotte established a primary school in North Beach.

There can be no doubt that Charlotte's case went on to bolster Mary Ellen Pleasant in 1866 when she brought a lawsuit against North Beach Municipal Railroad for refusing to pick her up, an ongoing problem for San Francisco's black population for years after Brown's case concluded. Pleasant's lawsuit made it all the way to California's Supreme Court, and in 1893, a statewide ban on streetcar segregation came into effect.

Charlotte's case was also cited by Senator Charles Sumner as legal precedent while he fought for desegregated transport in Washington DC. Charlotte is remembered alongside the likes of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Jennings, Frances Harper and Ida B. Wells, all of whom fought similar battles around the country during the same era. In an age of pioneers, Charlotte L. Brown was one of the boldest.

Inspired by the Bikini Kill anthem, "Rebel Girl," the "Rebel Girls From Bay Area History" series has previously profiled:
Arctic explorer Louise Arner Boyd;
pioneering journalist Delilah L. Beasley;
Chicana activist Sofía Mendoza;
reparations champion Tsuyako Kitashima;
philanthropist Alma de Bretteville Spreckels;
lesbian-feminist poet, Pat Parker;
AIDS activist, Ruth Brinker;
and brothel madam-turned-mayor, Sally Stanford. 

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