February 8, 1868
As a Senate employee “in charge of the ladies’ retiring room,” Kate Brown worked hard. Senators noticed her “lady-like character” and described her as “intelligent” and “refined.” She was not a rebel or a troublemaker, but on a chilly afternoon in 1868 Kate Brown rebelled. Her story is a nearly forgotten chapter of Senate history.
On February 8, 1868, Brown pulled out her ticket and prepared to board a train, to return to Washington from Alexandria, Virginia. As she stepped aboard, she was accosted by the rail line’s private police officer, who angrily told her she must enter the other car. “This car will do,” Brown replied quietly. At that point, as she later told a Senate investigating committee, “the policeman ran up and told me I could not ride in that car … he said that car was for ladies.” Of course, Kate Brown was a lady, but she was also African American.
Not deterred, Brown responded: “I bought my ticket to go to Washington in this car…, before I leave this car I will suffer death.” A violent altercation ensued. Reportedly, the police officers employed by the railroad physically ejected Brown from the train, throwing her onto the platform. Fortunately, another Senate employee, a committee clerk named B. H. Hinds, arrived on the scene. He accompanied the badly injured Brown back to Washington, where she sought medical treatment.
Upon hearing of the incident, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner demanded that the Senate investigate this “outrage that has occurred within sight of [the] Capitol.” Senator Charles Drake of Missouri agreed. “It is an outrage upon an American woman,” he cried, “a citizen of the United States.” On February 10, Lot Morrill of Maine introduced a resolution to investigate. Later that month, Iowa senator John Harlan heard testimony from officials of the railroad company, from eyewitnesses, and from Brown’s doctor. Too badly injured to appear, Kate Brown gave her testimony from her sick bed.
Harlan’s committee issued a report favorable to Brown, then deferred to the courts. Kate Brown sued the railroad company. Legal arguments focused on the company’s right to segregate its cars. At the time, segregation was common on many railroads, but in this particular case it was illegal. The 1863 congressional charter authorizing the Washington & Alexandria Railway included—at the insistence of Charles Sumner—this key sentence: “That no person shall be excluded from the cars on account of color.” Railroad officials argued that they complied with the charter by providing two separate but identical cars.
The Supreme Court for the District of Columbia court awarded $1,500 to Kate Brown. The railroad company appealed. On November 17, 1873, in an opinion delivered by Justice David Davis, the United States Supreme Court confirmed that the 1863 charter remained in force. It upheld the lower court decision and rejected the company’s “separate but equal” argument as “an ingenious attempt to evade compliance with the obvious meaning” of the charter.
Kate Brown won. She remained a Senate employee until 1881. Except for the occasional footnote to Railroad Company v. Brown in legal texts, her story is mostly forgotten, but this act of rebellion by a Senate employee brought before the Supreme Court its first case concerning the contentious issue of racial segregation in public transportation.