By Chase Carle
Most Americans have heard of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s. However, a major influence on the famous boycotts in Montgomery, Ala., occurred almost 50 years earlier in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville’s boycott came after a 1901 ordinance was passed by the city that segregated streetcars.
In a city where blacks were the majority of the population, and which even had five black representatives on the nine-member city council at one point, why would an ordinance like this be passed?
Jim Crooks, a Jacksonville historian and retired University of North Florida professor, believes that those factors may have actually played a role in the ordinance.
“When there were five African-American members on the city council, the state government stepped in and overturned that election,” said Crooks of the 1900 action that negated the election. “They even suspended local government for a time and when it was reinstated, they made sure that it would be white dominated.”
The night after the streetcar ordinance was passed, a meeting was held in the black community and attendees voted to boycott, choosing to avoid taking a streetcar until the ordinance was overturned.
Originally intended to force then-Jacksonville Mayor Duncan U. Fletcher to veto the ordinance completely, the boycott influenced the railway and streetcar companies more than the local government. In particular, the railway companies were hesitant to give conductors the same power as police to determine race and enforce the ordinance accordingly.
Instances of violence occurred before the ordinance was officially signed. Conductors were threatened and windows on street cars and stations were shot out.
However, most of the resistance to the ordinance was peaceful and organized.
The 1901 boycott, while not successful in having the ordinance repealed, resulted in very lax enforcement of the ordinance.
While the city ordinance wasn’t strictly enforced, segregation was still a reality, one that would take center stage in Jacksonville just a few years later.
In 1905, Florida passed a law that mandated street car segregation throughout the state.
The “Avery Streetcar Law,” named after the representative who introduced it, established the separation of “white passengers from Negro passengers by separate cars or fixed division, or movable screens or other method of division in the cars of such lines.”
The lone exception in the law allowed for “colored nurses having the care of white children or sick white persons” to ride in the “white cars.”
A boycott was immediately launched in Jacksonville in May 1905 in opposition of the law. It was a boycott that The Florida Times-Union would write “was one of the most complete in the history of this, or perhaps any other city in the South.”
“The African-American community in Jacksonville was active,” said Crooks. “When the white-owned insurance companies wouldn’t insure them, they started their own insurance companies. When banks wouldn’t lend to them, they started their own banks. They even started their own streetcar company.”
On July 19, 1905, Andrew Patterson, a local minister, was arrested for riding in the white section of a black-operated street car. The black streetcar conductor, using his police powers, delivered Patterson to the justice of the peace himself. Patterson refused to post bail and was incarcerated.
The day after Patterson’s arrest, attorney J. Douglas Wetmore filed a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the law was unconstitutional and therefore Patterson’s arrest and incarceration were “null and void.”
“Wetmore was actually on the City Council until 1907 and was good friends with James Weldon Johnson,” said Crooks. “He was a highly respected individual in Jacksonville.”
One of the main points presented by Wetmore was that the law violated the 14th Amendment. He argued that since the law specified “colored nurses” as an exception, it afforded black nurses rights and immunities denied to other blacks. Wetmore planned to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary to challenge segregation on a national level.
Jacksonville Judge R.M. Call presided over the case and ultimately ruled the law to be unconstitutional, releasing Patterson from jail. He instituted an appeal to be heard before the Florida Supreme Court three days after his ruling.
On July 30, 1905, the Florida Times-Union wrote that the Avery Law had been “killed” by the state Supreme Court.
Chief Justice R. Fenwick Taylor wrote in his decision that Wetmore’s assertion of the law violating the 14th Amendment was accurate. Taylor specifically cited the section of the Avery Law that exempted colored nurses, saying that made the entire law “unconstitutional and void.”