Quick: Think of a civil rights leader whose brave and intentional actions led to the racial integration of public transportation.
Did you immediately envision Rosa Parks? Although she played a huge role in the integration of public buses in the 20th century, segregation existed in America’s public transportation systems well before that, back when people took streetcars pulled by horses. One St. Louisan refused to accept this discrimination nearly a century before Parks took a stand by sitting down.
Charlton Tandy was an African-American man born to free parents in Kentucky in 1836. His family was involved in the Underground Railroad, and Tandy helped enslaved people cross the Ohio River to find freedom in Ohio. When Tandy came to St. Louis in 1857, he found a city that enforced segregation in many public accommodations and services—including schools, neighborhoods, and public transportation—by custom rather than law.
In the case of the city’s streetcars, white riders could sit down inside the trolley, but African-American passengers had to ride while hanging on from the outside. This created a particularly dangerous situation because the horse-drawn streetcars were moving along bumpy, muddy roads paved with rough cobblestones. Black riders were often injured and sometimes even killed, simply because they were barred from taking a safer seat inside the trolley.
Some African-American passengers and their families pursued justice via the city’s courts, which led to an 1868 injunction prohibiting streetcar segregation. Yet the unfair practice persisted, a fact that didn’t sit well with Tandy, who added a new arsenal of tactics to the fight.
First, he organized boycotts in 1870, urging African Americans to not use—and therefore not pay for—streetcars in their daily commutes. Then he turned to direct action, using his own body and knowledge of horses to physically stop a trolley by grabbing its horse’s reins and holding on until the black passengers were allowed a seat inside. After a great deal of time, effort, and strategy, Tandy and others were largely successful in integrating St. Louis streetcars.
Tandy went on to help advance equality for African Americans in other sectors of society. He organized the Colored Refugee Relief Board, which gave aid to African Americans who migrated west during the “Exodust” after Reconstruction ended. He was also very involved in the fight for education, authoring the first bill in Missouri that provided for the education of black students and lobbying for safer locations for black schools. He recruited an African-American state militia, called Tandy’s St. Louis Guard, during the Civil War. After the war, he helped members of the 62nd Colored Infantry establish Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University), one of Missouri’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
What I love most about Tandy’s story is that it challenges the dominant narrative many Americans learn about the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, many of the most iconic images come from the South in the 1950s and 1960s. But people fought hard for their rights all over the country long before the dawn of what we might traditionally refer to as the civil rights era.
And, yes, there are stand-out leaders of the Civil Rights Movement whom we honor more formally as a nation, such as Martin Luther King Jr. His contributions and ability to rally and unite people to a shared cause are of course valuable, but fighting for civil rights actually takes all the actions (big and small) of lots of people building upon each other, just like Tandy was able to build on the lawsuits that other African-American riders filed against the streetcar companies.
Sometimes it can be easy to look to one event or year and say, “That’s when everything changed,” like the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Yet, in reality, the fight for inclusion and equality is a long road. The story of Charlton Tandy and the integration of St. Louis’s streetcars challenge us to remember just how much work it takes.
On Saturday, February 8, at 11 a.m., learn more about the Lincoln Institute at the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum. Dr. Miller W. Boyd III will highlight the efforts of the 62nd Colored Infantry and how their military service shaped the evolving ideas about liberty, freedom, and citizenship.
This article originally appeared as a blog post on historyhappenshere.org.
Sarah Sims is director of K-12 education programs at the Missouri Historical Society.