Much of the writing on civil rights history in the transportation setting has been about the arrest of Rosa Parks, a woman who defied segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat to a White passenger on a bus. Her move, on December 1, 1955, started the boycott that would help galvanize the civil rights movement. But her stance did not just come out of nowhere.
In fact, half a century before the civil rights movement, Barbara Pope boarded a train and in the process challenged Virginia’s Jim Crow law requiring segregation on trains and streetcars. The D.C. native, whose story is virtually unknown today, started off as a published writer, whose works focused on social change. Her stories were well received, especially by Black greats like WEB DuBois, however, her stance against racism in transportation almost 50 years before Parks’ bus ride became her greatest feat.
She would grab headlines in the U.S. as the primary player in the DuBois-led Niagara Movement’s first challenge to interstate segregation laws, according to one account. Pope’s case further paved the way for the NAACP’s landmark 1954 Supreme Court victory in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. But many soon forgot about her until her shocking death in 1908. To some historians, her contributions to civil rights were deliberately erased, and this is largely why.
Born in 1854, Pope grew up in Georgetown’s Black community. She started a teaching career at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and championed reforms in the District’s Colored School System, according to an article in The Washington Post Magazine. By 1890, she had begun publishing fiction. In 1906, she joined the Niagara Movement, the organization of Black intellectuals that was led by Du Bois. Pope became one of the movement’s first female members at a time it was gaining ground in the Black Community of D.C. In that same year she joined the movement, she made history.
In August 1906, Pope boarded a train at Union Station to travel to Virginia. Before the ride, history notes that she “had been annoyed before” by Virginia’s Jim Crow rule and “didn’t want to be annoyed that way” again. Thus, when she bought her ticket she wanted nothing but a peaceful and comfortable ride. She however received the opposite. Boarding at Union Station, she saw the colored compartment was uncomfortably small and restricted, with seats faced backward. Pope, therefore, took a seat in the main compartment.
After the train had crossed the Potomac into Virginia, her troubles began. A White conductor asked her to move but she refused. The conductor followed it up with a threat of arrest but she still refused. Pope was later detained at the mayor’s office after the train stopped at Falls Church. A kangaroo court was set up by the mayor in the train station, where Pope was tried for “violating the separate car law of the State of Virginia” and fined $10 plus court costs, per the report in The Washington Post Magazine.
Some weeks later, members of the Niagara Movement voted to fund an appeal to overturn her conviction in the Virginia circuit court, hoping that would be a test case. They argued that as an interstate traveler, Pope was not subject to Virginia’s Jim Crow statutes. But that October, Pope lost her appeal at an Alexandria circuit court. She, along with the movement, did not give up. They headed to Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals, where victory became theirs in 1907. “This means that the NIAGARA MOVEMENT has established that under the present statute Virginia cannot fine an interstate passenger who refuses to be Jim-Crowed,” Du Bois later explained.
The Niagara movement subsequently filed a civil case demanding $50,000 in damages. When the trial opened in June 1907 in D.C., the jury voted in Pope’s favor but awarded her just one cent.
Some months after the civil trial, Pope went through “personal troubles”. She did not only lose her job but suffered from insomnia for months. One evening in September 1908, the 54-year-old decided to end it all. “She walked out onto Lovers’ Lane, beside Montrose Park in Georgetown, pinned a note addressed to the coroner to her dress, and hanged herself,” the article in The Washington Post Magazine said, adding that the note said she felt her brain was “on fire”.
Soon, her story would be absent from African-American history, and historians blame this on the stigma associated with suicide. One could only find Pope’s work in the Library of Congress on microfilm until 2015 when historian Jennifer Harris wrote a profile of Pope for Legacy, a journal of American women writers, highlighting the story of the little-known but impactful woman.