Joseph Guillaume’s Audacious Ride
by Kevin Brown
Joseph Guillaume had enough. The Civil War was over, Reconstruction was in full swing, yet still the practice of segregation on the streetcars ofNew Orleanscontinued. Every third streetcar, although it was sometimes fewer, was supposed to be designated a “Star Car” and thus could be ridden by Blacks. There was a problem with this system; Whites were free to ride the Star Cars, too, and often filled the seats that were purportedly allotted to people of color.
It was a cool, clear, pleasant day. Joseph was incensed by the lack of progress being made toward ending segregation and the unfairness of the star system. As he waited, he made a decision that might have been inconceivable to others; he wouldn’t take the star car today.
Most White New Orleanians felt the system was abundantly fair. To many Whites, the star car system was far better than Philadelphia’s where integration occurred, as one noted: “On our lines are cars devoted specially to the use of colored people; they (the cars) are marked with large stars, and these are for whose use they are intended take care not to enter the others. White persons can ride in the ‘star’ cars if they choose but they have no right to object to the presence of darkeys there” (Negroes in city cars, 1864). In fact, some felt that there should be “at least FOUR white cars to ONE star car” or “to have some cars constructed with a special apartment for the colored people” so that Whites would never have to wait for a car (Town Talk, 9/29/1865).
No doubt Joseph had heard of Dr. R.I. Cromwell who had forcibly been thrown from a non star car by five or six men who kicked him and tore his clothes. Cromwell noted the unfairness of the star system writing that “every seventh car is a star car, so we have to wait three-quarters of an hour before we can get a car, and then it may be full of whites, for star cars are generally filled with whites” ( The star car nuisance, 1865). Or the story of a Black soldier riding with his mother only to watch her “brutally ejected from a city car…in accordance with the rules that the company have themselves made, which provides that soldiers with their military clothes on, are the only persons of color to be admitted in the ‘white cars’” (The car question,1865).
These injustices happened despite the fact that General Benjamin Franklin Butler had abolished the star car system and “required the admission of decent colored people into all the public vehicles” (The car question, 1865). In fact, the Tribune, the city’s Black newspaper, had called for an end to the star system for some time, keeping the injustice in the public eye, and calling it “odious” and “the most wicked thing ever seen” (Friends of universal suffrage, 1865).
In August of 1865 the Tribune called for a public demonstration against the system. Noting that “at least ten percent more is made by the ‘star cars’ than by the ‘no star’ cars” because “a great many whites wait for a star car to crowd out colored persons, and a great many young ‘scions’ wait for a star car in hope of having the opportunity to insult respectable colored ladies” the Tribune suggested that “every colored citizen of New Orleans, on and after the fifteenth of August enter into any car of the C.R.R.C. and if ordered out—take a seat; and if afterwards he is ejected, sue the company” (Letters to the people, 1865). Two days later the paper noted “colored men have entered the ‘no star’ cars since two or three days, and the drivers have been unable to procure the assistance of the police to help them out. Police officers have no longer any right to interfere in such cases, and they know it. Let everybody get freely into all the public conveyances” (Star car, 1865).
Two years later, as Joseph waited for the train, he was still compelled to take a car with a black star instead of the first one available. No wonder he was feeling discontent. Reconstruction was in full swing, conditions for Blacks were supposed to be improving, and yet this unjust transportation system persisted.
And he wasn’t alone.
In the Spring of 1867 the discontent had reached a boiling point. In April, William Nichols stepped into a car onCanal Streetand was told by the driver to leave or the car wouldn’t move. Mr. Nichols refused saying “he saw no reason why he should travel in a star car, and that he intended to remain where he was unless ejected by force” (Local intelligence: The car question, 1867). The Conductor and Starter complied, and Mr. Nichols was arrested, charged with taking forcible possession of a car. The city’s Black citizens eagerly awaited the outcome of the trial believing it would set a precedent upholding the Civil Rights Bill and outlawing discrimination in public establishments and institutions.
On May 4, 1867, Joseph Guillaume acted. What happened next is open to some debate. According to the New Orleans Times at 11:30 AM Joseph hailed “Whites Only” car number 148 on Love Street (now known as Rampart, Kendall, 672). When the driver refused to stop, Joseph jumped aboard and “coolly took the reigns in his own hands” (Local intelligence, 1867). Blair Kelley (Kelley, 2010) suggests that Joseph “fought off a conductor who had tried to eject him, threw the conductor out of the car, and drove off with the vehicle (52). Roger Fischer (Fischer, 1968) contends that “Guillaume overpowered him, seized the reins, and began to make off with the street car as a trophy of war while the terrified passengers evacuated as best they could” (224). In a more benign version of the story, the New Orleans Tribune suggested that “the gentleman seized the bridle of the mule to stop him, and the driver whipped the animal to make him go” (The cars, 1867).
Whatever the story, it was a critical moment. Three days later the New Orleans Tribune would report that that “all the companies had come to the understanding of admitting our citizens into all the cars, without any distinction as to color” (The car question, 1867). Chief of Police Thomas E. Adams issued an order saying: “Have no interference with negroes riding in cars of any kind. No passenger, has a right to eject any other passenger no matter what color. If he does so he is liable to arrest for assault or breach of the peace” (The car question, 1867). Arceneaux (Arceneaux, 2005) notes “at the oder of General Phillip H. Sheridan, in May 1867, all public transportation was integrated, and the ‘star car’ system was ultimately abandoned until the end of Reconstruction in 1877” (39).
Even then, however, apparently there were still some star cars operating. The May 11 Daily Picayune reported “a group of colored men hailed a car on Carondelet Streetlast night, and the driver immediately stopped. The party advanced and seeing that it was a star car, told the driver to go ahead, that they concluded not to ride” (Concluded not to ride, 1867). Finally, by May 25th the New Orleans Times reported that the star car system had been abolished, although the article, anticipating the future day when segregation would resume, noted: “We imagine that this (racial separation on the streetcars), like all the other grievances of a social character, growing out of our political changes, will be corrected with time, patience and discretion on the part of the people” (City Cars, 1867).
It is unclear what ultimately became of Joseph Guillaume. But for one bright moment, he was a supernova in the star car controversy.
Arceneaux, P.D. (2005, Fall). Murder most political: Henry Clay Warmoth and the death of Daniel C. Byerly. Louisiana Cultural Vistas, 38-41.
City cars. (1867, May 25). The New Orleans Times, p. 1.
Concluded not to ride. (1867, May 11). The New Orleans Tribune, p. 1.
Cromwell, R.I.(1865, June 25). The star car nuisance. The New Orleans Tribune, p. 2.
Fischer, R.A. (1968). A pioneer protest: The New Orleans street-car controversy of 1867. The Journal of Negro History, 53(3), 219-233.
Friends of universal suffrage. (1865, July 8). The New Orleans Tribune, p. 2.
Kelley, B.L.M. (2010). Right to ride: Streetcar boycotts and African American citizenship in the era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Chapel Hill,NC: TheUniversity ofNorth Carolina Press.
Kendall, J. (1922). Kendall’s History of New Orleans. Chicago and New York: Lewis Publishing Company.
Letters to the people. (1865, September 8). The New Orleans Tribune, p. 2.
Local intelligence: The car question. (1867, April 30). The New Orleans Times, p. 4.
Local intelligence. (1867, May 5). The New Orleans Times, p. 10.
Negroes in city cars. (1864, November 9). The Daily Picayune, p. 2.
Star car. (1865, August 10). The New Orleans Tribune, p. 4.
The car question. (1865, February 28). The New Orleans Tribune, p. 2.
The car question. (1867, May 8). The New Orleans Tribune, p. 4.
The cars. (1867, May 5). The New Orleans Tribune, p. 4.
Town talk. (1865, September 29). The New Orleans Times, p. 2.
*Picture from: http://www.cs.illinois.edu/~friedman/album/Pic01-00.htm