When the history of Black resistance in the transportation industry during Jim Crow (Segregation) is written, the arrest of Rosa Parks is more popular. But very few people know of Barbara Pope, another black woman who challenged Virginia’s Jim Crow laws on trains and streetcars, 50 years before Rosa.
Barbara was a native of D.C. She was first known to be a published writer, with her writings focusing on social change. She and her stories were popular among African-American leaders such as WEB DuBois. But she became more known for her resistance to segregation by Jim Crow.
Her stance made headline news. Most prominent among them was her primary role in the Niagara Movement’s first challenge to interstate segregation laws, led by WEB DuBois. Barbara’s case and its popularity made it possible for the NAACP to win their case in the Supreme Court in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
Although soon after her victories, she was not remembered, until her shocking death in 1908.
Her Background, Activisms and How She Died
Barbara Pope was born in 1854 and grew up in Georgetown’s black community. According to an article in The Washington Post Magazine, Barbara Pope started her career as a teacher at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and was known to champion reforms in Georgetown’s colored school system.
She started to publish works of fiction in 1890, and in 1906, she joined the Niagara Movement, an organization of various black intellectuals. She was their first female member and a very important one at that.
She would make history in the August of 1906 when she took a train from Union Station that was headed to Virginia. Before she boarded, she had been annoyed by Virginia’s Jim Crow rule and didn’t intend to make any trouble. But when she got into the segregated section meant for blacks, it was very small, and the seats were faced backward. So she took a seat in the main compartment, meant for only whites.
After the train had passed Potomac into Virginia, one of the white train conductors asked her to leave the white compartment but she refused, even after the conductor threatened to arrest her. When the train arrived at Falls Church, Barbara Pope was detained at the mayor’s office.
History recounts that a kangaroo court was put together in the train station, and Barbara Pope was tried for “violating the separate car law of the State of Virginia”. They gave her a fine of $10, plus court costs.
In a few weeks that followed, her organization, the Niagara movement raised funds to appeal for an overturn of her conviction in Virginia circuit court. Their argument was that Barbara Pope was not subject to Virginia law, since she was an interstate traveler. Although they would later lose the appeal, it did not stop them.
They would later celebrate their victory in 1907 after they headed to and won the case at the Supreme Court of Appeals in Virginia. The Niagara Movement went a step further in filing a civil case demanding $50,000 in damages. The jury voted in Barbara Pope’s favor but awarded her only 1 Cent.
In the months that followed her trial, Barbara Pope started to encounter unfamiliar troubles. She first lost her job and then started to suffer from insomnia, which lasted for many months.
She would end it all in the September of 1908. “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”.
Very few people know of her in African-American history, because after her death, very little emphasis was laid on her stories. This has been attributed to the stigma associated with suicide.
Despite her contributions to the fight against Jim Crow, historians could hardly find her works. Her works were only made available in 2015 on microfilms in the Library Of Congress. The works were as a result of the profile of Pope’s legacy written by historian Jennifer Harris, as part of the journal of American Women Writers.
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