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BEFORE THE COMING OF THE STREETCARS, most people who were early settlers in Brooklyn walked wherever they wanted to go, especially to and from work. Later, a very few people had automobiles, but most of them who were able to afford riding used a horse and a carriage.
At one time, a thrifty business-minded colored man operated the largest livery stable in Brooklyn. Other individuals tried to operate one or two hacks from time to tome, but Mr. Nathaniel Dwiggins operated a fleet of them. These public conveyances were housed in a large building directly behind his home and were available on call or by appointment.
The vehicles were called hacks, and the men who drove them were called hack drivers. Most of the hack stands were usually at the railroad station or in front of important hotels to serve train passengers and other transients better. The proprietor of this livery stable made an effort to employ sober, dependable men for these jobs just as men are screened for certain jobs today. Some of these men loved horses and enjoyed being around them and tending to their needs. They could be seen out in the yard with big buckets industriously washing the mud from the wheels of their hacks; then shining and polishing them or currying the backs of their charges so that they, too, would look good.
We thought the black shiny carriages, properly called surreys, with black balled fringe around the tops were so pretty, especially when one was new and hadn’t been out in the sun and rain very long. Day and night, we could hear the clop, clop, of hack horses’ hoofs as they trotted by our house on the way back to their stable for food and a period of rest. Sometimes the drivers and animals would be jaded and overworked from too many trips and all-night work. I remember the tired look of many animals as they jogged by, and sometimes drivers would urge them on by the use of the whip.
The operation of a livery stable business seemed to have been rather a prosperous one that afforded owners, both white and colored, a good living.
Most of them owned an extra-fine turnout that was called a landau. In Brooklyn, a landau was engaged for some special occasion such as a funeral or a special party. A landau, with its deeply curved body, looked like Cinderella’s coach to me with the footman and driver sitting on their high seats that were placed at the front and back of the vehicle. It was a shiny black and always kept highly polished and pulled by two beautiful, well-groomed black horses. The driver wore some distinctive type of dress. Sometimes for funerals, a fringed black net covering with balls around its edge was spread over the horses to lend dignity to the occasion.
Securing the services of a landau for a special occasion was five dollars per engagement, so whenever a passenger received a ride in one, it was regarded as unusual.
I remember how lovely I thought my older sister, Nannie, looked as she rode in an open landau with her escort to an elegant affair given on the campus of the then Biddle University. She was quite like one of today’s debutantes as she appeared in her fancy dress covered with bows and frills and her arms filled with long stemmed American Beauty roses. Her handsome gallant escort was equally as well-dressed in his high silk hat and striped breeches.
The horses pulling the polished landau seemed to sense that it was an auspicious occasion. As they waited in front of our home, the horses’ arched necks seemed a bit more bowed and they champed at their bits and pranced about with mincing steps like two nervous dancers. When the dainty occupant was comfortably seated with her escort inside the carriage, the horses moved off in a high-stepping strut that identified them as also being rather special. They were always the cream of the animal crop, and in a way, they seemed to know it. Hack horses were of a more common breed and couldn’t compete in poise and grace with the ones used for this special service.
My oldest sister, Hattie, was a guest at this elegant social gathering also, but her departure was a bit less auspicious. She was equally as dainty and lovely in her special dress and carrying a bouquet of flowers, but for some unknown reason, she and her handsome escort rode in a hack. Since they departed at different times, it wasn’t too noticeable except by a younger member of the family who perhaps wondered the reason. But whether the difference in mode of transportation was the result of taste or from another undisclosed reason, the enjoyment of anyone concerned was not a bit diminished.
Once when we were small, Mother sent my sister, Rhett, my brother, John, and me to visit our Aunt Mame who lived in the eastern part of the state. We had to leave from the Seaboard Station, which was situated on the other side of the city. Because the station was three or four miles from our home, Mother engaged a hack to take us to it. As I remember, the fare charged for this service was 75 cents or one dollar. The price seemed enormous to me because I was only seven years old. The thrill of getting up at three or four o’clock in the morning, looking forward to a train ride, and carrying a big lunch to eat as we rode along soon had us all oblivious to anything that couldn’t be classified as happiness.
I have pleasant memories of that early ride in one of Mr. Dwiggins’ hacks. Several livery stables all over town helped to take care of the transportation in the city, but a large part of it was directed from this location in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn was fortunate to have had streetcar lines laid to serve the population at an early period. I do not know just when they were laid, but the first fare that I remember paying was five cents. On Sundays when no other entertainment was available, we were often allowed to take a streetcar ride as a special treat. The fare suited the amount of money that we had. Sometimes if the hour was early enough and we could get home before dark, we would transfer at the square to another line to get a longer ride for our nickel.
The streetcar was a long open affair, and in the summer, the ride was most delightful as the wind blew in and switched across your face like a huge fan. The motorman sat in the front of the car running it and clanging fiercely away on the bell for whatever got on the tracks--be it animal or human. The conductor collected the fares. In later years, after a mechanical box-like affair was installed to receive the money, one person acted as motorman and conductor.
The population of Brooklyn did not have much difficulty finding transportation because the area was serviced by streetcar lines almost from the inception of that means of transportation in the city. The route began at the square which is the heart of the city, made a loop through the Brooklyn area and continued on the Biddleville section of the city. People who did not live directly on the car line usually had only short distances to walk before they could reach some point of the line, thus deriving a great benefit from this public service.
The car line serving Brooklyn was said to be one of the most heavily used in the city because Brooklyn residents traveled to and from their jobs in other sections of the city. One observation much discussed by some users of the streetcars and buses in Brooklyn was that transportation service seemed fast and methodical during the morning when servants were hastening to homes to get their employers’ meals prepared on time, but in the evening when they were tired and trying to get home, there was a noticeable slowing of the service.
Streetcars continued to serve Brooklyn for many years until the power company, in keeping with the progress of growing cities, decided to switch from streetcars to buses. This change was often lamented at first by older citizens, but they gradually adjusted to the new kind of vehicle.
The system of transportation whether streetcars or buses was an immense help but never completely acceptable to many people. Some complained that an inadequate number of vehicles were used on the line and that at times, the schedules were too slow. But the problems were endured. Perhaps they could have been adjusted by an appeal to the proper authorities.
While the community, particularly those who could not afford private cars, was grateful for this public service, there was one law that was always a thorn in the flesh and was often the source of great public humiliation: the law of segregation that governed the seating on public vehicles. I’ve often wondered if those who authored and passed such a law and insisted for years that colored people comply with this selfish ruling could possibly have given one bit of thought to the dulling and derogatory effect that it had on the spirit of individuals. Or was this the planned effect? I am thinking of an incident I witnessed that seemed most poignant and tragic. The victim was a child and the mother, unwittingly perhaps, made stronger the tragic effect.
The mother and her small son, about age seven, boarded a bus. The child saw a vacant front seat, joyfully climbed on it and began looking out the window. When the mother had ceased paying her fare, she turned to see where the child was seated. As it happened, he had perched on the vacant seat at the front that was nearest them. Loudly and harshly she said, Get down, and go to the back where you belong! The little fellow, who seemed startled at this reprimand, slid down and obediently went to the back of the bus.
Within my heart, I censured this mother severely, but perhaps I should not have judged her too harshly. She, like many of us, was an individual who had complied with this law for years. She had become dulled by it, and perhaps she wanted to avoid a conflict with law enforcement. I had seen humiliating experiences on a bus before. But to hear a mother so brainwashed by her compliance with an unjust law that she could exclaim to her son Go to the back where you belong! weighed on my heart for days. I thought it was a valueless, crushing, limited assessment to place on the future desires and ambitions of an impressionable life.
For years those words gnawed on my thinking. They really became a passion with me. I resolved that in some way I would help erase such distorted viewpoints. I would in some way help and inspire children of any race to move from the back seat of a bus or from any life situation that assigns them to a status beneath their abilities and lawful rights on the basis of their achievements. This I have tried to do.
I am thankful that I heard this mother’s spoken words. She jolted my thinking and made me sit restlessly, and I hope that I helped encourage others to sit restlessly also.
I am thankful for the determined effort of friends in all sections of our country and of various races who have encouraged us for many years and helped us to overcome unjust laws by legal means.
I am thankful for the dedicated resistance of the youth of this generation who have refused the proffered back seat and declined to accept complacently other conditions that assign to them the status of second class citizenship.
Through the combined efforts of friends and members of our own race, this unjust law with its hateful stigma of limited seating has been nullified. It is inspirational to know that members of the colored race no longer have to cope with segregation laws in order to sit on a public conveyance with dignity and are legally able to exercise freedom of choice, a right that should belong to every American citizen.