Kate Brown (plaintiff)

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Kate Brown
Born 1840
Died 1883 (aged 42–43)
Residence American
Occupation Activist
Employer United States Senate
Known for African American civil rights activist

Katherine "Kate" Brown (1840-1883) was an employee of the United States Senate and African-American plaintiff in Railroad Company v. Brown (1873).


Brown was a Senate employee "in charge of the ladies' retiring room.[1] In February 1868, she boarded a train to travel from Alexandria, Virginia to Washington, D.C. She entered "what they call the 'white people’s car.'" As she was boarding, a railroad policeman told her to move to a different car. He told her the car she had entered "was for ladies," and "no damned n----- was allowed to ride in that car; never was and never would be." She replied, "This car will do."

The railroad police officer and another employee grabbed Brown and, after a violent struggle that lasted six minutes, in which she was beaten and kicked, threw her on the boarding platform, dragged her along the platform and threatened to arrest her. She asked, "What are you going to arrest me for? What have I done? Have I committed robbery? Have I murdered anybody?"

Brown’s injuries were so severe that she was bedridden for several weeks and spit up blood. She sued the railway company for damages and was awarded $1,500 in damages in the district court. The railway company appealed, and the case eventually went before the Supreme Court. On November 17, 1873, in an opinion delivered by Justice David Davis, the Court held that racial segregation on the line was not allowed under the charter. Davis dismissed the company’s “separate but equal” argument as "an ingenious attempt to evade a compliance with the obvious meaning of the requirement" of the 1863 charter and decided in favor of Kate Brown. Railroad Company v. Brown, 84 U. S. 445 (1873)[2]

The Court held that white and black passengers must be treated with equality in the use of the railroad's cars:

It was the discrimination in the use of the cars on account of color where slavery obtained which was the subject of discussion at the time, and not the fact that the colored race could not ride in the cars at all. Congress, in the belief that this discrimination was unjust, acted. It told this company in substance that it could extend its road within the District as desired, but that this discrimination must cease and the colored and white race, in the use of the cars, be placed on an equality. This condition it had the right to impose, and in the temper of Congress at the time, it is manifest the grant could not have been made without it.[3]

Brown recovered from her injuries and remained a Senate employee until 1881.

The Congressional Black Associates[4] honored Brown by naming one of its "Trailblazer Awards" in her honor.

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