Robert Fox (activist)

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Robert Fox
Born 1846
Kentucky, United States
Nationality American
Occupation Activist
Parent(s) Albert Fox
Margaret Fox

Robert Fox was an African-American activist who sparked a civil rights battle in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1870s by entering a segregated streetcar.

Early life[edit]

Robert Fox was born in Kentucky in 1846 to Albert and Margaret Fox.[1]

Streetcar incident and lawsuit[edit]

In Louisville on January 1871, Fox, an undertaker and grocer, boarded a streetcar with his brother and business partner Samuel and their employee Horace Pearce. They paid their fares and sat down in the white section of the car. At that time, only black women were allowed to ride inside the trolley cars, and often only at the back of the car; black men were usually only allowed to ride on the platform with the driver, or not at all.[2] After a white passenger named John Russell complained, the driver asked them to leave. The black passengers refused; other drivers were called to the scene, and the men were beaten and thrown off the car. An angry crowd of African Americans had gathered outside; some began to throw dirt clods and rocks at the streetcar, insisting that the men be allowed their right to ride. When the Fox brothers and Pearce returned to try again and take a seat in the 'white' section, they held rocks in their hands to protect themselves. The three men were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. At their trial, they were unable to testify because the Judge forbade blacks from testifying against whites. They were found guilty and fined $5 each.[3][4] Shortly after, Fox filed a charge of assault and battery against the streetcar company in federal court, claiming that separate seating policies based on race were unlawful and the driver's actions were therefore improper. A jury found the company rules to be invalid and awarded damages of $15 to Fox and his fellow riders.[5]


The company defied the jury's finding and continued racially segregated seating. As a result, Louisville black leaders organized "ride-ins" all over the city. Streetcar after streetcar was boarded by African-Americans who took seats in the white section. The drivers, in response, left the cars entirely. On several occasions, black passengers drove the cars themselves, to the cheers of black spectators. Gangs of white youths swarmed into the cars, throwing black riders off them. One incident involved an African-American youth named Carey Duncan.[6] At 7 P.M. on May 12, he boarded a streetcar, walked past the driver and sat down among the white passengers. The driver, following the company directive, did not attempt to throw him off, but instead, stopped the car, lit a cigar and refused to proceed until the black youth left the white area." The governor, the Louisville chief of police and other prominent citizens looked on from the sidewalks, while a large crowd gathered around the streetcar and began to shout at the youth: "Put him out!" "Hit him!" "Kick him!" "Hang him!". Some of them climbed into the car, yelling insults. Carey Duncan quietly refused to move. The crowd dragged him from his seat, pulled his inert body off the car and began to beat him. At that point, Duncan started to defend himself, and the city police intervened.[7][8]

Duncan was charged with disorderly conduct, and his trial was held in Louisville city court. He was fined, and the judge delivered a warning to Louisville blacks that further ride-ins would be punished.[7]

Local and national response[edit]

Louisville newspapers responded by blaming African Americans for the troubles and urging them to stop the ride-ins. "The assumption of their right to ride in the street cars, under the present circumstances, is injudicious, and we hope will not be persisted in," wrote an editor of the Daily Commercial. "To do so may lead to serious trouble."[9] Finally, Mayor John G. Baxter announced he would meet with interested parties on both sides to attempt a settlement.

At the meeting, the streetcar companies finally capitulated, realizing that the federal government was likely to step in and enforce integration if they didn't agree to it themselves.[10] To "avoid serious collisions," the company announced it would allow all passengers to choose their own seating. Afterwards, mixed seating became a common practice. Newspapers around the country commented on the demonstrations and their outcome.[10][11]

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Louisville ride-ins sparked by Robert Fox and his companions taking a seat in the whites-only section have been viewed by historians as an early example of successful massive but non-violent African-American resistance to racial segregation laws, a method that would be used again in the Montgomery bus boycott and in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.[12][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ University of Kentucky Libraries, Notable Kentucky African American Database, retrieved July 30, 2016
  2. ^ Fleming, Maria, A Place at the Table: Struggles for Equality in America, Oxford University Press, USA, 2001, p. 36
  3. ^ Wright, George C., Life Behind a Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865--1930, LSU Press, September 1, 2004, p. 53
  4. ^ Notable Kentucky African Americans, University of Kentucky Library
  5. ^ Gerald L. Smith, Karen Cotton McDaniel, John A. Hardin, The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, University Press of Kentucky, July 16, 2015
  6. ^ Marion Brunson Lucas, University Press of Kentucky, June 1, 2003, A History of Blacks in Kentucky: From Slavery to Segregation, 1760–1891, Volume 1, p. 297
  7. ^ a b Fleming, p. 41
  8. ^ M. M. Noris, "An early instance of nonviolence: the Louisville demonstrations of 1870–1871", The Journal of Southern History, vol.32, issue 4, (November 1966), pp. 487-504.[dead link]
  9. ^ Norris, p. 501
  10. ^ a b American Heritage, Part Five, originally published American Heritage Publishing Co, 1962
  11. ^ Norris, p. 502
  12. ^ Norris, p. 504
  13. ^ A Place at the Table, p. 9

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