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Law School Case Brief

The Sue - 22 F. 843 (D. Md. 1885)

Rule:

The separation of the colored from the white passengers, solely on the ground of race or color, goes to the verge of the carrier's legal right, and such a regulation cannot be upheld unless bona fide, the diligently the officers of the ship see to it that the separation is free from any actual discrimination in comfort, attention, or appearance of inferiority.

Facts:

Libelant, a colored woman, filed a complaint was instituted to recover damages. Libelant alleged that she purchased a first-class ticket for a passage on the steam-boat Sue in from Baltimore to a landing in Virginia, on the Potomac river; was refused proper first-class sleeping accommodations on board; was in consequence compelled to sit up all night in the saloon; and experienced great discomforts. The answer of the claimants of the steam-boat alleges in defense that there was provided on board a sleeping cabin for white female passengers in the aft part of the boat, and that a sleeping cabin equally good in every respect was provided forward, on the same deck, for female colored passengers, and that these libelants were told and well knew before they came on board that the regulations of the boat did not allow either class to intrude into the cabin of the other; that the libelants all refused to sleep in cabin provided for the colored female passengers, and preferred to remain sitting in the saloon all night rather than to go into it, claiming as matter of right to be allowed to go into the white women's cabin.

Issue:

Were the owners of the steamboat liable for damages when it separated its passengers because of race or color?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The regulations based on differences of race or color may be lawful is not to say that every such regulation can be upheld. The regulation must not only be reasonable in that it conduces to the general comfort of passengers, but it must not deny equal conveniences and opportunities to all who pay the same fare. This discrimination on account of race or color is one which it must be conceded goes to the very limit of the right of a carrier to regulate the privileges of his passengers, and it can only be exercised when the carrier has it in his power to provide for the passenger, who is excluded from a place to which another person, paying the same fare, is admitted, accommodations equally safe, convenient, and pleasant. The separation of the colored from the white passengers, solely on the ground of race or color, goes to the verge of the carrier's legal right, and such a regulation cannot be upheld unless bona fide, the diligently the officers of the ship see to it that the separation is free from any actual discrimination in comfort, attention, or appearance of inferiority. The right of the first-class colored passenger was to have first-class accommodation according to the standard of the after cabin on the same boat, and this, no matter what might be the difficulties arising from the greater number of second-class colored passengers. If it is beyond the power of the owners of the boat to afford this, then they have no right to make the separation. On many vehicles for passenger transportation, the separation cannot be lawfully made, and the right of steamboat owners to make it depends on their ability to make it without discrimination as to comfort, convenience, or safety.

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