Blair Kelley, an associate professor of history at NC State, is the author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, published by UNC Press in May 2010. In the 304-page
account, Kelley delves into the history of Jim Crow laws. She appeared recently on WUNC’s The State of Things to talk about Right to Ride, which has been described as “one of those marvelous books that will forever change historians’ ideas about an incident they thought they understood completely. . . .” Kelley spoke with NC State magazine contributor Jill Watral about her research.
How did you come to develop an interest in this particular period of history?
I was always interested in what happened between the great movements toward change, and Reconstruction is one of the great time periods where we see lots of things happen. The traditional Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s is another time period when wonderful things happened for positive ends for African Americans. But as an undergrad [at the University of Virginia], I thought, “Well, OK, that’s nice, but what happened in between? Did those people just not care about their circumstances? Or, do we just not know what happened? Or, was it because they weren’t successful? Or, because we don’t remember?” It’s been sort of these fundamental questions that I’ve had in the back of my mind as a student going through school, and as I read more, I became more interested in the turn of the century and the Plessy [v. Ferguson] case.
What did you learn during your research for the book?
It was a difficult time period to write about because it was so serious and so awful as a lived experience. It was the age of lynching and such extreme racial violence—so much so that none of us could imagine walking outside of our homes or offices and seeing someone hanging in a tree. But the people I write about did and could and had to prepare themselves [for] that. It’s sad, but at the same time, [there are] people that you can really truly admire for trying to make change. And it gives us courage about our own times. If you want to see change happen, at least we’re not in the most horrible circumstances. They achieved, and they accomplished, and they were fighting on anyway. That’s inspiration, even though it doesn’t look like a traditional inspiration.
Seeing the behind the scenes organizing with the Plessy case was one of the things that really caught me by surprise. The degree to which this is a contested community-based argument ends up being so iconic in the law and a really rich story behind the scenes. That was very exciting to find. There were figures [involved], particularly black women, who most people have never heard of. There were women like Elizabeth Jennings, who basically was the Rosa Parks of her time. Another person who hasn’t been talked about was Magdalena Walker in Richmond, Va. Many people knew because of her very successful bank—a black-owned bank during that time period—that still exists today. She was also an activist, and discovering that side of her was really exciting. Another: J. Max Barber, who was a young journalist, became the voice of this entire streetcar boycott movement. Getting to know them was really, really fun. It sort of was [like] resurrecting new stories.
What do you hope readers take away from the book and learn from it?
There is no time period in which people don’t want to change their circumstances for the better. Even at the time when we assume it would be best to be silent, people weren’t. People were always pushing for greater justice in their own lives, and all people cared about that. So it isn’t just the middle-class people who cared about dignity, respect and fair treatment. Poor people cared about it, working class people cared about it and women cared about it. It’s this sort of broad desire to be treated like a citizen that really is quite remarkable and inspiring for all of us to remember that our citizenship is something that needs to be grappled for and that it isn’t something to take for granted.
What’s next in terms of research?
It’s like having a baby. People say, “That’s such a pretty baby! When are you having another one?” Don’t you like this baby?! Part of me feels that way because I love the book and I’m really glad at the way it came out. I’m done, but then at the same time, I always have more questions that come up during the course of doing research. Part of what I was really excited about was the abolitionists that I write about and how much they cared not only about ending slavery, but also about improving conditions for blacks that are already free. Frederick Douglass, James Pennington and Elizabeth Jennings—those figures really made me think more about the way in which they see America and the transformation they hope for in the moment of emancipation. That’s very interesting to me. There’s an incident on the street car in Washington, D.C., that [I mention in] a footnote in my book. A congressmen actually shoots a man out of the window of a street car in the middle of D.C. on his way to a church to give a speech about temperance. That story is really interesting. I’m also really interested in J. Max Barber, the young journalist. I could go on forever. I’ve already started working on the D.C. story, so hopefully I’ll be working on that this summer.
—Interview conducted by Jill Watral
Want more? Listen to Dr. Kelley’s interview with WUNC’S The State of Things here.