New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Wednesday, July 24, 2024
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May 31, 1958 Race screens are removed from NOPSI buses

New Orleans Public Service removed the infamous "race screens" from local buses and streetcars in 1958.

For much of the 20th century, white and black people were
separated in the street cars by the race screen, a movable sign planted into two holes on
the back of the seats. It stated "colored only" on one side and "white only" on the other.
Any white person, even a child, could lift the race screen from its position and place it in a
new position further back in the street car and all the black people, including the elderly,
had to get up and relocate to a seat behind the race screen.

The diverse mix of people in New Orleans caused unique problems for the conductors of street
cars and the drivers (or motor men) of buses. Not infrequently, the conductor or driver could not
distinguish who was white and who was black, and some light-skinned black people "passed as
white" and sat in the front of the street car in the section designated "white only."

QUOTE: In the documentary, Clarence Jupiter of Xavier University offered this
comment: New Orleans "has the blackest white people and the whitest black people of any
place in the country."

The race screen was a symbol of inferior status imposed on black people. It was a despised tool of
segregation. In the documentary, Jerome Smith, a black activist at the forefront of desegregation
efforts in New Orleans, tells the story of the time he seized the "race screen" and threw it on the
floor. The full quote is repeated here:

QUOTE: "I was on the bus. I took the sign and pitched it in the floor which was the
same thing I had seen my father do. The driver told me to move. I did move, and he said
he was going to call the police. I was crying, and this old women, an old black women,
told the driver and some of the white people, Please don't call the police. I'm going to
take this boy home and see that his grandmother bust his behind. This boy gives too much
trouble,' and when we got off the bus with this old lady she took me to the back side of
Autolec store and she grabbed me and hugged me and kissed me and said she was proud
of me."

QUESTION: Why is this quote significant? What does it tell us about segregation?

ANSWER: This quote demonstrates how some black people defied the laws of
segregation. It also demonstrates that "this old lady" understood precisely how to play the
game of survival under segregation. She acted one way on the bus and another way a safe
distance from the bus. Why? Note that Jerome Smith "pitched" the race screen to the
floor as he had seen his father do. The impact of his father's example on Jerome Smith
cannot be overemphasized. The example of parents, the example of teachers, the example
of respected elders, all are very important and all must be recognized as such. As Albert
Schweitzer said, "Example is not the main thing influencing others. It is the only thing."

The New Orleans street cars and the public buses were officially desegregated on May 30, 1958,
as a result of a federal court order issued by Judge Skelly Wright. The race screen was removed
from the every day life of the city. The holes on the back of the seats in which the race screen had
been positioned have since been filled in.

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