In the context of the past year’s tensions over police violence, the story of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club—11 women, 10 of them African American and one white, ranging in age from 39 to 85—whose members were ejected from the Napa Valley Wine Train for being “too loud,” may not evoke the same level of outrage.
Police were called, but there was no confrontation and no one was physically hurt. And after initially posting a false claim that the women had verbally and physically assaulted other guests and staff, the Napa Valley Wine Train issued an apology to the women, refunded their ticket costs and offered to provide them another trip on the house “in a reserved car where you can enjoy yourselves as loudly as you desire.” That’s a tad passive-aggressive, if you ask me, but it’s an apology nonetheless.
Why, then, would such an episode even rate in a world where the movement is literally fighting to protect black lives?
The answer is that it’s not as urgent—and thank God, the Sistahs weren’t physically assaulted. But I was struck by the way this moment eerily intersects with the history of black ejections from trains in the era of segregation. After all, the Napa Valley Wine Train is intended to give passengers a throwback to the past; it features refurbished vintage Pullman train cars, most dating to 1915. The interiors have elegant velvet seats and curtains and intricate paneling carved from exotic woods that made Pullman cars the standard of luxurious travel at the turn of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the ejection of these women reminds us of a history we shouldn’t try to re-enact.
Elegant railcars were some of the first sites of de facto public segregation in America.The use of the term Jim Crow segregation was first deployed to describe the separation of black and white passengers on railcars in Massachusetts in the 1840s.
Thomas “Daddy” Rice, a white performer who blackened his face to bring the character of Jim Crow to life on minstrel stages throughout the country, made Jim Crow enormously popular throughout the country, shaping the national consciousness on race.
On the minstrel stage, Rice’s Jim Crow was “the traveling intruder,” a grotesque portrayal of a loud, uncultured runaway slave who had a habit of encroaching on otherwise elegant train cars, streetcars and steamboats. So Jim Crow segregation was designed to keep free black passengers from violating the racialized social order of the day. The Jim Crow car became the place to put black passengers so that they would not intrude.
Attempts to segregate and sometimes eject dissenting black passengers were ubiquitous. Frederick Douglass fought back against white conductors who tried to remove him by force from a Massachusetts railcar in the 1850s, and in the 1880s, black women like Ida B. Wells sued after being ejected from first-class “ladies cars” simply on the basis of their race.
Nearly every black writer and thinker from the 20th century has a train story: James Weldon Johnson recalled being threatened by a lynch mob if he did not move to the inferior Jim Crow car; W.E.B. Du Bois recalled the rough, dirty and uncomfortable conditions in the segregated car placed right behind the train’s smoky and hot engine car.
One of the most poignant stories was from John Hope Franklin. In his autobiography, Franklin recalled that his “first experience with crude, raw racism” came when his mother was ejected from a train in rural Oklahoma. Young Mollie Franklin refused to move from the first-class car, where she had boarded, to the colored car while the train was traveling at high speeds. She feared that a 6-year-old John and his younger sister might slip as they moved between the jostling cars. The conductor ejected her at the next stop to “teach her a lesson.” Even as they had to walk miles back to their home in the woods along the railroad tracks, Franklin’s mother reminded him through his tears that despite a law that insisted that they were inferior, there “was not a white person on that train or anywhere else” better than young Franklin.
So is the Napa Valley Wine Train a throwback to segregated travel? Not exactly, but it does remind us that with the tanning of America comes a re-examination of the expectation that some Americans have about the exclusivity of certain spaces.
According to one of the Sistahs, before they were escorted off the train, she heard another passenger opine, “This isn’t a bar.” Except, really, that’s what a wine train is. We really don’t know, but perhaps she meant that the wine train isn’t the type of cocktail lounge where she expected to find black women laughing, dialoguing and generally having a good time while also sipping wine. She’d do well to read Very Smart Brothas’ Damon Young, who wryly pointed out earlier this week that wine-train-book-club is a quintessentially black women’s recreational endeavor.
While segregation by law ended 50 years ago, many spaces still exist where the patrons are mostly white and where people of color feel less welcome. Black families still have to carefully consider simple things: Will this beach community be safe for our family vacation? Can my kids safely go to a pool party in this neighborhood? Will I be followed if I shop in this store? Should I consider buying a home in this neighborhood? Will we be treated well at this restaurant? Will my book club be welcome on this wine train?
This isn’t, of course, the stuff of #BlackLivesMatter—the stuff of life and death. That we live in an era where a multigenerational group of upper-middle-class black women fully expect to be able to ride the wine train and be treated like every other patron is undoubtedly a good thing. But while l’affaire wine train isn’t life or death, it still tells us something about how much we as a society have—and haven’t—overcome.
Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and the author of the award-winning book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Follow her on Twitter.