|Courtesy: Library of Congress|
In one 1907 Alabama fraud case, the white defendant J.W. Abercrombie had defrauded the elderly black plaintiff, 81-year-old Andrew Carpenter, by telling him that he was signing a mortgage when he was actually deeding away his property. In response, Carpenter brought a civil suit against Abercrombie. In his testimony, just as in the testimony of almost every other black litigant in an appellate fraud suit during this period, Carpenter emphasized his lack of business knowledge, stating “I do not know anything about the significance of deeds and mortgages, or legal papers.” But even as they emphasized their lack of education in such suits, African Americans' defiance and assertions of their rights still sometimes clearly came through. Carpenter also testified that when he confronted the white man about the fraud, Abercrombie had offered to pay him a small fraction of the costs of the property. Carpenter then testified, “I told him I would not take $100 but before I took that I would die first.” He continued, “I came on then to see if I could get any rights in court.”* Despite such assertions of individual rights, however, most such cases during the first two decades of the 20th century made no larger claims for African American rights as a whole.
Then, between 1921 and 1950, the kinds of cases that black southerners could litigate in southern appellate courts broadened once again. In addition, more and more seemingly everyday kinds of suits litigated by individuals over personal injury, property, contracts, and wills began to include challenges to the racial status quo. Unlike the personal injury cases of the first decades of the 20th century, for instance, Ethel New's mid-1940's personal injury case challenged racial discrimination as well as claiming damages for the plaintiff's injury. New’s husband was stationed in Virginia as WWII came to an end and when the incident occurred, she had been returning from a visit to him, three months pregnant. She stood up for the first 81-mile leg of her bus journey as there were no seats in the section on the back of the bus reserved for African Americans. Finally, in Lynchburg, Virginia, she obtained a seat in the second to last row. A few minutes later, though, a bus driver ordered her to move to the last row of the bus to accommodate the white passengers who had just boarded. Seeing that the back bench was hard and did not recline, New refused to move. In response, the bus driver and an officer dragged her off the bus by her shoulders and legs. After reaching her destination of Kentucky, New’s back and leg ached and she suffered a miscarriage. She hired a lawyer to file a personal injury suit. The suit protested not only her own treatment and the loss of her unborn child, but also the segregation laws that required her to sit in the back of the bus. Indeed, the suit stated that New’s injuries had been a direct result of her race. While New's case was ultimately unsuccessful in both the trial and appellate courts, she had asserted not only her own individual rights, but the rights of African Americans to equal treatment on public transportation.**
These largely individual-led civil cases challenging discrimination during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s existed alongside the NAACP's legal efforts to challenge discrimination. Ethel New's law firm, for instance, also played a part in representing Irene Morgan in the 1946 NAACP-led suit Morgan v. Virginia over interstate bus travel. In general, though, the civil suits during this time that challenged discrimination in southern appellate courts seem to have been brought by individuals who had economic stakes in the suits, as well as concerns over equal rights. In these ways, these suits had many similarities to the many civil appellate suits between black and white southerners that had occurred in the decades before.
* Abercrombie v. Carpenter, 150 Ala. 294 (1907).
** New v. Atlantic Greyhound Corporation, 186 Va. 726 (1947)