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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Speaking Truth to Power

In the late nineteenth century, the railroads were the primary means for shipping goods and materials quickly, efficiently, and cheaply from one part of the continent to another, and for people to traverse the great and narrow distances among urbanized areas. During the era from end of Reconstruction until 1956, it was also a central symbol of the racism and segregation to which Black Americans were subjected, by law, in the so-called “land of the free.” The railroads provided employment for Blacks as porters and other servants to traveling Whites, from the separate (“colored”) waiting halls to the trains themselves. And if Black folk wanted to use the rails – as many millions did during the Great Migration and the various geographically particularized facets of “New Negro Movement” that included the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Black Renaissance, and more – they were compelled to ride in separate and poorly maintained “Jim Crow cars” that powerfully messaged to Blacks that they were not entitled to the same freedoms as Whites, or even the same standards of human decency (such as sanitation).

The segregation of the U.S. rails was legally affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine of the Plessy v. Ferguson case. As the primary economic and logistical agent of movement and industry in the late nineteenth century, the railroad was arguably the single most powerful and influential industry of the rapidly industrializing United States.

And Florence Price’s parents sued the railroad for discrimination.

Recently, as part of a separate inquiry, I stumbled upon a short and unsigned, but important, article in the Daily Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock) that reported that in 1895 Dr. James H. Smith and his wife Florence Irene Smith – known today as the parents of Florence B. Price – sued the White and Black River Valley Railway through “well-known local attorney” Charles T. Coleman. The suit was prompted by the Smiths’ experience on a trip on September 4, 1894:

There’s a great deal to unpack about this episode and report, which (NB) pre-dates Plessy v. Ferguson. Most generally, it is a little-known antecedent to the celebrated collaboration between W.E.B. Du Bois in suing the railroads for discrimination (1901-1904). It also raises questions, e.g.:

  • Did the Prices win, or – more likely – was the case somehow dismissed by the Little Rock Circuit Court’s White judiciary?

  • Who was Charles T. Coleman? Was he White or Black? Did he have any relationship to Scipio Africanus Jones, the formerly enslaved African American lawyer who had passed the bar several years earlier (1889), whose credentials would be accepted by the Arkansas Supreme Court several years later (1900), who, from 1908 to 1914, would be a partner with Thomas Jewell Price (1881 or 1884-after 1944), eventual first husband of Florence B. Price – and who, along with Thomas Price, would famously defend the twelve Black men who were sentenced to death following the Elaine Massacre of 1919?

  • Why did the anonymous reporter emphasize Florence Irene Smith as petitioner even though the suit was reportedly filed by both parents? (My guess: since the news account obviously regards this case with the sort of dismissive sarcasm typical of racist White perspectives that viewed Black folk as lazy and overeager to criticize the pervasive racism of their existence, Florence Irene Smith, as a woman, was doubly liable, an easy target for White ridicule.)

  • And of course, most immediately important to those of us interested in Florence Price: was the young composer aware of her parents’ courageous challenge to the racism of America’s most powerful industry? She was just eight at the time of the lawsuit’s filing, so she couldn’t have comprehended the legal issues. But we are all foundationally affected by our experiences during those formative years and our memories of them – and because Price was surely aware of that she, as an African American, lived in a deeply segregated world, we have to wonder whether she understood that her parents had attempted to use the legal system to resist the injustice of that segregated world? Was she aware that she was the child of Blacks who had challenged the system, spoken truth to power – indeed, did she suffer any retaliation as the child of those challengers? Finally, if she was aware of these things, how did they affect her outlooks and activities later in life?

I have no answers to those questions (for now). But I think they need to be answered. For now, I’ve learned something new about the parental sources of Florence Price’s own courageous spirit of resistance to the segregation that was the law of the land in the U.S. – in the world of music as on the rails themselves – to the end of her days.


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