Skip to content
Our Archives
Link copied to clipboard

One woman's drive for equality

On the first Monday of spring in 1867, the new principal of a Philadelphia elementary school stepped to the corner of 11th and Lombard Streets with her assistant. The teachers heard the clip-clop of hooves and saw a yellow streetcar lumbering up the 11th Street tracks. Caroline R. Le Count took a breath of the cool air and called out to the conductor to stop.

Horse-drawn streetcars, a popular hybrid of animal and rail, were the primary way to get around cities - and a natural focus for efforts to expand civil rights.

With the burning of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838, Philadelphia had become a crucible for testing those rights, a hub of the black North. For years, men like Robert Purvis and William Still had chiseled away at Jim Crow laws, aided by the abolitionists who built the hall, menaced by the mobs that burned it. By the time Le Count flagged down the streetcar, thousands of black soldiers home from the Civil War were hoping to win greater freedoms in return for their sacrifice.

Le Count, the daughter of a cabinet maker and undertaker who hid runaway slaves in his coffins, had struck her first blows against oppression by age 18, teaching other blacks at a time when many Southern states barred Negroes from "the dangerous instrument of learning," as a South Carolina politician called it. Her favorite suitor was Octavius V. Catto, another young teacher whose polish and persistence marked him as a leader.

Although no photograph of Le Count is known to exist, she was said to have long hair and caramel-colored skin in a family of "good-looking women and handsome men. "

She was secretary of the Ladies Union Association, which launched itself two weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg to aid wounded and ailing colored soldiers.

As the war was ending, it turned its efforts to the freedmen's needs, especially education. Members shipped donations south - shoes, clothes, and 1,200 school slates. Another mission loomed as well.

"We hope that our friends will make some efforts to gain us admission to the city cars," an LUA annual report said, "as we find great difficulty in reaching the Hospitals. " One by one, the women of the LUA began demanding seats on streetcars in defiance of all Victorian-era expectation, not to mention company rules.

The car on 11th Street did not stop. From his perch, its conductor looked down at Le Count and her assistant, twisted his face into a sneer, and shouted for the benefit of all within earshot, "We don't allow niggers to ride! "

Le Count kept her composure. She had a witness; she also had the newspaper article about the new streetcar law, a statute her friend Catto had helped craft. Just a month past her 21st birthday, she was known for her poise before audiences. Now she'd be tested again. She took down the streetcar's number and hurried to the courthouse.

Le Count swore out a criminal complaint. In court, she held up a copy of the Philadelphia Press, which carried a telegraphic bulletin from Harrisburg - the governor had signed the new law. No one could be denied a seat on a streetcar or a train in Pennsylvania because of color.

The magistrate eyed Le Count skeptically. I don't know of this new law, he said, and I do not trust that paper.

She excused herself, rushed to a state office, and returned with a certified copy of the law.

The magistrate relented, fining the conductor $100 for barring a passenger because of her race.

Sympathetic newspapers trumpeted Le Count's victory. "Henceforward," an editorial said, "the wearied schoolteacher, returning from her arduous day's labor, shall not be condemned to walk to her distant home through cold and heat and storm. " Le Count took her place in a long line of defiant riders, from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to an Alabama seamstress named Rosa Parks.

Le Count stayed on as an elementary-school principal into the first years of the 20th century, championing the need for black teachers to teach black students - as Catto said, "knowing that they rose or fell together. "

By 1871, she was engaged to Catto - but in that year's election, another white mob bore down on black Philadelphians as they lined up to vote. Dozens were injured; Catto and three other men were killed. A few years later, the Board of Education renamed Le Count's elementary school for her betrothed, the Octavius V. Catto School.

By the end of her life, Le Count was sharing stages with W.E.B. Dubois, and she was mentioned in the writing of Booker T. Washington. She had overseen the education of 8,000 children, and was still making the case for blacks to be taught by blacks.

Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin are writing "There Must Come A Change," a book for Temple University Press about Octavius Catto, Caroline Le Count and other 19th century forerunners of the modern civil rights movement. Contact them at and