Stereotypes never work. There are too many exceptions to justify any stereotype. Mary Custis Lee, eldest daughter of Robert E. Lee, did not fit the mold of her time. At a time when marriage prospects were slim after the Civil War, most unmarried young women were expected to stay home and care for elderly parents. She never married. There just were not many men her age who survived the war. Mary chose a different life. She spent decades traveling to Europe and other places.
Coming back to Virginia, passing through Washington, D.C., she had a large collection of bags. Thinking herself fortunate, she sat near the exit, at the rear of the railroad car. A new law had just been passed, effective in Alexandria, Virginia. The new law mandated that blacks, known as “Negroes,” sit in the rear, near the exit. It was the first “Jim Crow” law passed in Virginia. The conductor explained to Ms. Lee her error, but she preferred to remain in her seat. She refused to move.
At the next stop, A Negro man got on board. The conductor again tried to Mary to move to the front. Again, she insisted she would stay. The conductor returned to Mary, trying to persuade her to move. He told her she would be arrested. Ms. Lee remained. Upon arrival in Alexandria, she was indeed arrested. People began to gather on the street, realizing who she was. In the post-war years of 1902, there were hundreds of Confederate veterans or family members in the city. On the way to the station house, the sidewalks were thronged.
The new Jim Crow seating law was not entirely popular among the white voters. It had been passed by James Caton, representative to the state legislature from Alexandria. Mr. Caton was described in a black owned newspaper as a “representative of the poor whites.” According to the Colored American, a Washington D.C. newspaper, the arrest of Ms. Lee stirred up discontent among the “better classes” of Virginia. The white newspapers, Alexandria and Washington, commented that the new seating law was working well. But, the Colored American expressed hope her arrest would lead to revocation of the new law. The editor believed the confederate veterans in Richmond would seek its reversal.
At the station house, gray-haired veterans surrounded Ms. Lee. The officer in charge was prevailed upon to release Ms. Lee with the understanding she would return the next day to face the charge. It was said that when Ms. Lee finally reached her destination in Alexandria, the home of a friend, she collapsed. Modern commentators suggest Ms. Lee was less interested in opposing a strange new law than simply annoyed that she was expected to sit apart from her trusted black maid. But, that seems unlikely. It was a major to-do for the name of a woman to appear in the newspapers of 1902 for any reason, much less for an arrest. The Colored American expressed sympathy for her plight, knowing she must have felt extreme embarrassment. The editor indicated he knew she was embarrassed, but appreciated her efforts. Ms. Lee was, said the Colored American, liberal regarding the rights of man. Meaning the newspaper knew she opposed these “petty racial animosities,” advanced by men of the “Caton stripe.”
More likely, the daughter of Robert E. Lee was aware of this new law and appreciated an opportunity to express her opinion. She likely did not expect to be arrested. According to one report, when she was brought to the doors of the station house, someone in the crowd protested against Ms. Lee being brought within. Ms. Lee responded that she did not believe the people of Alexandria would suffer her to be brought in as a prisoner.
In a time when women had few avenues for public discourse, Mary Custis Lee expressed her annoyance as she saw the opportunity. She was in the end, her father’s daughter.
For more info about this incident, see blog post here.
Washington Post, June 16, 1902, p. 4
Richmond Dispatch, June 14, 1902, p. 1
Washington, D.C, Colored American, June 21, 1902, p. 8