Whites Only: Segregated Elevators During Jim Crow

by Hanno van der Bijl


Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an uplifting yet sobering national holiday. On the one hand, we remember Dr. King for leading a life well lived by serving others; and on the other hand, we are confronted with the sad legacy of racial segregation he sought to dismantle. Talking about the history of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement elicits varied responses: grief, anger or simply ambivalence. What does it matter? It makes sense to talk about it in terms of public policy, but what does it have to do with us? It is not something that comes up very often in the elevator industry or at Elevator World.

William C. Sturgeon, our late founder, tells the story of a conversation he had with his future mother-in-law in the 1940s. Sturgeon, who was from New York, was dating Mary Sands Dreisback while he was serving as an officer in Mobile, Alabama during WWII. He recalls that Mary Sands’ mother didn’t really approve of him as a Yankee:

“One time, I even asked Miss Mamie if she believed in segregation and she answered, ‘No.’ Then, I asked if she was for integration and the answer was again, ‘No!’ ‘Well, what do you believe in, Miss Mamie?’ I asked. ‘Slavery!!’ she said.”[i]

Miss Mamie’s tongue-in-cheek answer has a long history behind it. Reconstruction ended in 1877 when the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South as part of a deal with the Democratic party to support their bid for the presidency. Majority Democratic legislatures throughout the South began passing strict laws on voter registration and electoral rules, effectively disenfranchising blacks and poor whites — although, many illiterate whites could still vote under Grandfather clauses. After a decade of such practices, political power was squarely centered in an all-white system of government that began to pass Jim Crow laws in 1890, starting with Mississippi. These rules were designed to keep African Americans separate but equal — the irony, or hypocrisy, being that blacks were and never could be equal under such an apartheid system.

Segregation was also a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. While white supremacy remained unchecked in rural areas where the cotton economy was paramount, it was threatened in urban centers with the influx of poor blacks seeking employment. They took undesirable jobs such as maids, porters and waiters; but during the Great Depression, whites would compete for these jobs with blacks. While Northern states practiced a societal form of segregation through discriminatory housing, bank lending and employment practices, Southern states practiced legal segregation through Jim Crow laws.[ii] These laws were extended to schools, streetcars, libraries, restaurants, parks, zoos, and even residential areas.[iii] In dense cities, there were some vehicles that brought people into particularly close contact with each other: the elevators. And they were no exception to the rule.

In 1903, elevators began to be segregated in Atlanta, Georgia. African-Americans could not ride a building’s passenger elevators — they were relegated to the freight elevators, as if they were cargo. Whites were free to ride the freight elevators if they wanted to. Ironically, some buildings in Atlanta allowed African-Americans to go down but not up.[iv] Surely the symbolism was not lost on them.

Built in 1903, the National Loan and Exchange Bank was the only building in Columbia, South Carolina to house elevators. Three years later, a New York Times article reports that the “Jim Crow” rule was applied to its elevators. There were complaints that blacks were crowding into the cars with the white women, who were employed as stenographers and clerks. However, it wasn’t the natural overcrowding of the elevators that brought on this mandate but a perceived show of disrespect:

“The immediate cause of the action by the owners of the building grew out of the fact that a negro porter of a club on the twelfth floor was slow to remove his hat when ordered to do so while women were in the car. He was promptly discharged by the club.”[v]

Southern chivalry operated under a double standard even in the elevators’ close quarters. In his autobiography, Benjamin E. Mays, Dr. King’s mentor and eulogizer, wrote of Atlanta:

“More than once I saw white men, wearing their hats in an elevator with a Negro woman present, snatch them off with military precision when a white woman got on, only to replace them with finality if the white woman got off before the Negro woman. No opportunity to show the Negro woman that she was unworthy of respect must be missed! If a Negro man kept his hat on in an elevator, he was told to take it off; if he refused, his hat was knocked off.”[vi]

Or he was fired, as in the case of the porter in Columbia, South Carolina.

As you can imagine, this protocol was not only disrespectful to a part of the workforce operating in the building, it was also inefficient. Black mail carriers could not finish their work on time if they had to wait for the segregated elevator and keep their caps in their hands while distributing the daily mail. It was not practical to gather their own straw while still making the same amount of bricks. So, after they appealed to the federal government, Mays records, “The government handed down a decision that the mail carrier was like a soldier serving his government and therefore was not subject to the segregation requirement.”[vii] For many urban African-Americans, daily life was a battle on the front lines of polite society.

Besides the reports and personal accounts already mentioned, is there any further evidence of segregated elevators? In his magisterial work on Jim Crow laws, first published in 1955, C. Vann Woodward writes that there were no official state laws or city ordinances requiring separate elevators for African Americans. However, he goes on “to admit, and even to emphasize, that laws are not an adequate index of the extent and prevalence of segregation and discriminatory practices in the South. The practices often anticipated and sometimes exceeded the laws” (emphasis in original).[viii]

Elevators are simply machines. They lift people up and bring them down to a nice gentle stop, but only humans could use them as a tool to put another down. Elevators continue to be segregated in different parts of the world. For example, in a few countries, women are not allowed to ride the same elevators as men, and servants are not allowed in the same elevators as their masters. New York City and London are struggling with the issue of “poor doors,” separate entrances for mixed housing’s rich and poor tenants.

The point of remembering and reflecting on past injustices is not to open old wounds or induce guilt, but to help shed light on how we can rectify present inequality. Even if we simply go about our own business, we can become complicit in evil if we do not actively move against injustice. The elevator you design, make, sell, install, maintain, ride or write about may be used as an instrument of injustice. Whatever reasons or excuses we can formulate for an unjust status quo are ultimately unacceptable. There is no middle ground; either we float along in the riptide of injustice, or we stand for and promote justice where we are. Serving others by giving thought to injustice in your own context honors the dream and legacy of Dr. King and the vision this day represents.



The National Loan and Exchange building in Columbia, South Carolina today (photo by Lance Taylor)


[i] William C. Sturgeon, More Ups Than Downs: A Memoir (Mobile, AL: Elevator World, Inc., 2012), 30.
[ii] “Jim Crow laws,” Wikipedia, last modified December 27, 2014, accessed December 30, 2014, http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Crow_laws.
[iii] Carole Merritt, “African American Community Building in Atlanta: A Guide to the Study of Race in America,” Southern Spaces, March 17, 2004, accessed November 21, 2014, http://www.southernspaces.org/2004/african-american-community-building-atlanta-guide-study-race-america.
[iv] Benjamin E. Mays, Born to Rebel: An Autobiography (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 83, accessed December 29, 2014, http://books.google.com/books?id=HhLzaenbHvgC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA83#v=onepage&q&f=false.
[v] “Jim Crow Elevator Rule: Columbia to Separate the Races In Her Skyscraper Lifts,” New York Times, April 30, 1906, accessed November 21, 2014, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9B01E7D8113EE733A25753C3A9629C946797D6CF.
[vi] Mays, 83
[vii] Mays, 83
[viii] C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 102, accessed December 30, 2014, https://books.google.com/books?id=vQHg5oBavmYC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA102 – v=onepage&q&f=false.

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