The blacks of Richmond preceded Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Ala., by about a half century in their resistance to segregation on transit vehicles, but the end results were markedly different.
The refusal in 1955 by Parks to go to the back of the bus sparked a black boycott that pushed the privately owned bus system out of business. That ignited the modern civil rights movement and helped bring about desegregation nationally.
But had you heard of the Richmond streetcar boycott early in this century? It was so successful that, in an odd if not perverse turn of events, it became a major factor toward creating the Virginia Electric & Power Co. (Vepco) and its recent corporate successor, Dominion Resources.
A newly published book tells much of the story. According to "Rails in Richmond" (Interurban Press, Glendale, Calif.) by Carlton Norris McKenney, a retired Vepco engineer, streetcar segregation not known since the Civil War was imposed by the state legislature in Richmond's suburban Henrico County in 1901 and three years later in Richmond itself.
"Blacks were humiliated," he wrote, "and were further concerned about another aspect of the new law which gave police powers, including the right to carry firearms, to the [streetcar] conductors and motormen who already had a reputation for their insulting and overbearing manner.
"S.W. Huff, manager of [the Virginia Passenger & Power Co.], promised courtesy . . . but the editor of the Richmond Planet [a black newspaper], John Mitchell Jr., urged a boycott; he told blacks to stay off the cars and not use the service.
"Undertakers offered rides, four black banks offered support for a black transit line, and many blacks hitched rides on wagons. Most boycotters walked" and, book author McKenney said yesterday, the Planet reported a rise in liniment sales in black-owned drugstores.
The boycott added enough to the company's already strained financial problems to plunge it into receivership. It emerged after a bankruptcy sale in 1909 as the Virginia Railway & Power Co. under the control of Frank Jay Gould, son of the railroad magnate.
By then black riders, encouraged by a less rigid management, returned to the cars, with segregation continuing until 1954. "Electric" was substituted for "railway" as a cosmetic change in the company's title in 1925, making it Vepco.
Along the way, the streetcar company had begun selling some of its surplus power to general consumers, and it bought local electric companies around the state. This side business swamped the company's basic transit enterprise -- much as Washington's Potomac Electric Power Co. vastly outgrew its streetcar-operating corporate parent.
In the end, and to the detriment of commuters, the courts forced the power companies to separate from their well-run rail transit affiliates, and bus-oriented vultures took over.
A footnote: Segregation never was imposed on Washington city transit vehicles, but was required on those that crossed the river into Virginia.