This story was featured in The Optimist newsletter. Sign up here to receive stories of kindness, resilience and the best among us every Wednesday and Sunday.
Ann Chinn grew up hearing family stories that her grandmother’s sister Barbara Pope had been a published writer. But recollections were short on details; it was so long ago. Chinn, 74, only knew that her great-aunt wrote stories.
In fact, Barbara Pope, a D.C. native, ranks among the most stunning forgotten American lives. She was, in addition to being a high school teacher, an author of fiction about social change at the turn of the 20th century, and her literary voice was celebrated on the international stage by no less than W.E.B. Du Bois. Her stories probed relationships among men and women, Black and White, with a modern voice and a sharp eye for detail and character. In her story “The New Woman,” the main character is a smart, industrious and beautiful Black woman who asks her husband if she can clerk for him in his law office, as she did for her father. “The bargain was that you would practice law and I take charge of the home,” she tells him, “but neither of us must be selfish, and each will call on the other for assistance when needed.”
But perhaps her greatest accomplishment was the stand she took against racism in transportation nearly 50 years before Rosa Parks’s bus ride: In August 1906, Pope boarded a train at Union Station and traveled into Virginia, in the process challenging Virginia’s Jim Crow law requiring segregation on trains and streetcars. She soon gained the support of Du Bois and his Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP. And her case became one of the first steps along the path to the end of legal segregation — leading the way toward the NAACP’s hallmark 1954 Supreme Court victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
Not long after her case, she left the public stage amid personal troubles and would become remembered mainly among scholars — more of a footnote in history than a history maker. Almost the only place you can find Pope’s work is in the Library of Congress on microfilm. In 2015, however, literary historian Jennifer Harris wrote a profile of Pope for Legacy, a journal of American women writers, that aimed to bring Pope back into the spotlight. Harris used her archivist investigator skills to unearth Pope’s fiction and seek out her story from surviving family members, including Chinn.
Chinn, who works as executive director of the nonprofit Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project in Jacksonville, Fla., now draws a connection between the widespread protests following George Floyd’s death last year and the stand that Pope took more than a century ago. In both, Chinn says, “you’re seeing a movement and tactics and strategy in its formative stages.”
Pope was born in 1854 and grew up in a progressive family in Georgetown’s Black community. She began a teaching career in 1873 and taught for a year at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. She also advocated for reforms in the District’s Colored School System.
In the 1890s, Pope, who never married, started publishing fiction. Du Bois included some of her stories in an exhibition he organized for the Paris Exposition of 1900 that presented Black Americans in their own words and images. (A beautifully illustrated volume based on that exhibition came out in 2019 as “Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition.”) In those years, the Black community of D.C. was divided between Booker T. Washington’s supporters and younger backers of Du Bois. Against her father’s wishes, Pope in 1906 joined the Niagara Movement. She was among its first female members.
Her pathbreaking train ride toward a Virginia hot springs resort that summer didn’t start as a statement. When Pope went to buy her ticket, she simply wanted a peaceful ride, she told the ticket agent. She “had been annoyed before” by Virginia’s Jim Crow rule and “didn’t want to be annoyed that way” again, according to her testimony in court records.
She boarded at Union Station and saw the “colored” compartment was cramped and its seats faced backward. She took a seat in the main compartment instead. After they crossed the Potomac into Virginia, a White conductor came and said she had to move. She refused. He threatened her with arrest. She refused again.
When the train stopped at Falls Church, Pope was escorted off by constables and detained for hours at the mayor’s office. Even after posting bail, she was held for public humiliation in the train station, waiting for her hearing. The mayor set up a kangaroo court in the station. Pope was tried for “violating the separate car law of the State of Virginia” and fined $10 plus court costs.
Two weeks later, at the Niagara Movement’s annual meeting at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Pope’s case was on the agenda. The group of more than 50 considered whether an appeal to overturn her conviction could be a test case. As an interstate traveler, was she subject to Virginia’s Jim Crow statutes? Du Bois had doubts about using the judiciary for social change — just three years earlier, he had written in “The Souls of Black Folk” that to place Black Americans “in the hands of Southern courts was impossible” — but the group at Harpers Ferry voted to fund Pope’s appeal in the Virginia circuit court anyway.
Few were surprised when Pope lost her appeal that October at an Alexandria circuit court, but with Niagara’s legal support, she took the case to Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals. In early 1907, that second appeal triumphed when the higher court annulled the initial judgment. “This means that the NIAGARA MOVEMENT has established that under the present statute Virginia cannot fine an interstate passenger who refuses to be Jim-Crowed,” Du Bois explained in an April 1907 fundraising letter.
Du Bois included the court’s full statement with his letter, and the Niagara Movement followed up with a civil suit demanding $50,000 in damages. In June 1907, the civil trial opened in D.C. The jury voted in Pope’s favor but awarded her just one penny. Still, the decision by the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia — which had both local and federal jurisdiction until Congress separated those powers in 1973 — showed that interstate travelers could successfully challenge Jim Crow in federal court.
Pope’s fortunes, however, took a turn for the worse. She lost her job and suffered from insomnia. One evening in September 1908, at age 54, she walked out onto Lovers’ Lane, beside Montrose Park in Georgetown, pinned a note addressed to the coroner to her dress, and hanged herself. The note said she felt her brain was “on fire.”
Jennifer Harris writes that the stigma around suicide helped erase the public record of Pope’s contributions: “[I]t was considered impolite to discuss suicides, so her story — and stories — faded into obscurity.” Nevertheless, historian Deborah Lee, who has studied Pope and the Niagara Movement, says that Pope, along with Du Bois, created “a cornerstone of the 20th-century civil rights movement.”
For her part, Ann Chinn is heartened that her great-aunt’s story is coming to light. “I hope that it will encourage researchers and historians to look for others lesser known but just as impactful,” she told me. “It’s not just the Malcolm Xs and the Martin Luther Kings. It’s your mother, your father, your teacher — those people whose names will never go into recorded history.”
David A. Taylor is a writer in Washington.
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.