Early Civil Rights Movement in Maryland

Case files dating from Maryland’s Reconstruction era provide great insight into some of the earliest efforts of African Americans in the fight for civil rights and equality after the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, and subsequently the Civil Rights Act of 1875, were tested and shaped through court rulings, an example of which is the case of John W. Fields vs. The Baltimore City Passenger Rail Road Company. This case from our holdings provides a glimpse into the history of the Early Civil Rights Movement.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the Baltimore City Passenger Rail Road Company enforced their rule that allowed white passengers to sit in any car, but restricted black passengers to only the cars marked with signs that permitted black passengers. About one car permitted black passengers for every three cars that permitted white passengers. After paying his fare on February 27, 1871, John W. Fields was ejected from a car which did not allow black passengers. As can be seen in this document, Judge Bond charged the jury that if the company refused to transport Fields solely because he was black, he should be awarded damages. The jury ruled in Fields’ favor, resulting in a victory for African Americans in the fight for equal rights after the Civil War. According to some historians, this case facilitated the end of segregation on trolleys in Baltimore for a period, as many trolley companies found it too expensive to provide separate but equal accommodations for African Americans and white passengers.

Maryland’s status as a border state presents a unique perspective on Reconstruction politics and policies. Cases in our holdings cover a wide range of civil rights cases, challenging segregation and discrimination on trains, the right to testify in court, and more. These cases demonstrate the complex implications of the Constitution and the Enforcement Acts of 1866 and 1875, and clearly demonstrated the hard fought battle of early civil rights activists. Additionally, records from our holdings are useful in understanding the difficult, often dangerous, situation of African Americans after the Civil War.

Interested to learn more about the Early Civil Rights Movement? Researchers can check out our online catalog at: and make an appointment to view our holdings at the National Archives at Philadelphia by calling (215) 305-2044 or emailing us at

Teachers: Interested in having a school workshop on the Early Civil Rights Movement? Educators can contact Education Specialist, Andrea Reidell for more information on how to arrange a classroom workshop at:


John W. Fields v. The Baltimore City Passenger Rail Road Company, March 1871, Box 118, Law Case Files, District of Maryland, United States Circuit Court, Record Group 21: Records of the United States District Courts, The National Archives at Philadelphia (NAID: 733672) (Record Entry ID: PH-372).

David S. Bogen, “Precursors of Rosa Parks: Maryland Transportation Cases Between the Civil War and the Beginning of World War I,” 63 Md. L. Rev. 721 (2004),