This 1929 “white only” sign from the St. Louis Southwestern Railway Company exhibits the defining presence of racial segregation in Missouri during the early twentieth century. Also known as the “Cotton Belt Railroad,” the rail connected St. Louis and Missouri to the South’s cotton industry. It later formed a critical part of other major rail lines such as Southern Pacific, expanding the entire national transportation network in addition to improving St. Louis’ connection to the South and West.
This sign enforced the legal system of anti-Black segregation and discrimination by reserving spaces for the railway’s white passengers. It directly connects to the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in this way. In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of creating white and Black-only rail cars through the Louisiana Separate Car Act. The ruling established the “separate but equal” doctrine of American segregation, paving the way for companies like the St. Louis Southwestern Railway to racially segregate for decades to come.
Creator: Jay's Sign Co.
Subject: Railroads, Segregation
Contributing Institution: Missouri Historical Society
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Region: St. Louis Metro