She Rode in the Back of the Bus

Mary Custis Lee



Hattip to my friend Jay Anderson for advising me of this tidbit of history.  Today is the 178th birthday of Mary Custis Lee, the eldest daughter of Robert E. Lee.  She could be a pill.  Described by her siblings as “bossy” and “stern”, she asked only one thing out of life:  her own way.  She did not suffer those she considered fools gladly, and she was never shy about reminding people that she was the eldest daughter of Robert E. Lee.

On June 13, 1902 she and her black maid had sat down on an Alexandria street car, laden with packages.  Miss Lee was now in her 67th year, so no doubt she was tired.  She and her maid sat in the back of the street car.  A “Jim Crow” ordinance had recently been passed in Alexandria , and among other odious provisions it mandated racial segregation on street cars, with blacks relegated to the back.

The conductor Thomas Chauncey explained the law to her and asked her to move.  She did not.  When a black man boarded the street car, Chauncey advised her that she was occupying a seat to which he was entitled, and Chauncey threatened her with arrest.  She still refused to move.  When she got off the streetcar a few blocks later she was met by two police officers who put her under arrest.  Word spread of her arrest.  Men protested at the police station against their holding Miss Lee, some of the men doubtless having served under her father.  She was released.

She did not bother showing up for her trial on June 14.  The bond of $5.00 that a friend had posted for her was forfeited.

Was Mary just being Mary, a fairly contrary lady who wasn’t going to be pushed around by an officious conductor, or was this a protest against the new ordinance?  No one knows for sure.  However when she was asked to move perhaps this incident from the life of her great father came into her mind:

“It’s a warm spring Sunday at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. As the minister is about to present Holy Communion, a tall well-dressed black man sitting in the section reserved for African Americans unexpectedly advances to the communion rail; unexpectedly because this has never happened here before. The congregation freezes. Those who have been ready to go forward and kneel at the communion rail remain fixed in their pews. The minister stands in his place stunned and motionless. The black man slowly lowers his body, kneeling at the communion rail. After what seems an interminable amount of time, an older white man rises. His hair snowy white, head up, and eyes proud, he walks quietly up the isle to the chancel rail. So with silent dignity and self-possession, the white man kneels down to take communion along the same rail with the black man. Lee has said that he has rejoiced that slavery is dead. But this action indicates that those were not idle words meant to placate a Northern audience. Here among his people, he leads wordlessly through example. The other communicants slowly move forward to the altar with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation. In the end, America would defy the cruel chain of history besetting nations torn apart by Civil War.”

From “April 1865: the Month that Saved America”

Published in: on July 16, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (12)  
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  1. sharing with my facebook friends. Good stories.

  2. What a wonderful story!

  3. Reblogged this on Masako and Spam Musubi and commented:
    I just thought this was a wonderful glimpse into our history – just one hundred years ago.

  4. Well done Mary.

  5. Class is timeless.

  6. History to me is always much more entertaining than fiction as the vignette of Mary on the back of the bus indicates.

  7. What a wonderful story! I’d never heard either before. In fact, I knew nothing of Mary. What an interesting woman!

    • “I knew nothing of Mary. What an interesting woman!”

      Indeed Debra. It does not surprise me that General Lee had a daughter who was not going to be pushed around!

  8. I never heard of either of these stories, but it would not surprise me. many do not know the history or Robert E Lee and how did not approve of slavery. Great historical account of the daughter of a great man. Patty

  9. “History is biography,” Emerson said, and when we are the actors, it becomes autobiography. Thanks for two great stories of courage and action.

    • When we forget the individuals who make history it becomes pointless. I always try to remember that.

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