Barbara E. Pope, a teacher, civil rights activist, and author, was born free in January 1854 in Georgetown, District of Columbia, to former slaves Hannah and Alfred Pope. Her parents were slaves in New Jersey, and her father, Alfred, became famous as one of the enslaved individuals who attempted to escape on the schooner Pearl in 1848.
When their owner died in 1850, the couple and their children were freed. Alfred Pope served on the Board of Trustees of Colored Schools of Washington and Georgetown after the Civil War and was responsible for his daughter becoming a schoolteacher at the age of 16 in 1873.
Barbara Pope began writing short stories, and four of them were published in Waverly Magazine, a weekly women’s journal, in 1881. Pope spent one year, 1884-1885, at the then-three-year-old Tuskegee Institute in Alabama before returning to Washington to teach.
In 1888, Pope was assaulted by a student, and she refused to let the student back into her class until he apologized. She resigned after concluding that the student’s apology was insufficient to compensate for his actions. By 1890, Pope was making a good living as a fiction publisher.
Pope boarded a train at Union Station in Washington, D.C., bound for Paeonian Springs, Loudon County, Virginia, for a vacation in 1906. The “Colored Car” was small and unpleasant, and the seats faced backwards, she realized. Despite her knowledge of Virginia’s Jim Crow laws, Pope elected to sit in the train’s main compartment.
The train director asked Pope to move to the “colored” car as soon as the train crossed the Potomac River into Virginia, and Pope refused. Her action occurred 50 years before Rosa Parks did something similar on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Pope remained seated in the main cabin despite the conductor’s threats of incarceration. She was caught at the Falls Church station and fined $10, which will be about $300 in 2021.
Members of the Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), persuaded Pope to appeal her conviction in Virginia Circuit Court. They claimed that because Pope was traveling across state lines, he was not subject to Virginia’s Jim Crow laws.
Pope lost his appeal, but he appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. In 1907, the Supreme Court reversed the guilty verdict, exonerating Pope and ordering that the fee be repaid. Pope sued the Southern Railway Company the following year for unethical treatment when she was segregated. She sought $20,000 in damages. In 1907, the District of Columbia Supreme Court ruled in her favor but only awarded her $0.01.
Despite being a trailblazer in the fight against racial segregation on railroads, Pope paid a significant personal cost for her initiatives. She lost her job and was scrutinized and chastised by her family. This resulted in months of depression and insomnia for her. She pinned a note to her dress identifying herself for the coroner, walked out to Lovers Lane beside Montrose Park in Georgetown, and hanged herself on September 5, 1908. She was 54 years old at the time.