How Union Transportation Company pioneered safe electric transportation in Tennessee
Written by: Marisa Higgins and Madelyn Collins
Black History Month is a time to honor and celebrate the achievements and contributions of the African American community. Since 1976, Black History Month has annually been celebrated in February. This time of celebration is meant to recognize the innovations and sacrifices Black people have made and how this has shaped the political, technological, and cultural development of America.
Drive Electric Tennessee would like to observe Black History Month by sharing a story about a group of Black innovators who demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of oppression by using their ambition, brilliance, and grit to not only create safe mobility for their community but also carve out a space in electric vehicle history.
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court rule in Plessy v. Ferguson permitted segregationist laws, and the Tennessee General Assembly pressed to extend the law to streetcars. It would be in the hot summer of July 1905 when Tennessee enacted the segregation law on streetcars. A bill that was introduced by Davidson County representative Charles P. Fahey that same year in January. The law required streetcars to designate certain areas of the vehicle with signs as “white” or “colored” only. If a passenger did not follow this racial designation, they were fined.
According to Blackpast.org, “Rev. J.A. Jones, pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and a prominent black leader in Nashville, predicted that nine out of ten African Americans would rather avoid streetcars than accept a second-class status… The Nashville Clarion, a black weekly newspaper edited by Rev. Edward W.D. Isaac urged its readers to buy buggies if they could afford them and, if not, to walk.”
The restriction of Black movement and access from this draconian law led to resistance from members of Black communities all over Tennessee. One of those communities was a fed-up, yet innovative group of Black Nashvillians. Refusing to accept the law, Black Nashvillians rightfully boycotted the injustice, and as a result, the Nashville Transit Company experienced a significant decrease in revenue. This boycott soon became the largest example of an urban transportation protest before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, half a century later.
Moreover, in response to the segregation law, a group of prominent Black individuals not only participated in the Nashville boycott, but they also got creative. Preston Taylor, president; George W. Henderson, treasurer; Richard Henry Boyd, purchasing agent; James C. Napier; C. Victor Roman; Bishop Evans Tyree; George W. Washington; William D. Chappelle; Luke Mason; T. G. Ewing; J. W. Grant; H. T. Noel; A. T. Sanders; J. G. Merrill; Robert Robertson; and William Beckham all united together to start Union Transportation, an alternative to Nashville Transit Company’s segregated streetcars.
The mission of Union Transportation Company was to offer “a convenient transportation for Negro messengers, merchandise, traffic and freight throughout the cities and towns of Tennessee and the United States,” and providing reliable services to Nashville was its first objective.
The black-owned alternative originated on August 29, 1905, and was operational by October 3, 1905. The boycott had ended by 1906, and Union Transportation, unfortunately, closed in 1907 due to technical difficulties with their cars and buses, but during its tenure, the company ensured safe transportation for Nashville’s Black residents.
At its start, Union Transportation had five large steam-propelled automobiles which held 15 passengers. These vehicles struggled to traverse Nashville’s steep terrain and were soon traded in for fourteen 20-passenger electric automobiles.
By January 1906, these electric cars were in operation. Initially, the batteries for these electric automobiles were charged at the Nashville Railway and Light Company facilities, but at one point, the batteries were ruined due to overcharging. Some believed that the ruined batteries were an intentional act of destruction, but this could never be confirmed.
If the Black-owned transit company did receive undermining attacks, this damage would not stop Union Transportation from preserving. Union Transportation Company installed its own electric charging facilities at the Nashville Baptist Publishing House, one of the largest Black businesses in the city.
Though the Union Transportation Company was persistent and enthusiastic about providing safe transportation, the company fell into decline. By the end of 1907, Union Transportation was no longer in operation due to a number of financial struggles—some of which were precipitated by an increased vehicle tax imposed by the city of Nashville.
While Union Transportation Company ended its service to the community, it is impossible to diminish the impact it had on electric mobility for Nashville’s Black community. Union Transportation Company forged ahead despite segregation and obstacles, finding alternative ways to offer the Black community safety and autonomy while spearheading in Black-led transportation.
The history of Union Transportation Company emphasizes how resistance can prompt creativity and innovation and shows that Black people have a place in electric transportation history too.
Like in Nashville in 1905, Black people are still making waves in the electrification space. Last year Black trailblazers coalesced to create Blacks in Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Trade Association (BEVI), a “first-of-its-kind entity… to make access to expert, diverse talent easy and ensure representation in the (electric vehicle) EV boom.”
In 2021, Black founders Kameale C. Terry and Evette Ellis of ChargerHelp! charged the way for certificated Electric Vehicle Service Equipment (EVSE) technicians to increase their earning potential by obtaining an O-NET Code from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Natalie King became the first black-woman-owned manufacturer of electric vehicle recharging stations and is slated to build her manufacturing factory in the city of Detroit, employing the people of the city of Detroit.
It is vital that Black thinkers and leaders are uplifted and celebrated as they help shape the landscape of the EV space.
Drive Electric Tennessee encourages others to join us in finding stories of Black contributions and history in electrification transportation, to help amplify the impact Black people have made and are making for future generations.
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