The class action by Brazilian revolutionary Emiliano Mundrucu in 1832 is considered one of the oldest legal battles aimed at challenging racial segregation in the United States. His wife, Harriet, and one-year-old daughter were denied the opportunity to use a ladies’ cabin by the captain of the ship even though the wife was unwell. The remarkable story of the Afro-Brazillian who sued a White Captain in 1832 for denying his family access to whites-only cabin
The couple had bought one of the most expensive tickets to join the steamboat, the Telegraph, which was en route to Massachusetts to Nantucket Island in the United States. Mundrucu’s claim of racial segregation was that though he had paid to board the business class of the boat, the captain had denied him access to services on the basis of the color of his skin, according to the BBC.
The case attracted international attention after Mundrucu sued Captain Edward Barker for breach of contract. The court later awarded Mundrucu $125 in damages in October 1833 after the jury established that the captain had breached his contract with the couple. The Captain, a year later, got the Supreme Court to overturn the decision at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The court indicated that the couple were not promised to enjoy the best place on the ship because they had bought an expensive ticket.
South African historian Lloyd Belton, who has researched extensively on class action, said though slavery had been abolished in the United States, segregation was still rife in many quarters of society. So though Harriet was unwell and attempted to use the ladies’ cabin with her daughter because the weather was cold, the captain told them the place was meant for only white women.
Harriet was asked to use the cabin where women and men slept on a wet floor on mattresses, which was unhealthy for her condition during the period. This opposition to this rule by the couple led to the landmark case that changed the face of racial segregation in the United States.
Mundrucu is a Brazilian revolutionary who escaped to Boston following his sentencing to death for his role to establish a republic in northeastern Brazil in 1824. The South African historian said Mundrucu’s history as a revolutionary possibly explains why a Black Brazilian immigrant will challenge the system at the height of racial segregation in the United States. He said it was a rather bold risk the couple took to make a case against racial segregation at the time because Mundrucu was not well known in America.
Some historians said it might have stemmed from his military background given that he fought in Haiti and Gran Colombia. But for Llyold, Mundrucu hailed from a system where immigrants had a lot of rights and fewer restrictions compared to African Americans. He said the couple’s action may have been pre-planned to achieve a certain goal targeted at racial segregation.
He added that Mundrucu probably bought a ticket that gave him access to the best places on the boat which he knew would not be accessible to African Americans at the time to expose the flaws in the system.
After the landmark case, managers of the steamboat changed their policy that prohibited African Americans from buying expensive tickets to board the Telegraph.