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Julius C. Pinkney's research regarding the “Stewart vs. Steamer Sue” case is part of the permanent civil rights display at the U.S. District Court for Maryland in Greenbelt.
Julius C. Pinkney's research regarding the “Stewart vs. Steamer Sue” case is part of the permanent civil rights display at the U.S. District Court for Maryland in Greenbelt.

Julius C. Pinkney, a retired postal official and genealogist whose research showcased his family’s role in a historic 19th century segregation case that was later cited in the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal,” died Jan. 21 at Gilchrist Center in Towson of respiratory failure.

The Windsor Mills resident was 93.

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Julius Clifton Pinkney, son of Willard A. Pinkney Sr., an L.C. Smith Typewriter Co. repairman, and his wife, Fannie Johnson Pinkney, a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised on Madison and Monroe streets.

He was a 1944 graduate of Carver Vocational-Technical High School, where he majored in the trowel trades, including bricklaying, plastering and cement finishing, and where he and his classmates constructed a brick wall and front steps at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.

In 1945, he was drafted into the Army and served in the Philippines as a truck driver and POW guard until being discharged in 1946 with the rank of corporal.

Mr. Pinkney began working in 1946 as a bricklayer at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant, where he remained until 1957 when he joined the U.S. Postal Service. He rose through the ranks to become general supervisor of the main Baltimore Post Office, first on Calvert Street, and later after its move to East Fayette Street.

After retiring in 1986, he pursued his hobbies, which included photography, fishing, collecting jazz and blues recordings, and genealogy, which ultimately became his avocation as he researched his family’s roots.

“As a young child, Julius remembered his mother telling him and his siblings of their grandmother and great aunts successfully suing a steamboat company in the 1880s for being denied first-class accommodations after purchasing first-class tickets,” a nephew, Clint Thomas of Baltimore, wrote in a biographical profile of his uncle.

“Julius recalled his mother saying, ‘If you don’t believe me, then go find out for yourself,'” Mr. Thomas wrote. “He remembered his father telling him the name of the steamboat was the Sue.”

Thus, began a journey that took Mr. Pinkney to the National Archives and the Maryland State Archives, and it was while researching at the National Archives that he located the 1884 trial transcripts of the “Stewart vs. Steamer Sue” case, considered to be an early documented civil rights case.

The Stewart Sisters — Martha Stewart, Mary Stewart Johnson, (Mr. Pinkney’s grandmother), Lucy Jones and Winnie Stewart — had purchased $3 first-class tickets Aug. 15, 1884, to sail on the steamer Sue of the Baltimore, Chesapeake & Richmond Steamboat Co. from Baltimore to Kinsale Landing, Virginia, on the Potomac River, and then on to Westmoreland County, Virginia, for their yearly visit with their mother.

Cabins were segregated, with white women being accommodated in the aft end of the steamer while African Americans occupied forward cabins, and even though the women held first-class tickets, they were assigned to second-class cabins that were “offensively dirty with defaced mattresses, soiled sheets, no blankets and no conveniences for washing,” according to johnspinkstew, a family website.

A year earlier, in 1883, the women, who were traveling with their Aunt Pauline “Polly” Braxton, staged a “sleep-in” aboard the Sue after occupying a white women’s cabin, which in contrast was clean, pleasant, comfortable and inviting.

Four of the women were undressed and in bed when a ship’s officer ordered “all colored passengers to vacate” the cabin. They refused, and two of the women, Martha and Winnie, were forced to leave and spent the night and the remainder of the voyage sitting in chairs in the saloon, which is a large common area used by passengers, while the others remained in the cabin.

On their 1884 trip, the women deliberately placed their baggage in a white women’s cabin and then went to an upper deck. Later, a chambermaid removed their possessions and placed them before them, explaining that the captain had ordered the bags removed and then had the cabin locked. He then “directed that no colored passengers were to be allowed to sleep there.”

Rather than accede to the captain’s orders that they return to the second-class cabins, the women spent the night in the Sue’s saloon sitting in chairs.

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On their return trip to Baltimore on the Sue, the captain again refused to honor the women’s first-class tickets because of their race.

On Sept. 14, 1884, with assistance from their minister, the firebrand Rev. Harvey Johnson, who was the pastor of Union Baptist Church, an early civil rights leader and founder of the Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty, filed a libel lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Maryland against the steamship company.

“When the women filed their lawsuit they wanted the judge to rule on two issues: first the legality of separating passengers by race and second whether the conditions of the cabins in this particular case were truly equal,” wrote Dennis Patrick Halpin, a professor of history at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, in a 2018 National Archive post.

“In the 1880s, Jim Crow was in its infancy and had not yet become settled law,” wrote Halpin, the author of “A Brotherhood of Liberty” Black Reconstruction and Its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1925," who cited Mr. Pinkney’s research and documentation of the Sue case in his book.

“Up to this point, common carriers [which we would call mass transportation today] could legally separate people by race if their rules were clearly stated and the accommodations truly equal. The judge decided not to rule on the first question, which would have had larger implications concerning the legality of racial separation, instead arguing that it was the job of Congress to regulate interstate travel,” he wrote.

On Feb. 2, 1885, Judge C.J. Morris pronounced his verdict in favor the Stewart sisters, who were each awarded $100 in damages.

“Judge Morris reaffirmed the right of the steamboat operators to provide separate accommodations but only if they were equal,” Halpin wrote in his book.

The results of the Sue case and the doctrine of “separate but equal” reverberated down to the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which upheld racial segregation laws for public facilities. It wasn’t until Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 that “separate but equal” was declared unconstitutional.

Mr. Pinkney’s research regarding the “Stewart vs. Steamer Sue” case has since 2014 been a part of the permanent civil rights display at the U.S. District Court for Maryland in Greenbelt, his nephew said.

Mr. Pinkney was able to trace his family back to the 1770s, documenting that members of his family had been slaves, Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, civil rights and community activists, educators, firefighters, administrators and homemakers.

"I picked up the mantle of our family history from him. He taught me well, " Mr. Thomas said. “He was a very quiet and gentle man, and he’d go out of his way to help anybody. That’s why his friends called him Buddy.”

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Mr. Pinkney played an active role in the Johnson-Pinkney-Stewart Family and its website, and participated in annual reunions that began in 1978 and drew hundreds of family members from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

In a statement announcing Mr. Pinkney’s death, the Armstead Tasker Johnson Museum and African American Educational Center in Montross, Virginia, said, "Had Julius Pinkney not lived, we in Westmoreland County may not have received a comprehensive chronicle of his ancestors’ journey and their contributions that have impacted not only our county but the world in general."

Services were held Feb. 3 at the Wylie Funeral Home in Randallstown

In addition to his nephew, he is survived by his daughter, Gina Pinkney of Greenbelt; stepson, Marcelino Conway of Windsor Mills; three stepdaughters, Thelma Gladden of Pikesville, Michelle Landen of Baltimore and Carolyn Williams of Upper Marlboro; a brother, Andrew Pinkney of Baltimore; a sister, Fannie Thomas of Baltimore; and other nieces and nephews. An earlier marriage to the former Thelma Burkett ended in divorce.

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