Chris Bray


On a weekend night in Tampa in the late summer of 1919, a twenty-three year-old black woman opened a knife and slashed at the face of an eighteen year-old white man who had pinned her to the floor of a streetcar with a hand around her throat. Hattie Wright and Pierce Harwell were fighting over a seat on the segregated car, but the details of the confrontation fit poorly into the usual narrative of the long movement for civil rights: Wright was fighting to defend her segregated space at the back of the streetcar, refusing Harwell's demand that she abandon the seat next to him. Rather than locate other seating, she told him to move to the section reserved for white passengers. Her demand, and the resulting fight, quickly led to Wright's arrest. The trial and legal appeal that followed left an extraordinarily rich documentary record and painted a detailed picture of several intersecting social worlds.1 In particular, the case of Wright v. State reveals the "hegemonic function of the law," places the uniquely multiethnic social structure of the Tampa Bay region in its southern context, illustrates the conflict between overlapping systems of white supremacy, and shines a remarkable light on the daily choices of ordinary people as they navigated a segregated landscape.2