Henderson v. United States,
339 U.S. 816 (1950)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Henderson v. United States, 339 U.S. 816 (1950)

Henderson v. United States

No. 25

Argued April 3, 1950

Decided June 5, 1950

339 U.S. 816


Under the rules of an interstate railroad, dining cars are divided so as to allot ten tables exclusively to white passengers and one table exclusively to Negro passengers, and a curtain separates the table reserved for Negroes from the others. Under these rules, only four Negro passengers may be served at one time, and then only at the table reserved for Negroes. Other Negroes who present themselves are compelled to await a vacancy at that table, although there may be many vacancies elsewhere in the diner. The rules impose a like deprivation upon white passengers whenever more than 40 of them seek to be served at the same time and the table reserved for Negroes is vacant.

Held: these rules and practices violate § 3(1) of the Interstate Commerce Act, which makes it unlawful for a railroad in interstate commerce "to subject any particular person . . . to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage in any respect whatsoever." Pp. 339 U. S. 818-826.

(a) Having been subjected to the railroad's earlier practices which the Interstate Commerce Commission and the court below found violative of the Interstate Commerce Act, appellant, a Negro, has standing to challenge the railroad's current regulations on the ground that they permit the recurrence of comparable violations. P. 339 U. S. 823.

(b) The right to be free from unreasonable discriminations belongs, under § 3 (1) , to each particular person. P. 339 U. S. 824.

(c) The curtains, partitions and signs emphasizing the artificiality of a difference in treatment of passengers holding identical tickets and using the same public dining facility violate § 3(1). P. 339 U. S. 825.

(d) The limited demand for dining car facilities by Negro passengers does not justify the regulations. P. 339 U. S. 825.

(e) That the regulations may impose on white passengers, in proportion to their numbers, disadvantages similar to those imposed on Negro passengers does not validate them under § 3(1). Pp. 339 U. S. 825-826.

80 F.Supp. 32, reversed.

Page 339 U. S. 817

In a suit brought by appellant to set aside an order of the Interstate Commerce Commission, 269 I.C.C. 73, the three-judge District Court dismissed the complaint. 80 F.Supp. 32. On direct appeal to this Court, reversed and remanded, p. 339 U. S. 826.

Page 339 U. S. 818

Primary Holding

Although it would not reject the “separate but equal” doctrine until later, the Court held that segregation by race in dining cars of trains that traveled across state lines was unconstitutional under the Interstate Commerce Act.


An African-American government worker, Elmer W. Henderson, was traveling by train from Washington to Birmingham, Alabama in May 1942. During the first part of his trip, when the train was in Virginia, the first-class compartment where he was a passenger announced that dinner was served. Henderson went to the dining car and found out that he could not have a table there.

This was because the Southern Railway company had a policy of reserving two tables near the kitchen for African-Americans, separated by curtains from the rest of the car. However, these tables would be reallocated to white passengers if whites had filled the other tables in the dining car before African-American passengers arrived. Both tables were partly occupied by whites when Henderson reached the dining car, so the steward ofered to serve him at his seat. When he refused, the steward said that he would be told when space opened. This never happened, and Henderson was not served over the next three and a half hours that the dining car was attached.

Henderson argued that the railroad's conduct violated the Interstate Commerce Act, but the Interstate Commerce Commission found that the conduct was a single minor incident caused by an individual's poor judgment. Despite acknowledging the prejudice involved, it did not require the rallroad to change its policy. However, a federal district court in Maryland overruled the Commission and found that the railroad had violated the Act through its general practice.



  • Frederick Moore Vinson
  • Harold Hitz Burton
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Stanley Forman Reed
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • Robert Houghwout Jackson
  • Sherman Minton

The majority relied on the 1941 precedent of Mitchell v. U.S. in finding that a railroad could not provide different levels of service to African-American and white passengers who had the same class of ticket. It declined to strike down the separate but equal doctrine, however, which had been proposed under Plessy v. Ferguson and would survive until Brown v. Board of Education.


  • William Orville Douglas (Author)


  • Tom C. Clark (Author)

Case Commentary

Although its holding was not sweeping, the decision marked a step in the Court's path from Plessy to Brown, where it would require racial desegregation as essential to equality. It also shows how racially discriminatory rules could be challenged under laws other than the Fourteenth Amendment when the doctrine in that area was inhospitable to victims of segregation.

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