Object of the Month

The Opera Ejection Case: Sarah Parker Remond Protests Segregated Seating at Boston’s Howard Athenaeum

Sarah Parker Remond Photograph

Sarah Parker Remond

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This photograph depicts Sarah Parker Remond of Salem, Massachusetts. On 4 May 1853, Remond, a Black woman, and her companions were prevented from taking their seats at a performance of the opera Don Pasquale by Donizetti at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston. She filed assault charges against the agent for Madame Sontag’s opera troupe and a Boston police officer who had violently removed her at the agent’s request. Remond won her case in Boston Police Court on narrow grounds, but the case was an early effort to overcome “Jim Crow” (segregated) seating in a public establishment in antebellum Boston.

The Remond Family of Salem

Sarah Parker Remond was born in 1826, the seventh of eight children of John and Nancy Lenox Remond. John Remond arrived in Salem in 1798 as an unaccompanied ten-year-old immigrant from Curacao in the West Indies. In Salem he had a long and successful career as a caterer, “restaurateur,” and business entrepreneur. Sarah’s mother, Nancy Lenox, an accomplished pastry cook, was the daughter of a Black Revolutionary War veteran.

The Remonds raised their children for both business and public careers, but also to fight for their civil rights and personal dignity. When school segregation in Salem limited the educational opportunities of the younger Remond children including Sarah, the family moved for several years to Newport, Rhode Island. While the Remond’s eldest son, Charles Lenox Remond, became an internationally-known abolitionist speaker, Sarah Parker Remond also proved to be, although with less fiery rhetoric, an effective antislavery advocate.

A Confrontation at the Howard Athenaeum: the “Opera Ejection Case”

In 1853, Sarah Parker Remond and a married sister, Caroline E. Putnam, bought tickets in Salem for an opera performance at the Howard Athenaeum, one of Boston’s premier theaters. There was no law or established custom regarding integrated theater seating; the Boston Museum, another first rank theater, had a long tradition of integrated seating. There was a difference in management; while the Boston Museum had a resident acting troupe, the Howard Athenaeum often hosted traveling performers and the Athenaeum would claim that it accommodated the wishes of Madame Sontag’s opera company in the confrontation that followed.

On 4 May 1853, the Remond sisters, accompanied by William Cooper Nell, a Black abolitionist, antislavery journalist and historian, arrived at the Howard Athenaeum and attempted to take their expensive, reserved seats in the “family circle.” Henry Palmer, the agent for the opera company, refused to let them sit among white patrons, except in the gallery—less expensive and desirable seats. When the Remond party refused to submit to Palmer’s demand, he summoned a Boston police officer, Charles P. Philbrick, who forcibly removed Sarah Remond—in her account by tearing her dress and pushing her down a flight of stairs.

The “Opera Ejection Case” quickly attracted local and national newspaper coverage, as well as reports in British newspapers sympathetic to the antislavery cause in America. William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator described the case in a series of articles that appeared in the weeks following Sarah Remond’s “Ejection” in May 1853. The Liberator was a weekly newspaper with a national audience, so much of the news coverage was of the abolitionist activities and addresses delivered at major antislavery conventions and meetings. “Overwhelmed by matters of pressing interest,” Garrison apologized for presenting no more than a “tithe” of the full story of Sarah Remond’s “interesting and important case.”

Sarah Parker Remond’s experience was not the first time that a member of the Remond family had emphatically protested segregated seating. In 1842, her brother Charles Lenox Remond had testified before the Massachusetts legislature that after traveling through Europe without “insult” or any negative “distinction” during the course of an abolitionist speaking tour, he had been forced to take a seat in a segregated “Jim Crow” passenger car for a train trip from Boston to Salem on the last leg of his long return journey to his family home.

Sarah Parker Remond’s Day(s) in Court

Sarah Remond brought assault charges against Palmer and Philbrick. The case was tried in Boston Police Court before Judge Thomas Russell, who had only recently been appointed to the bench. Although the encounter (the “Ejection from the Opera” as it was described in the headline of a summary of the case in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator) could not have lasted more than a few minutes, it resulted in a legal case that stretched out over days of hearings in Judge Russell’s courtroom.

Remond was ably represented by Charles Gideon Davis, a lawyer with strong antislavery beliefs. Two years before, he had been accused of aiding a client, Shadrach Minkins, in escaping from federal custody during a hearing to determine if Minkins was a fugitive slave. Davis had withdrawn from his general legal practice to devote himself to the abolitionist cause about the time that Remond became his client.

In finding for Sarah Remond, Judge Russell summarized the evidence and arguments presented in his courtroom. He accepted Remond’s argument that she was not attempting to test the legality of segregated seating, but only to take the seat for which she had a valid ticket. This allowed him to decide that it was a straightforward matter of a broken contract: the opera company had no authority to invalidate Remond’s ticket and had broken its contract with her. Thus, Henry Palmer, the agent for the opera company, had no right to eject her—or to have a Boston policeman act on his behalf.

Although Judge Russell cited a lost luggage case from Pennsylvania to illustrate how a contract had been broken—hardly a stirring endorsement of Black civil rights—he noted that there was no longstanding and well-understood practice of racial exclusion in Boston and that in arguing that the presence of Black patrons among members of a white audience would be the cause of a disturbance, the representatives of the opera company were “wrong in their estimate of Boston character.” Judge Russell found agent Palmer and officer Philbrick guilty, but fined them only $1.00 each. Palmer, but not Philbrick, was also to pay costs arising from the trial.

William C. Nell, who was both a participant in and observer of the trial, exulted in the verdict and reported to a friend that after Remond sisters “gained the case. . . we attended operas afterwards in a[s] good shape as any body.” Unhappily, the outcome was not as clear cut as Nell implied. By September 1853, the Howard Athenaeum was making efforts not to end segregated seating, but to give public notice of its exclusionary practices in order to fend off further lawsuits.

Another Ejection: the Franklin Institute Exhibition in Philadelphia

In spite of Sarah Remond’s assertion that her ejection from the Howard Athenaeum was not a deliberate test of the legality of racial segregation, less than six months later she found herself in the midst of a strikingly similar confrontation. In November 1853, during a trip to Philadelphia with a friend, Annie E. Wood, they attempted to tour the public exhibition at the Franklin Institute. Even though the contributions of African Americans to the “mechanical arts” were on display, the Institute maintained a strict color line and, although Remond and her companions had purchased tickets, they were forced to leave. Again, a police officer was charged with an assault—this time upon their local host, Robert Purvis, Jr. In spite of a “manly protest against wrong,” the charge was dismissed.

Madame Remond Pintor

Throughout the 1850s, Sarah Parker Remond’s role as a noted abolitionist speaker continued to grow, first in the northern United States and then from 1859 in Europe. When Remond left America to lecture in Great Britain, not knowing that she would spend most of the rest of her life abroad, William Lloyd Garrison wrote a public letter of introduction for her to the editor of the Anti-Slavery Advocate of London. He praised her moral worth and intellectual force, but on a more personal level, continued, “She is capable of gracing any circle, and will be her own best recommendation wherever she travels.”

Sarah Remond remained in England during the American Civil War, enlisting the sympathy of audiences for the antislavery cause and later for support of Black civil rights and aid for free Black people in the American south after emancipation. She also had the opportunity to attend college courses, although official racism followed her to Europe. In 1859, the American legation in London denied her request for a visa when she wished to travel to France, arguing that as a Black person she could not be a U. S. citizen and making her the protagonist in the “Visa Affair.”

After returning to the United States briefly at the end of the Civil War to work for freedmen’s aid and women’s rights, Remond returned to Europe. Meanwhile in Boston, the policy of segregated seating in theaters, with the notable exception of the Boston Museum, had continued to expand, although there were protests by many of the same Black abolitionists who had fought against slavery and segregation in previous decades.

Remond settled in Florence where she studied medicine and was able to breathe free from the constant struggle against racial prejudice, except as she noted, among white visitors from the United States who brought their racism with them. In 1877, at the age of 50, she married Lazzaro Pintor, a Sardinian businessman living in Florence. Madame Remond Pintor lived at the center of a cosmopolitan expatriate community that included members of her American family, and artists and writers, first in Florence and later in Rome where she died in 1894.

For Further Reading

The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. 1: The British Isles, 1830-1865. C. Peter Ripley, ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Sarah Remond’s public career in Great Britain from 1859 until 1865 as an abolitionist speaker and on behalf of former slaves in the United States—and British colonies—is documented in the text of her speeches and letters to newspapers.

Bogin, Ruth. “Sarah Parker Remond: Black Abolitionist from Salem.” Essex Institute Historical Collections, vol. 110, no. 2 (Apr. 1974), p. 120-150.

Bogin passes over the Howard Athenaeum affair, but gives a detailed account of Sarah Remond’s career as a Black abolitionist speaker in the United States and later in Great Britain.

The Liberator. Boston: William Lloyd Garrison, 1831-1865.

The first notice of the “Opera Ejection” appeared the week following the 6 May events as “The Rights of Colored Persons.” The Liberator, vol. xxiii, no. 19 (whole no. 1164), 13 May 1853, p. 3.

A summary of Judge Thomas Russell’s findings at the end of the trial in the Boston Police Court appears as “The Opera Ejection Case.” The Liberator, vol. xxiii, no.23 (whole no. 1168), 10 June 1853, p. 3.

In September, a letter from “A True Theatre-Goer” described ongoing resistance to integrated seating at the Howard Athenaeum. “Theatrical Abuse.” The Liberator, vol. xxiii, no.35 (whole no. 1178), 2 September 1853, p.1.

The Liberator later reported on continued segregation in Boston theaters and Sarah Remond’s “ejection” from the Franklin Institute: “Monsieur Julien’s Concerts” and “Manly Protest against Wrong.” The Liberator, vol. xxiii, no.50 (whole no. 1193), 16 December 1853, p.1.

Issues of The Liberator including those from 1853 are available in a searchable format at: The Liberator (Boston, Mass. : 1831-1865) - Digital Commonwealth

Luxenberg, Steve. Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2019.

Luxenberg begins with Charles L. Remond’s role in the desegregation of “Jim Crow” cars on Massachusetts railroads in the 1840s.

Nell, William Cooper. William Cooper Nell, Nineteenth-Century African American Abolitionist, Historian, Integrationist: Selected Writings from 1832-1874. Ed. by Dorothy Porter Wesley and Constance Porter Uzelac. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2002.

William Nell accompanied Sarah P. Remond and her sister, Caroline E. Putnam, to the Howard Athenaeum on 4 May 1853. His contemporary letters and writings provide context for newspaper accounts of the ensuing legal case.

Porter, Dorothy Burnett. “The Remonds of Salem, Massachusetts: A Nineteenth-Century Family Revisited.” American Antiquarian Society Proceedings vol. 95, pt. 2 (1985), p. 259-295.

Sirpa Salenius’s An Abolitionist Abroad corrects and updates information about Sarah Parker Remond’s later life in Europe, but Porter’s article contains a wealth of information about Remond’s large and interesting family and their role in Salem social and business life.

The Negroes & Anglo-Africans as Freedmen and Soldiers. Compiled by Sarah Parker Remond. Ladies’ London Emancipation Society, Tract 7. London: Emily Faithfull for the Society, 1864.

Remond continued to campaign in Great Britain for Black civil rights after the end of slavery in the United States.

Remond, Sarah Parker. “Sarah P. Remond.” In Our Exemplars, Poor and Rich; or Biographical Sketches of Men and Women Who Have, by an Extraordinary Use of Their Opportunities, Benefited Their Fellow-Creatures. Ed. by Matthew Davenport Hill. London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1861, p. 276-286.

Remond devotes only a line of her brief autobiographical sketch to the Howard Athenaeum affair, but vividly describes the prejudice that she faced during her childhood in Salem. Available online at: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044012082301&view=1up&seq=7

Salenius, Sirpa. An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016.

Especially valuable for Remond’s life long after she left Salem and Boston for London, Florence, and finally, Rome.