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Essay

Emma Coger made a scene

By February 4, 2022 12 Comments
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“Let’s have a conversation,” or so my neighbor Brian Keepers suggested wisely on Monday. “Do you see patience as a virtue or a privilege?”

It’s a particularly painful paradox. “Truth,” Leonard Verduin used to tell me, “is always elliptical, always has two centers,” and thus requires, as Brian said, something akin to “relaxed urgency.” I’ll let pastors unpack that one and point us to truth. I’ll just tell a story, which just may further confound.

She made a scene.  She could have simply left when told to, but she wouldn’t. She made a scene. Some say she should have known better.

Her name was Emma Coger, and the reason you’ve never heard of her is that her story is so old hat that it shouldn’t be news at all. But somehow it is. Stay with me here.

In 1873, Emma was 19 years old and a teacher — middle school, sixth grade, maybe seventh. Anyway, she was not much older than her students. History doesn’t say whether or not she was on the road to be a master teacher. All we know is what’s essential background: age, occupation, and race. She was Black. Sort of. She was what people called, 150 years ago, “a quadroon”–1/4 African-American, which meant, pigment-wise, she was a probably a good bit light-skinned.

“Okay, what happened?” you’re asking.

Emma Coger purchased a first-class ticket, including breakfast, on a Mississippi River steamer, the S. S. Merrill, bound for Keokuk, Iowa, to visit friends for the weekend. The clerk scribbled special instructions on it because Emma was expected to eat in one of the designated places the African-Americans ate, along the railing, you know, or in the back with the help. The clerk kindly and justly returned a half-dollar of Emma’s purchase price — a cheaper ticket, after all.

Emma Coger got angry. She’d never been denied the dining room, so she walked away and then asked a white man to buy her a ticket for lunch. He did. No problem, no scribbled special instructions. 

When dinner was served, Emma Coger took a chair in the fine dining room, at which time two white women sitting there beside her grew even more pale. Emma would not move. The two snarled at the indignity they were suffering, a black woman sitting right there with proper ladies. They up-and-left in a huff. 

[Footnote:  two white women stayed right there at the table. Isn’t that wonderful? Two stayed.]
But because of one of the utterly appalled women happened to be the steamship captain’s wife, he heard all about the foul disgrace and came rushing in to the aid of the clerk who’d also failed by that time to get Emma Coger to remove herself from the chair he claimed she had no right to occupy.

By this time, Ms. Coger was by all means making a scene. 

Things took a messy turn. The captain demanded her departure. She refused. Often. Tempers rose. The captain grabbed Emma, and Emma grabbed the table cloth and took it with her. Plates and silverware crashed to the floor. In short, Emma Coger made a scene right there beneath those fancy chandeliers, and, you know, you just can’t have that kind of scene in first-class.

When she returned home later, Emma Coger was mad enough to sue. Her case was brought to court in Iowa in February of 1873, eight years after the Civil War. 

Things went down this way: The S. S. Merrill’s company lawyer claimed Emma Coger had cut loose and swore like a drunken sailor, even sounded that very nasty language himself right there before the Iowa Supreme Court. Can you imagine? Look it up. You’ll see. 

Emma claimed it was lie. “”I never, ever use bad language,” she told the court, “and do not recollect of doing it on that occasion. I was angry because I was refused, and the way I was spoken to.”

You’ll like this: Emma Coger won, big-time. Swearing was immaterial. “The sole question was, had the defendant as a common carrier of passengers the authority to establish and enforce regulations denying individuals of color of the privileges and rights of white persons?”

And to that question, the court answered, no. And more:

“It cannot be doubted that she was excluded from the table and cabin, not because others would have been degraded and she elevated in society but because of prejudice entertained against her race, growing out of its former condition of servitude, a prejudice, be it proclaimed to the honor of our people, that is fast giving way to nobler sentiments, and, it is hoped, will soon be entombed with its parent, slavery.”

So ruled the court. Emma Cogler was awarded $250 she gave to her lawyer. She wasn’t after money, she said; she wanted “to vindicate the rights of my race, and my character of womanhood.”

“Patience? — virtue or privilege”? I’m guessing that she made some enemies that day aboard the S. S. Merrill, but the fact was that Emma Cogler simply wouldn’t take it. She made a scene. Oh, my goodness, did she make a scene.

Praise be, I say. Praise be. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

12 Comments

  • Marlene Vandenbos says:

    So how is her last name spelled?

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    May God bless the memory of Emma Coger. And thank you for enrolling her among our 12 Blog saints.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    A beautifully stated pronouncement by the court. Thank you for Emma’s story. I am curious also about her work as a teacher in Booneville, along with the Brents. Obviously, the opinion of the court regarding a pubic carrier, and its statement of prejudice “giving way to nobler sentiments” hadn’t affected the public school system yet.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thanks for this inspiring story. Loved it.

  • June De Wit says:

    Cheers 🥂! Emma! The pronouncement! Thanks Jim

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thanks for this, Jim. I am reminded, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

  • Pamela Spiertz Adams says:

    Jim, That was an inspiring tale about a strong and right-minded woman who “fought” for it. I admire her for her gumption.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Great and important story, thank you. Any story that includes a Leonard Verduin reference deserves special attention as far as I’m concerned. I’d like to know more about his view of a two-centered truth.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Leonard Verduin, that brilliant quirky stubborn and quite humorous scholar pastor who didn’t fit in and whom the CRC didn’t know what to do with. I’m glad I got to know him a little through our mutual scholarship. In the club with BD Dykstra.

    • Ron Polinder says:

      I recall a hike in Arizona with colleagues from Rehoboth. Verduin was our conference speaker, and during a long afternoon break, he led us through some of the beauty of the Southwest, all the while sharing insights about nature, mixed with wisdom from the Scriptures and more. That included his introduction to the “ovality of truth” to us enthralled “students.” Truth cannot always be illustrated by one encircled point; rather, sometimes there are two encircled points, which creates an oval. Faith and works, truth and grace, even male and female (I am operating out of 40+ years of memory). Regardless, I have found ‘ovality” a very useful concept, and honor Verduin for introducing it to his disciples that day.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    And the history of doctrine proves him right about two-centered truth.

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