Black-owned ride-sharing service has been transporting Chattanoogans for decades

Mercury Cab Service, started in the 1970s and still in business today, is a ride-sharing company that formed out of Chattanooga's jitney cab system, a service started by Black Chattanoogans in protest of segregation on the city's public transit. A Mercury cab is pictured outside of the company's office in Brainerd, Tennessee. (Photo Courtesy of Matt Hamilton)

Credit: Matt Hamilton

Credit: Matt Hamilton

Mercury Cab Service, started in the 1970s and still in business today, is a ride-sharing company that formed out of Chattanooga's jitney cab system, a service started by Black Chattanoogans in protest of segregation on the city's public transit. A Mercury cab is pictured outside of the company's office in Brainerd, Tennessee. (Photo Courtesy of Matt Hamilton)

In the first half of the 20th century, when Jim Crow laws relegated Black Chattanoogans to second-class citizens, African American residents were forced to sit in the back of buses within the city’s public transit behind white residents.

Instead of accepting that second-class status, Black residents created a jitney cab system. According to the history of that era documented by the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, state law defined a jitney as “a self-propelling vehicle other than a streetcar traversing the public streets between certain definite points or termini.”

Those jitneys, operated independently by individual Black residents, would follow the segregated bus routes at the time and charge passengers, primarily Black residents, for a ride, said Elijah Cameron, the cultural center’s director of community relations and development, in an interview.

“We had these private cars that were owned by Blacks that actually started the jitney cabs,” Cameron said.

In the 1950s, a U.S. Supreme Court decision forced transit companies like Southern Coach Lines, the private entity operating the segregated buses, to integrate, but the jitney cabs still operated in the following decades.

In the early 1970s, Southern Coach Lines relinquished control of the city’s public transit to the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority. City regulations of the jitney cabs soon followed.

That forced the jitney cab drivers to form companies to follow the regulations. At their peak, a handful of those cab services formed out of the jitney system existed in the city.

Mercury Cab Service, started in the late 1970s, still exists and is the oldest and sole cab company still operating out of the jitney era, said Mercury owner Tenesica Fletcher-Bolding, 52, in a phone interview. She’s the granddaughter of the late George Fletcher, a former jitney driver who started Mercury.

Today’s ride-sharing industry is dominated by companies like Uber and Lyft, but Fletcher-Bolding said Mercury offers something those companies don’t: direct contact with a customer base built through decades of trust in the service.

“Those companies came in, and they took away some of the business, but they didn’t take away the main business, the people that call the cab every day,” Fletcher-Bolding said. “They call because that’s what their parents did and their grandparents. It’s a tradition. It’s like a family. The majority of people that call, I know their voices.”

How it started

Black residents in 1905 staged a boycott of the city’s segregated streetcar system, according to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

Randolph Miller, a Black resident who worked as a pressman for The Chattanooga Daily Times and then founded the Weekly Blade, organized the boycott by starting the first jitney cabs with what he called “three vehicles of sorry appearance.”

The initial charge for a ride was a nickel. The system lasted for decades as segregation on Chattanooga’s public transit continued.

Two unknown jitney cab drivers pose for a photo in the late 1950s/'60s in front of the Grand Theatre on Chattanooga's Ninth Street. (Contributed photo provided by the Chattanooga Times Free Press)

Credit: Contributed photo

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Credit: Contributed photo

Many jitney drivers and later those who drove for companies like Mercury transported residents part-time to supplement their full-time income.

One of those drivers was Moses Duckett, a 72-year-old Black resident who once worked for some of the post-jitney cab companies from the late 1970s to a few years ago. He remembered as a little boy paying a quarter at most for jitney rides.

Duckett, who founded his own cab company in 2000 called Millennium, said in a phone interview the jitney cabs often operated more efficiently than the bus.

“You had to wait on the bus. The bus took all day,” Duckett said. “From East Chattanooga, I could get to the Westside in a few minutes.”

Moses Freeman, an 85-year-old Black resident who served on the Chattanooga City Council from 2013 to 2017, said in a phone interview that buses didn’t go beyond the city limits, which was Central Avenue at the time. Therefore, buses didn’t go to East Chattanooga, where primarily Black residents lived on unpaved county roads. Jitneys, however, would go there.

“The heydays, if you will, of the jitneys and their value to the community,” Freeman said. “Employees could get to Erlanger on time for that 7 a.m. shift.”

The Black-owned companies that formed after the jitney era were important to the community as well, Freeman said.

“It was a vital part of the Black economy,” Freeman said.

The legacy of Chattanooga’s jitney cabs

Knowing his time in the business would soon come to an end, George Fletcher paid for his granddaughter, Tenesica Fletcher-Bolding, to attend business school in 2009 to prepare her to take over Mercury.

Fletcher died in January 2014, a few months before Fletcher-Bolding graduated. This month marks 10 years since she took over the business.

She said continuing the legacy of the company and her grandfather is important, even with the challenge of operating an independent local cab company in the modern world, a struggle, she said, that’s caused her to cry herself to sleep at night at times.

“That’s the reason I cannot quit. I cannot give up,” Fletcher-Bolding said. “It’s not just about my grandfather. It’s the legacy of the whole public transportation, not just for Blacks, but the whole public.”

At the cultural center, Cameron said the history of jitneys and the companies that followed isn’t just Black history but Chattanooga history, specifically the history of segregation in the Jim Crow era.

“That was degrading,” Cameron said of segregation on public transit. “The jitney cabs became a way of thumbing your nose at the bus service for making you jump through hoops to ride their bus, even though you’re paying to ride that bus.”

Even if companies like Mercury go out of business, it’s important to preserve their legacy and the local history of jitney cabs, Freeman said.

“The development of Black cab companies and the whole cab industry in the ethos of the Black economy,” Freeman said, “that has to be recorded.”

Fletcher-Bolding said it’s not just about the legacy but also the service Mercury provides: getting people from point A to point B.

“Who’s going to get my people to and from work? Who’s going to get the older ladies to the hair salon on Saturday? Who’s going to pick up the kids from the after-school program?” Fletcher-Bolding said. “I just can’t turn my back on it.”

Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press

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Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press


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