Reverse Freedom Rides: When segregationists tricked blacks from the South into moving north

Mildred Europa Taylor Jun 19, 2020 at 02:00pm

June 19, 2020 at 02:00 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

June 19, 2020 at 02:00 pm | History

Reverse Freedom Riders were tricked into moving north. Photo source: YouTube/WGBH News

Today, June 19, is Juneteenth, the bittersweet day a quarter-million legally free Black people in the U.S. found out they were free. Although it is not the day slavery legally ended, it is the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States. Records show that even though the Civil War marked the end of slavery, African Americans had to fight for equal rights throughout the century that followed.

Then came Jim Crow laws, with the American South becoming a region of two segregated societies – whites and African Americans. In the summer of 1961 when black and white activists boarded Greyhound buses and traveled through the South in what became known as the Freedom Rides, their goal was simple: to integrate interstate buses and bus terminals.

Enduring vicious attacks from white Southerners, the Freedom Rides also sought to challenge the Southern States that refused to observe the law that racially segregated public buses were unconstitutional. 

Testing the limits of Jim Crow laws, the story of the Freedom Rides is well-known and made it into history books but what came the year after the Freedom Rides has largely been forgotten.

In 1962, the southern segregationists, clearly not happy with the North “sending down busloads of people,” retaliated with the Reverse Freedom Rides. A segregationist publicity stunt spearheaded by George Singelmann of the White Citizens Council in New Orleans, the Reverse Freedom Rides program was to trick hundreds of African Americans from the South into moving north. 

Singelmann and the White Citizens Council targeted African Americans who wanted to leave the South, largely single mothers with many children, welfare recipients and prison inmates. With the Boyd’s family becoming the first, the Council gave hundreds of African-American families one-way bus tickets and a promise that “northern cities will certainly welcome you and help you get settled.”

About 200 to 300 African-American people who made it to cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles were not aware that communities in these cities were not prepared for their arrival. Singelmann in a later interview said he sought to “expose the hypocrisy” of Northern communities who were seen as widely supportive of civil rights.

“I selected the destinations on the basis of where I thought it would do the greatest amount of good to expose the hypocrisy of the community,” said Singelmann.

About 50 travelers or Freedom Reverse Riders, most of them single mothers, were given tickets to Hyannis, Mass., near the Kennedy family compound, in an attempt to embarrass then-President John F. Kennedy for his support of the civil rights movement, according to accounts.

“For many years, certain politicians, educators and certain religious leaders have used the white people of the South as a whipping boy, to put it mildly, to further their own ends and their political campaigns,” said Amis Guthridge, a lawyer from Arkansas who helped spearhead the Reverse Freedom Rides.

“We’re going to find out if people like Ted Kennedy … and the Kennedys, all of them, really do have an interest in the Negro people, really do have a love for the Negro.”

Lela Mae Williams and her children from Little Rock, Arkansas, were part of the Reverse Freedom Riders who arrived at a makeshift bus stop at Hyannis, Mass., near the Kennedy family compound. Williams had been promised a good job, good housing and a presidential welcome but upon arrival, she found neither of these waiting for her. Williams, alongside the other travelers, had been used as pawns.

“It was one of the most inhuman things I have ever seen,” a civil rights activist in Hyannis, Margaret Moseley, recalled in an interview years before her death.

Moseley was among a few Hyannis residents who pulled up to provide temporary shelter and assistance to the Reverse Freedom Riders who were arriving in their numbers. Religious leaders and the local NAACP chapter also joined the few concerned residents, made up of blacks and whites, to help. The group became known as the Refugee Relief Committee.

“Most of the people who came had only a shopping bag with perhaps one change of clothing,” said Moseley in an interview in 1994. She said the travelers arrived with “no money, knowing nobody.”

The Reverse Freedom Riders, including Williams’s family, were first housed in dorms provided by the local community college before they were moved into unused barracks at Otis Air Force Base, which Singelmann later described as a “concentration camp.”

The Reverse Freedom Riders were later dispersed by the Refugee Relief Committee to make it easier for them to find work. Williams and her family were sent 100 miles north to Newburyport, Mass., before ultimately moving to Boston in search of work. Things were tough as being miles away from home, the family had to adjust to their new lives amid racism, unfriendly neighbors, and other harsh conditions.

Despite these inconveniences, the children of Williams, Betty and Mickey, said they have decided not to hold on to the pain of the past.

“I don’t want no hatred to live in my heart. Nowhere. I don’t have room for that,” Betty said.

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