The women who came before Rosa Parks, one even a century before

Vanessa Calys-Tagoe October 15, 2022
Newspaper clipping of Morgan v. Virginia case. (From Afro-American Newspapers)

The ‘first lady of civil rights,’ Rosa Parks, on December 1, 1955, rejected an order from a bus driver to give up her seat for a white passenger because the white section was filled. To uphold segregation, she was supposed to give up her seat, but she refused. Her refusal caused a ripple effect and eventually, in 1956, a decision was reached that segregation in buses was unconstitutional. 

Nine months before Parks, there was Claudette Colvin, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) refused to use her as a representative because she was 15 and pregnant. However, Parks and Colvin were not the first people to remain adamant about maintaining their seat rather than giving it up for a white passenger. Decades before them, five women stood their ground and resisted the infringement on their rights and the apparent discrimination that was being meted out to them.

These women, some of whom won their cases when they went to trial, effected changes in different states. These changes led to the gradual fading away (although not apparent then) of segregation in public transport.

Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings was a schoolteacher who was running late on July 16, 1854, because she was on her way to the First Colored American Congregational Church, where she was the pianist, and needed to take the Third Avenue streetcar. Although slavery was abolished in 1827, New York City was strongly segregated. The streetcar she met only took white passengers and the driver told her that much when he asked her to wait for the streetcar that had her people in it. She told the driver she had no people and hopped into the car because the second streetcar was too full for her to board. As expected, she was detained. She sued and won, and her lawsuit resulted in the eventual desegregation of New York City’s public transportation.

Irene Morgan 

Irene Morgan was traveling on an interstate bus that was under federal laws and regulations. According to the bus driver, she was sitting in the white section and had to leave, but she refused. Morgan refused to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus in Gloucester County, Virginia, to a white passenger. She was charged with breaching Jim Crow laws in Virginia. In Morgan v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court ruled in her favor, overturning Virginia’s legislation.

Sarah Keys Evans

Sarah Keys Evans was only 22 years old when she refused to give up her seat on a state-to-state charter bus on August 1, 1952, sparking the landmark court case. As a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) soldier, she was delighted to return home from Fort Dix to North Carolina to see her family after learning she was eligible for leave. During a driver change, she was forced to give up her seat to a white Marine and go to the back of the bus. When Keys refused to relocate, the bus was unloaded, the other passengers were directed to another vehicle, and Keys was prevented from boarding. When Keys questioned why she shouldn’t ride the bus, she was arrested, spent 13 hours in jail, and had to pay a fine. This was years before Rosa Parks.

Mary Louise Smith

Three months before Rosa Parks happened, Mary Louise Smith refused to be chained by segregation. Smith was riding the Montgomery city bus home on October 21, 1955, when a white passenger boarded the bus after Smith had been seated. There was no room for the white traveler. Smith was ordered to give up her seat. She flatly refused. She was arrested and accused of violating segregation orders, and she was fined $9, which her father paid. She was 18 years old. Smith was one of five women named as plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, a federal civil complaint filed in 1956 to challenge the constitutionality of state and local bus segregation regulations. A three-judge bench of the District Court declared on June 13, 1956, that the laws were unconstitutional.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells, 21, boarded a train from Memphis to Shelby County, Tennessee, to teach in September 1883. While seated in the ladies’ car reading her newspaper, the conductor who had begun collecting tickets informed her that the car she was in was just for white ladies. When she refused to leave her seat, the conductor and another train staff forcibly removed her while white passengers applauded. Wells’ battle for justice started at that moment. After being forcibly removed from a Tennessee train for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger, Wells was victorious in her lawsuit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the victory. In 1909, Wells joined W.E.B. Du Bois and others to form the N.A.A.C.P.

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