Evelyn Toney was just seven years old when she first came face to face with racism at a drug store. Toney wasn’t feeling well that day and her mom had taken her to the drug store to get her ice cream. A young white woman working in the store asked Toney’s mother, “what ya’ll want?” Toney would later recall.
“My mom said my baby’s sick here I’d like to get her a little ice cream. And with the dollar in her hand, she passed it to her. She went back; we stood there and stood there. She finally came back with the prettiest little ice cream.”
But what the white young woman did next was what shocked Toney, eventually changing her life forever. “Mother was handing her the dollar. She was acting like she was handing me over the ice cream and when it got almost to my hand she said “tooey” she spit in it. I went to crying,” she said.
Some 13 years later, Toney would become a civil rights activist, helping shape the Albany Civil Rights Movement. According to history, she was the first woman arrested in Albany during the movement, and that led to Freedom marches in the city. As one who vowed to change the status quo in Albany after her first experience with racism, she decided to preach equality and racial justice, joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Nearly 15 years after the ice cream incident, Toney and some of her NAACP members were told that the Freedom Riders were coming through Albany. The Freedom Riders were groups of white and African-American civil rights activists who engaged in Freedom Rides — bus trips through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals.
Toney and her group were expecting them in Albany “but they never showed because of an apparent layover,” WALB reported. Thus, Toney and the others purchased bus tickets to Jacksonville, Florida to continue spreading their message of equality. On November 22, 1961, they went to the lunch counter to get something to eat before the ride.
“By the time we sit down on the stool Chief Pritchett and his deputies told us we had to get out,” Toney recounted in an interview with WALB.
She said she and her group left and went out back to wait on the bus. “The next thing we knew Pritchett and his deputies said you all are under arrest, for what? Just come on…they rode us back there and locked us up.”
Three of them were arrested and later that evening another was arrested. They were all arrested for disturbing the peace and later released. Freedom marches were held almost every day after Toney’s arrest. Toney’s time in jail did not stop her from going on to champion equal rights. She became the spokesperson for the youth council of the NAACP, and even held meetings and worked with iconic civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We would sit around and listen to him talk…You could almost just see the goodness in him.”
For fighting for justice, Toney was even expelled from then Albany State College but the school later recognized her with an honorary degree.
In March 2019, family and friends said their goodbyes to Toney after her death at age 79.