Feature: Portrait – Irene Morgan, Sarah Keys, Claudette Colvin

This week’s installment of my important women series unusually holds three women. It was not my intention to begin with, but as I was researching the one I initially chose the two others appeared on my radar. Since all three of them did more or less the same thing I figured one post for all of them would have to suffice. Please do not see this as them not being important enough to get their own entry – they are – see it as a bonus.


I’m sure all of you have heard the name Rosa Parks, but perhaps you aren’t aware that there were several other black women (and one man) who did pretty much the same thing, long before she did.

Irene Morgan

In 1944 Irene Morgan, 27-year old mother of two, was on a Greyhound bus headed for Baltimore when she refused to move to the segregated section. Interstate bus travel was supposed to be non-segregated, but certain states still enforced segregated seating within its borders – a practice which caused several problems as passengers could be rearranged during their travel, possibly several times.

In Middlesex County in Virginia, Morgan refused to abide by the local laws and the bus driver stopped the bus and summoned the Sheriff. When he tried to arrest her, Irene Morgan first tore up the arrest warrant and then she kicked the Sheriff in the groin. With the Sheriff nursing his family jewels, the Deputy tried to pull Irene off the bus, so she fought him as well. She was convicted, pleading guilty to resisting arrest but refusing to plead guilty to violating Virginia’s segregation law. She was fined $100 dollars and appealed her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This resulted in a landmark 6-1 ruling in 1946, when the Supreme Court ruled that state law enforcing segregation on interstate buses was illegal.

But in the south, states refused to follow the ruling.

Sarah Keys

On August 1st in 1952, WAC private Sarah Keys sat in the white section on a Carolina Trailways bus pulling into Roanoke Rapids in North Carolina. A new driver took the wheel and demanded private Keys to give up her seat to a white Marine and move to the colored section of the bus. Keys refused.

In response, the driver emptied the bus and transferred the passengers to another vehicle, preventing private Keys from boarding. Keys was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, and fined $25 after spending the night in jail. Refusing to accept the verdict, Sarah Keys brought the case to the attention of the NAACP. The resulting court battle lasted three years, and was brought to the Interstate Commerce Commission who ruled that the Interstate Commerce Act prohibited segregation:

“We conclude that the assignment of seats on interstate buses, so designated as to imply the inherent inferiority of a traveler solely because of race or color, must be regarded as subjecting the traveler to unjust discrimination, and undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage…We find that the practice of defendant requiring that Negro interstate passengers occupy space or seats in specified portions of its buses, subjects such passengers to unjust discrimination, and undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage, in violation of Section 216 (d) of the Interstate Commerce Act and is therefore unlawful.”

The ruling was made public one week before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus.

Claudette Colvin

On March 2nd 15 year old Youth NAACP-member Claudette Colvin was heading home from school on a Capital Heights bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was sitting at the front of the colored section, but when the bus became too full she and the rest of the people in her row were ordered to give up their seats to the standing whites. This was in accordance with the local segregation laws, but Colvin refused to get up. Even when police came to the scene, the 15 year old student refused to move, and she was carried off the bus and arrested, reportedly yelling ‘He has no civil right…this is my constitutional rights…you have no right to do this.’

Colvin and four others from the bus were involved in the resulting court case, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court on November 13, 1956. The Supreme Court came to the conclusion that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional, and a week later they ordered Alabama to end all bus segregation.

After the incident, Colvin was deemed a troublemaker. She was not considered as suitable as Parks to serve as a front figure for the NAACP, which is why everyone has heard of Rosa Parks and not of Colvin, who was the true catalyst for the ruling.

Claudette dropped out of college largely because of how she was treated in her community and eventually moved from her home town to Bronx. She stayed in New York – working as a nurse and never marrying, raising her two sons alone – and still lives there today.

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