On December 1, 1955, the ‘first lady of civil rights,’ Rosa Parks, refused an order from a bus driver to give up her seat for a white passenger because the white section was full. She was supposed to give up her seat to maintain segregation, but she refused. Her refusal caused a chain reaction, and in 1956, it was determined that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
There was Claudette Colvin nine months before Parks, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) refused to use her as a representative because she was 15 and pregnant. However, Parks and Colvin were not the first to insist on keeping their seat rather than giving it up for a white passenger. Decades before them, five women stood their ground and fought back against the violation of their rights and apparent discrimination.
These women, some of whom won their cases at trial, influenced policy in various states. These changes resulted in the gradual disappearance (though not visible at the time) of segregation in public transportation.
Elizabeth Jennings was a schoolteacher who was running late on July 16, 1854, because she needed to take the Third Avenue streetcar to the First Colored American Congregational Church, where she was the pianist. Despite the fact that slavery was abolished in 1827, New York City was heavily segregated. The streetcar she encountered only carried white passengers, and the driver informed her of this when he asked her to wait for the streetcar carrying her people. She informed the driver that she had no passengers and jumped into the car because the second streetcar was too crowded for her to board. She was detained, as expected. She sued and won, and her case resulted in New York public transportation’s eventual desegregation.
Irene Morgan was aboard an interstate bus that was subject to federal laws and regulations. The bus driver stated that she was sitting in the white section and was required to leave, but she refused. Morgan refused to let a white passenger take her seat on a Greyhound bus in Gloucester County, Virginia. In Virginia, she was charged with violating Jim Crow laws. The United States Supreme Court ruled in Morgan v. Virginia in her favor, overturning Virginia’s legislation.
Sarah Keys Evans
On August 1, 1952, Sarah Keys Evans was only 22 years old when she refused to give up her seat on a state-to-state charter bus, sparking the landmark court case. She was overjoyed to return home from Fort Dix to North Carolina to see her family as a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) soldier after learning she was eligible for leave. She was forced to give up her seat to a white Marine and move to the back of the bus during a driver change.
When Keys refused to move, the bus was unloaded, the other passengers were directed to a different vehicle, and Keys was denied boarding. When Keys questioned why she couldn’t ride the bus, she was arrested, jailed for 13 hours, and fined. This was prior to Rosa Parks.
Mary Louise Smith
Mary Louise Smith refused to be bound by segregation three months before Rosa Parks. On October 21, 1955, Smith was riding the Montgomery city bus home when a white passenger boarded the bus after Smith had been seated. The white traveler had no place to stay. Smith was told she had to vacate her seat. She categorically refused. She was arrested and charged with violating segregation orders; she was fined $9, which was paid by her father. She was 18 at the time. Smith was one of five plaintiffs named in Browder v. Gayle, a federal civil suit filed in 1956 to challenge the constitutionality of state and local bus segregation regulations. On June 13, 1956, a three-judge District Court bench ruled that the laws were unconstitutional.
Ida B. Wells
In September 1883, Ida B. Wells, 21, boarded a train from Memphis to Shelby County, Tennessee, to teach. While reading her newspaper in the ladies’ car, the conductor who had begun collecting tickets informed her that the car she was in was only for white ladies. When she refused to leave her seat, the conductor and other train personnel forcibly removed her, to the delight of white passengers. At that point, Wells’ fight for justice began. Wells won her lawsuit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company after being forcibly removed from a Tennessee train for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.
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.