Hold on to Your Seats – The Women Who Fought for Transportation Desegregation in the US

One of the fundamental human rights is the freedom of movement. The ability to transfer between places is a basic human necessity and one of the cornerstones of human liberty in general and the freedom and independence of women in particular. Therefore, it is not surprising that several of the battles for human rights occurred in the context of traffic and transportation (i.e., making it legal for women to drive).

The struggle for freedom of movement in public transportation is famous in relation to the civil rights movement in the United States. While many women led the protests against discrimination in public transportation, their names have hardly been mentioned in public discourse and history studies.

Among the actions women took to fight discrimination were joining freedom rides, organizing protests and boycotts, traveling on the white sections on buses, and more. They were beaten, arrested, fined, and paid a social price for their activism.

One of the most famous events in world history is Rosa Parks’ refusal to vacate her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Following her arrest, the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery organized the community and launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After 13 months of protest, the US Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation on buses was unconstitutional. But not many know that this victory of Parks and the other activists came 101 years after the first known case of a woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus – Elizabeth Jennings Graham.

Even in the 21st century, women’s freedom of movement is still restricted in some parts of the world. That is one of the reasons it is important to read the stories of the women who were part of the fight for transportation desegregation in the US and get inspired to continue today’s struggles.

Hereinafter is a list of women who refused to give up their bus seats, from Graham to Parks, fighting for the fundamental right of freedom of movement, equality, and desegregation.

New York, 1854

Elizabeth Jennings Graham, 1827-1901, an educator and the founder of the first kindergarten for African-American children in NYC.

On Sunday, July 16th, 1854, 27 years old Jennings was in a hurry to arrive on time at the church where she was an organist. She boarded a white passenger-only streetcar at the corner of Pearl Street and Chatham Street. When she refused to leave, the conductor forced her out. After the incident, she published a letter in the New York Tribune and filed a lawsuit against the driver, the conductor, and the railroad company. The incident, letter, and suit inspired the African-American community in NYC to establish a movement to end racial discrimination on streetcars. She won her case in 1855, and by 1865, all New York City transit systems got desegregated.

Read more about her here.

California, 1863

Charlotte Brown, 1839–?, an educator and school founder.

On April 17th, 1863, Brown boarded the Omnibus Railroad horse-drawn streetcar in San Francisco on her way to a doctor’s appointment. The conductor refused to take her ticket and demanded she would get off the streetcar. When Brown refused, the streetcar attendant forcibly removed her. She and her father sued Omnibus Railroad Company; they won but received compensation of only 5 cents, the ticket fare. They appealed and filed another lawsuit when they were forcibly removed again from another streetcar. On October 5th, 1864, they won and were awarded $500.

Her case paved the way for more lawsuits that challenged streetcar segregation.

California, 1866

Mary Ellen Pleasant, 1814-1904, the “Mother of civil rights in California” and the first self-made African-American millionaire.

In 1866, Pleasant and two other black women were denied service on a San Francisco streetcar. She filed a lawsuit against the Omnibus Railroad Company but withdrew it when the company promised to desegregate their streetcars. Another lawsuit, Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, proceeded to the California Supreme Court. After two years, Pleasant won, and streetcar lines became desegregated.

Read more about her here.

Virginia, 1868

Kate Brown, 1840-1883, a US Senate employee.

On February 8th, 1868, Brown boarded the “white car” of the train from Alexandria, VA, to Washington, DC.
Refusing the railroad policeman’s order to move to a different car, she was violently removed from the car, dragged along the platform, and beaten severely.

After her recovery, Brown sued the railway company for damages and was awarded $1,500 in the district court. The railway company appealed, and the case eventually went before the US Supreme Court. On November 17th, 1873, the Court ruled that racial segregation on railroad lines was discrimination and all passengers should be treated equally.

Tennessee, 1884

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, 1862-1931, an educator, investigative reporter, suffragist, and prominent civil rights activist.

On May 4th, 1884, Wells bought a train ticket for the first-class ladies’ car from Memphis to Woodstock; the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad conductor asked her to move from her seat in the ladies’ car to the crowded smoking car. She refused and was forcefully removed from the train. Wells immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad company. She won her case in the Memphis circuit court in 1884, but the railroad company appealed to Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling in 1887. This incident motivated Wells to dedicate her life to fighting for racial and gender justice, and she became one of the most prominent civil rights leaders and activists of her time, inspiring many generations to come.

Read more about her here.

Virginia, 1904

Maggie L Walker, 1864-1934, a businesswoman, educator, and community leader. The first woman in the US to establish a bank and to serve as its president.

Fifty years before the Montgomery bus boycott, in 1904, Walker led the African-American community of Richmond to a successful boycott of the Virginia Passenger and Power Company for their policy of segregated seating on Richmond streetcars. The company went out of business within the year.

Read more about her here.

Virginia, 1906

Barbara E. Pope, 1854-1908, a teacher, author, and Niagara Movement activist.

On August 7th, 1906, Pope boarded the train from Washington, DC, to Virginia, sitting in the “white-only” section of the car. When the train crossed to Virginia, the conductor asked her to move. She refused, was removed from the train, arrested, and fined $10 by the city judge. With the blessing of fellow activists from the Niagara Movement, she appealed. Eventually, the Supreme Court of Virginia overturned the verdict, reimbursing her the fine. Then, Pope sued the Southern Railway Company, requesting $20,000 in damages. In June 1907, the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia ruled in her favor but reduced the award to one cent.

It was one of the first transit desegregation cases in the south.

North Carolina, 1938

Ellen Harris.

On February 12th, 1938, Ellen Harris was riding the back of the bus in Durham, North Carolina. The bus had hardly any empty seats when a white man boarded, so the bus driver asked her to move to long east at the far rear. She refused but suggested getting off if she would get back the ticket fare. The bus driver had Harris arrested for violating segregation laws. She was found guilty and fined $10.00. She appealed her case to the Superior Court and was found guilty. She then appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where the judge reversed her criminal conviction. Harris continued and filed a $15,000 civil lawsuit against Durham Public Services Company. She settled for an undisclosed amount.

Virginia, 1940

Pauli Murray, 1910-1985, a lawyer, writer, educator, and minister.

Fifteen years before the Rosa Parks incident, in March 1940, Murray and her friend Adelene Mcbean took their bus from Petersburg, Virginia, to visit her family in Durham, North Carolina. They moved from the broken seats in the black section to the white area. Following their refusal to return to the back, the police arrested put them in jail. Murray and Mcbean got convicted of disorderly conduct. The Workers’ Defense League paid the fine.
This incident drove Murray to become a lawyer and pursue a career in civil rights law.

Read more about her here.

Florida, 1943

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, 1914-2018, Women’s Army Corps officer, attorney, and minister.

In the winter of 1943, Dovey Johnson was an officer of the first African American Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She boarded a bus in Miami full of service members and sat among white marines at the front. The bus driver demanded Roundtree to give up her seat for a white man and threatened her with an arrest. He evicted her from the bus, leaving her at the station. This incident encouraged Roundtree to become a lawyer who fights segregation. In 1955, she won the landmark case Keys v. Carolina Coach Co when the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation on interstate bus travel.

Virginia, 1944

Irene Morgan, 1917-2007, a production line worker and later a small business owner.

On July 16th, 1944, Morgan boarded the Greyhound bus to return home to Baltimore, Maryland, from a family visit in Virginia. When the bus driver asked her to give her seat to a white couple, she refused and physically fought the police arrived to remove her from the bus. Morgan got arrested. In court, she pleaded guilty to the allegation of resisting arrest but refused to plead to the segregation violation since Maryland did not enforce segregation for interstate travel.
Morgan lost the case in the Virginia Supreme Court; she then took it to the US Supreme Court. In 1946, she won when the court ruled that Virginia’s state law enforcing segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional.

Alabama, 1949

Jo Ann Robinson, 1912-1992, an educator, leader of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), and the initiator of the Montgomery bus boycott.

In 1949, a bus driver verbally attacked Robinson for sitting on the “Whites only” section of the bus in her hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. Fearing an escalation, she left the bus. Robinson wanted to organize a boycott but did not get the buy-in of the WPC members. A year later, she became the president of WPC and fought against bus abuses. On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and got arrested. Robinson gathered the other civil organizations and the Montgomery community and, on December 3rd, 1955, launched a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The boycott lasted a little over a year. It became the face of the movement, gained national attention, and pressured the courts to rule against segregation.

Alabama, 1951

Lillie Mae Bradford, 1928-2017, health and childcare worker.

On May 11th, 1951, on her way home on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the bus driver punched Bradford’s ticket for the wrong price and refused a refund. Bradford sat on the white section, refusing the move. The police arrested her for disorderly conduct till a neighbor bailed her out.

North Carolina, 1952

Sarah Louise Keys, b.1928 or 1929, a soldier.

On August 1st, 1952, Sarah Louise Keys, a Women’s Army Corps official, boarded an interstate bus from her station in New Jersey to visit her family in Washington, North Carolina. Near midnight, the bus arrived in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and stopped to change drivers. The new driver demanded Keys to move to the back and give her seat to a white Marine. She refused. The driver transferred the passengers to another bus and had Keys arrested. She spent 13 hours in a cell and got a $25 fine for disorderly conduct. She won her case, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, after three years of battle in November 1955 when the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation in buses traveling across state lines. It was six days before Rosa Parks got arrested in Montgomery, Alabama.

Alabama, 1955

Claudette Colvin, b.1939, a nurse.

On March 2nd, 1955, nine months before the Rosa Parks incident, the 15 years old Colvin took the bus from school to her home in Montgomery, Alabama. When the bus got crowded, and there were no vacant seats, the bus driver requested Colvin to move further to the back and stand. She refused, was forcibly removed from the bus, and got arrested. Colvin was an activist in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) but was not put in the front as Parks since Colvin was a pregnant teenager.

She was initially charged with disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws, and assaulting a police officer. She was found guilty on the last charge.

In 1956, she was one of the five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle, alongside Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese.

Alabama, 1955

Aurelia Browder, Mary Louise Smith, Susie McDonald, and Rosa Parks.

On April 19th, 1955, eight months before Rosa Parks’ arrest and a month after Claudette Colvin’s arrest, Aurelia Browder (1919-1971) got arrested for sitting in the white section of a public city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Browder was convicted and fined.

On October 21st, 1955, Mary Louise Smith (b. 1937) and Susie McDonald refused to give up their seats in Montgomery; they were arrested and charged with failure to obey segregation orders.

On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress, and activist of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, took the bus home in Montgomery. Parks sat in the first row of the “colored section” of the bus. When more “white people” boarded and had to stand, the bus driver ordered Parks to move to the back. She refused and moved to sit by the window. The police arrested and charged her in violation of Montgomery’s segregation law.

On December 5th, 1955, the day of Parks’s trial, the WCR collected the Black community to boycott the buses. What started as a single-day boycott became the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted 381 days.

Alabama, 1956

On February 1st, 1956, Fred Gray filed the lawsuit Browder v. Gayle to the US District Court. The plaintiffs were Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese (Reese dropped out of the case due to life threats). Gayle was the mayor of Montgomery.

On June 5th, 1956, the US District Court ruled that the segregation of black and white passengers on Montgomery’s buses violated the Constitution.

On December 20th, 1956, the federal ruling of Browder v. Gayle terminated segregation in the Montgomery bus system, and the Montgomery bus boycott ended.

There are civil rights memorials and statues of the movement’s leaders in almost every state; here are some:

  • Tallahassee Civil Rights Memorial
  • Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Created by Maya Lin
  • Virginia Civil Rights Monument
  • Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
  • Civil Rights Memorial in St. Augustine, Florida
  • National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia
  • Civil Rights Institute Inland Southern California in Riverside, California
  • International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina
  • Statues of Rosa Parks in the US


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