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The Women Before Ms. Rosa Parks

Before Ms. Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white passenger, these courageous women made the same choice.

By CMPublished about a month ago 5 min read
The Women Before Ms. Rosa Parks
Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Rosa Parks made history when on December 1, 1955, she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery public bus. Officials hauled Ms. Parks off to jail, charging her with violation of the state’s segregation laws. Ms. Parks’ arrest sparked the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott by Black Americans fed up with Jim Crow segregation laws and blatant racism, as well as the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, Ms. Parks' name is known by all: Black, white, young, old, rich, and poor, most of whom appreciate Ms. Parks' efforts to secure equal rights for the Black community at a time when laws were written against them and violence and even death were common repercussions for being born with beautiful brown skin.

Ms. Parks’ certainly impacted the world that day by simply standing up for herself and her rights as a human being. She was not the first Black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person. Sadly, those women do not receive the same recognition as Ms. Parks and so often their stories go untold.

Get to know a few of those women and their stories in the article below.

Elizabeth Jennings

Zinn Education Project, Fair Use

In 1841, Elizabeth Jennings had no idea her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger aboard a New York City streetcar in 1841 would impact history. She only knew how it felt to be treated as an inferior individual and stood up for herself. That decision led to the desegregation of NYC streetcars.

Late for church one Sunday morning, Ms. Jennings hopped aboard a streetcar. Soon, a white passenger entered the trolley. The driver ordered her off the streetcar to wait for a trolley reserved for Black passengers.

Ms. Jennings refused to exit her seat on the streetcar. Officials physically removed her from the trolley, roughing her up a bit as they carried her away.

Outraged, Ms. Jennings filed a lawsuit against the company and actually won, prompting desegregation on the trolleys.

Ellen Harris

It was February 12, 1938, in Durham, North Carolina, when a bus driver told Ms. Ellen harris to move to seating in the back when a white passenger boarded. Ellen agreed to change seats provided the driver refunded her fare.

He refused, instead calling the police who escorted her off the bus down to the county jail on charges of violating segregation laws.. She was found guilty in Recorders Court and ordered to pay a $10 fine.

Ellen appealed her case to the Supreme Court. Officials reversed the previous verdict. With an acquittal, Ellen filed a $15,000 lawsuit against the bus company., the Durham Public Services Company She settled the lawsuit with the company for an undisclosed amount of money.

Sarah Keyes

Zinn Education Project, Fair Use

On August 1, 1952, 22-year-old Sarah Keyes boarded a charter bus from Ft. Nix and headed home to North Carolina to visit her family. Keyes changed buses in Trento, New Jersey, taking a seat in the middle of the bus.

When the bus driver checked the tickets, he ordered Keyes to move to the back of the bus. She refused. Moments later, the bus driver put all passengers aboard the bus on another bus, except Keyes. She was hauled off the bus by two police officers who arrested her on charges of violating segregation laws.

Keyes filed a lawsuit against Interstate Commerce Commission. Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a woman who also refused to give up her seat on a bus several years prior, earned a degree to rapctice law. She served as Keyes’ attorney in the case. The ICC ruled in Keyes’ favor, ruling the Interstate Commerce Act forbids segregation.

Claudette Colvin

On March 2, 1955, three months before Ms. Parks changed history, a 15-year-old teenager named Claudette Colvin hopped on a crowded school bus. With few seats available in the “colored section,” Claudette took a seat in the “Whites-only section” of the bus with three of her Black classmates. The driver demanded that she and the other three students move to the back of the bus; Claudette refused, although the other three students got up and changed seats.

She was dragged off the school bus by a policeman who grabbed her by each arm and booked into the county jail on charges of violating the state’s segregation laws. Late found guilty, Colvin was ordered to pay a $9 fine.

Claudette told reporters she had recently learned about freedom fighters Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman in school. Their stories inspired her to take a stand against racism.

"All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily. We couldn't try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag, draw a diagram of your foot, and take it to the store. Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of Black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn't get up,” she stated.

In 2021- seventy years after Colvin’s heroic actions on the bus that day- the 1955 conviction was expunged.

Aurelia S. Browder

By Browder Family, Fair use

On April 19, 1952, about one month before Claudette Colvin’s arrest, Montgomery resident Aurelia S. Browder found herself in custody after a bus driver asked her to move to the colored section of the bus after she sat down in the whites-only section. Browder, an activist who helped Black Americans with their voting rights prior to this day, refused.

Like the other women on the list, Browder was handcuffed and charged with a crime, and sentenced to pay a fine. Ms. Browder, along with Claudette Colvin and three other women, filed a lawsuit against the transportation company and won. The Supreme court ruled segregation was unconstitutional and ordered all Montgomery buses to desegregate.

Thank you all for your sacrifice.


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Comments (2)

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  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    These women are incredibly amazing and super inspirational! I enjoyed reading this!

  • Alex H Mittelman about a month ago

    I love history and greatly enjoyed reading this! So many people came before Rosa Parks, good for them! Well written and thank you!

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