BLACK WOMEN IN AMERICA: PVT. SARAH LOUISE KEYS, A PIONEER IN LEGAL RESISTANCE

Much has been stated about the contributions that Black American men have made to this nation. Often forgotten, ignored, and disregarded, are the numerous contributions and achievements that so many Black American women have done in various fields:  the labor movement; health care; business; entertainment; legal resistance; the military.

Starting this week, but recurring on Mondays, I will post on the laudable contributions that Black women have made to this country. This is something I have been meaning to do ever since I started my blog, but, I have often put up a post here, a post there, on the achievements of Black American women. I have decided that it is now or never. The posts will be highlights of a particular field that Black women made inroads into, or a stand-alone post on a Black woman who challenged racism, sexism, and many other isms, in her endeavors.

Today’s post features Pvt. Sarah Louise Keys.

Before Mrs. Rosa Parks made her stand by sitting down and defying racial segregation on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus, Pvt. Keys took a stand against segregation when she was ordered to render her seat to a White passenger, while she traveled, in full uniform, on a bus bound for her home.

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NOT AT THE BACK OF THE BUS

Private Sarah Louise Keys was in the first generation of members of the Women’s Army Corps to serve in an officially integrated military. In August 1962 she was an information clerk and receptionist at the Army hospital at Fort Dix, New Jersey, when she received a furlough to go home to North Carolina. She was wearing her uniform when she stepped on the bus and took her seat near the front of the bus. At Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, a new driver came onto the bus to replace the one who had been driving since New Jersey. He asked Pvt. Keys to change seats with a White Marine who was sitting near the back of the bus.

Pvt. Keys refused.

That was the beginning of one of the most important cases in civil rights history. The bus driver had all of his passengers move to a second bus, provided by the bus company, refusing to allow Pvt. Keys to board. She was forcibly removed to the police station, where she was charged with disorderly conduct and jailed overnight, with no phone call allowed. She was released the following afternoon after paying a twenty-five dollar fine.

Pvt. Sarah Keys’ family was outraged and persuaded her to go to court, but she lost. Then a friend suggested that the Keys family hire Dovey Johnson, another Black military woman. After fighting to be admitted to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), Ms. Johnson had become one of thirty-seven Black women in the first class of commissioned officers in the WAAC in 1942. After WWII she attended Howard University Law School and practiced in Washington, DC. Pvt. Keys hired Ms. Johnson to represent her, and the two military women, working together,began to fight for equality and dignity on a legal battlefield.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia refused to hear the suit, stating that it was out of its jurisdiction. Pvt. Keys and Ms. Johnson, along with her law partner Julius Robertson, then went to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and filed a suit alleging unjust discrimination, undue and unreasonable prejudice, false arrest, and imprisonment on the basis of race and color. At first, the ICC refused to review the case, in spite of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board ruling. The reviewing commissioner claimed that precedent did not apply in the matter of a private business. But Pvt. Keys’ lawyers kept fighting until they were able to get a review by the full commission.

The decision of that commission, handed down in November of 1955, reversed the “separate but equal” policy established in 1989. Black passengers who paid the same amount for their fares must be given the same service.

Excerpted from “Black Women in America, Vol. 2″, Second Edition, by Darlene Clark Hine, et. al., Oxford University Press, 2005, pg. 266.

For more information, see Judith Bellafaire, “Challenging the System: Two Army Women Fight for Equality.” Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.  http://womensmemorial.org/Education/BHMSys.html

See also, Sarah Keys vs. Carolina Coach Company.

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