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A new focus on the women who helped end discrimination on interstate buses

NOEL KING, HOST:

An eighth-grade teacher is helping bring some new attention to an overlooked story from the civil rights era. Almost 70 years ago, two Black women worked to end the practice of racial discrimination on interstate buses. Jay Price of member station WUNC has the story from Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Rodney Pierce teaches eighth grade social studies in the local school district. His lessons cover the icons of the civil rights era. That includes Sarah Keys. Pierce stands in front of an abandoned bus station, remembering a moment that would change history.

RODNEY PIERCE: We look at Roanoke Avenue now, you have lights, but we're talking 1952, almost 70 years ago.

PRICE: He wondered aloud at Keys' courage that night when the shy 23-year-old Army private was jailed after refusing to give up her seat for a white Marine.

PIERCE: You likely didn't have any street lights. So you're a Black woman who's been taken by white men and put in the back of a police vehicle. You don't know what's going to happen to you. You don't know where they're taking you.

PRICE: Pierce now teaches his students about Sarah Keys and her case, known as Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. And he's part of a modest revival devoted to her story. Last week, a bill was introduced to award her a Congressional Gold Medal. And Pierce has persuaded the state to erect a roadside historical marker. Until a few years ago, Keys herself was sometimes able to join Pierce's class by speaker phone from her home in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH KEYS EVANS: I had purchased my ticket, making sure that I had a straight-through bus, a bus with no changes, but to my surprise, when I got to Roanoke Rapids, N.C., there was a big problem.

PRICE: Keys, who now goes by her married name, Keys Evans, is 92 years old and declined an interview, but she recorded her story a few years ago for the Eastern Carolina Christian College and Seminary in Roanoke Rapids to help raise money for a memorial in a city park. The bus was taking her home to Washington, N.C., from Fort Dix in New Jersey. It was her first leave since joining the Women's Army Corps. When it stopped in Roanoke Rapids, the driver asked Keys to move to the back so the Marine could have her seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEYS EVANS: And I told him I was comfortable where I was.

PRICE: The driver then ordered everyone but her onto a different bus. Keys got off to try to figure out what was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEYS EVANS: And when I got to the ticket window, the lady pulled the curtain down and dimmed the lights. It was sort of like in a movie, you know?

PRICE: Keys turned around and saw a tall Black man pushing a broom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEYS EVANS: And he said to me, Miss, don't you know where you are? I said to myself, oh, God, Sarah, you are in trouble.

AMY NATHAN: And she said suddenly she got terrified.

PRICE: Amy Nathan wrote a children's book about Sarah Keys and is now working on an adult version of her story.

NATHAN: And she thought of all the stories about Black people - and including Black people in military uniforms - who have gotten into serious trouble and been mistreated in being alone at night in small Southern towns.

PRICE: Two policemen arrived on the scene.

NATHAN: They claimed that she had been unruly, had been cursing, had been disorderly. If anyone knew Sarah, they would know she would never have been unruly. As her sister said, she was the quietest of us all. No one would ever have expected her to get into any kind of trouble.

PRICE: She was charged with disorderly conduct and held overnight in a jail cell with a mattress on the floor so dirty she wouldn't touch it. Keys might have been shy, but young Black women didn't join the Army back then without having a steely streak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEYS EVANS: The jailer came the next morning, took me to the chief of police. And the chief of police said, is that a uniform you're wearing? I said, you mean to tell me you don't know the color of the United States Army uniform? So he said to me, that's why you spent the night in jail because you're too damn smart.

PRICE: He fined her $25 and threatened to slap her. When she finally got home, her father, himself a Navy veteran, urged her to fight the charge. An NAACP lawyer steered them to attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree. Roundtree herself had been among the first Black female officers in the Women's Army Corps and had also been forced off a bus while traveling the South in uniform.

KATIE MCCABE: She says that the military made her a lawyer even before she became a lawyer.

PRICE: Author Katie McCabe helped Roundtree write her autobiography. Roundtree had been shaped by battling with her commanders over segregation and Keys...

MCCABE: I think for Sarah Keys, it was the case itself that was so formative. And then when the two came together, they had this common understanding. We are military women. We deserve better. We will not take this.

PRICE: Roundtree knew they wouldn't get a fair shake in a Southern court, but a federal court in Washington refused to hear the case. Then they hit on the strategy of tackling the case through the Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulated travel across state lines. In a hearing, the young private in uniform testified calmly.

MCCABE: And what Dovey saw was, I would say, a coming of age on the part of Sarah Keys.

PRICE: It was a legal battle that lasted three years, but in 1955, Sarah Keys and Dovey Johnson Roundtree won their case. The decision was announced just days before Rosa Parks was famously arrested in Alabama for not giving up her seat to fight against segregation on city buses. Roundtree, who died in 2018, regarded the Keys case as her greatest legacy. She spoke at her alma mater, Spelman College, in 1995.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOVEY JOHNSON ROUNDTREE: And now we get on the bus and travel as if it’s nothing. Time was, you sat on the back seat or you went to jail. Sarah Keys went to jail. And now, no more.

PRICE: Despite its significance, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company didn't receive nearly as much attention as some other landmark civil rights cases. McCabe says, in part, that's because it wasn't argued before the Supreme Court and because it took years for the federal government to actually enforce it. But now it is getting more recognition with the memorial in the city park, maybe that congressional medal, an upcoming book and the new state marker right in front of that bus station.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLAMOUR'S "PARFUMS D'AURORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.