(Original article found here - and Roanoke Rapids is where I grew up…and we were NEVER taught about this.)
In 1952, two African-American military women challenged segregation law to end Jim Crow policies on interstate transportation.
PVT Sarah Keys was on leave, traveling in uniform on a bus from New Jersey home to her home in North Carolina. When the bus reached Roanoke Rapids, NC, after midnight, there was a change of drivers. The new bus driver requested that PVT Keys, seated toward the front of the bus, exchange seats with a white Marine, also in uniform, seated near the back of the bus.
Keys refused. She was arrested, detained overnight in jail, and fined $25. Convicted of disorderly conduct, Keys began a legal battle against discrimination and prejudice.
Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a former WAC officer and then an attorney in Washington, DC, agreed to take the Keys case. In 1942, Roundtree had volunteered for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) at the advice of her mentor, Mary McLeod Bethune. (Bethune had worked for years to desegregate the military—both men’s and women’s services and actively recruited qualified African-American candidates.)
Roundtree became one of 36 African-American women to graduate in the Army’s first class of commissioned officers. After World War II, she attended Howard University Law school on the GI Bill, one of the school’s first female students.
Dovey Johnson Roundtree and her partner Julius Robertson initially filed suit for Keys in the US District Court for the District of Columbia in Oct. 1952, but the court decided the suit was out of their jurisdiction and refused to hear the case.
Roundtree then filed suit with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The suit, Keys v. North Carolina Coach Company, stated that Keys had experienced unjust discrimination, undue and unreasonable prejudice, and false arrest and imprisonment on the basis of race and color.
Finally in 1955, the eleven-man ICC commission agreed with Keys and Roundtree and reversed the separate-but-equal Jim Crow policy in force on all interstate transportation since 1877.
A few months later in Montgomery, AL, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus, and a 381-day boycott ensued. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that state and local laws segregating public transportation were unconstitutional.