Important civil rights case has its roots in Roanoke Rapids
Published 10:55 am Friday, February 4, 2022
There’s history all around us every day. Some of it is familiar and well-known, just an old story people keep passing around and telling until you have it memorized. But there is also plenty of history that’s quietly tucked away, almost forgotten until someone shines a light on it.
Just a few months ago, I stumbled across an article which shined a light on a piece of history close to home that I’d never heard before in my 30+ years of life. I thought it was a fascinating story, and it happened in Roanoke Rapids in August 1952.
Or at least, that’s where it started.
Sarah Keys, a member of the Women’s Army Corps, was traveling home to Washington, NC from New Jersey. She’d bought a bus ticket that was supposed to go straight to her hometown without any stops. But the bus stopped at the station in Roanoke Rapids, which was located then right on Roanoke Avenue. Since she was a Black woman, Keys was asked to move and give up her seat for a white Marine.
Of course, she refused.
That landed Keys with a $25 fine and an overnight stay in the local jail.
The story could have ended there, as just another incident in the too-long history of segregation and racial discrimination. But Keys’ father encouraged her to fight the charge, and the case was put into the hands of lawyer Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a Black woman who also had been a member of the Women’s Army Corps. In fact, Roundtree had even had a similar incident happen to her on a bus almost a decade prior.
The case, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, was filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission. Roundtree and Keys eventually won the case in 1955 with the ruling renouncing the practice of seating based on the “separate but equal” doctrine, for interstate travel at least.
Part of the ruling stated, “We find that the practice of the defendant [Carolina Coach Company] requiring that Negro interstate passengers occupy space or seats in specified portions of its buses, subjects such passengers to unjust discrimination, and undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage, in violation of Section 216(d) of the Interstate Commerce Act.”
It was one of several cases over the next few years which established legal precedent that helped finally push for desegregation in all aspects of life.
Just a few days after that ruling, Rosa Parks made her own impact on history by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama, sparking the Montgomery bus boycotts.
Parks is a well-known historic figure now. I’ve heard her story many times growing up. But before I stumbled across this article (which was published by WUNC), I had never heard of Sarah Keys (or Sarah Keys Evans, the married name she goes by now). The incident took place just a half hour away from where I grew up. I’ve spent a lot of time in Roanoke Rapids over the years, driving down those streets. I’ve even passed by the old bus station, though I didn’t know that’s what that empty building used to be.
Why haven’t I ever heard this story before now?
Luckily, there are plenty of people who do want to make Keys’ contribution to history more well-known.
Eastern Carolina Christian College and Seminary, located in Roanoke Rapids, worked to put together a short video a few years ago about Sarah Keys’ story. They also sponsored artwork about it in one of the town’s community parks.
More recently (January 2022 actually), a new state historic marker was placed in front of the old bus station on Roanoke Avenue to commemorate the landmark civil rights case.
Ansley Herring Wegner, a representative from the state highway marker program, explained at the event that “the markers designate events, institutions and people in the life of the state both good and bad, tragic and heroic and sometimes downright shameful. From our shared past, from a shared place, here we tell this important story to all who pass by and perhaps one small but true important act of community.” (Quote from an article by Lance Martin of rr.spin.com)
Growing up in this rural part of North Carolina, I think it’s easy to think that historic events, which make a big impact, typically happen somewhere else, somewhere far away. It can be easy to feel removed from history when you don’t have a connection to it.
So I think it’s great that more people are telling the story of what happened to Keys on that night in August 1952, and they’re telling the story of the court case which made a small but pivotal impact on how we live our lives today. This is something that happened not too far away from the Roanoke-Chowan are.
Anyone can make a difference. Even those of us who live in this small, rural community.
February is Black History Month, so I would encourage everyone to spend the next few weeks not only learning more about history which happened all across the country, but also history which happened closer to home. And then keep sharing the stories you find all year long.
Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7206.