Claudette Colvin in 1955.

Claudette Colvin in 1955.

USA Today recently published a list of “15 black history sites you don’t know.”¬†This list includes great museums and historical sites throughout the United States, including two sites dedicated to notable African American women. The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Richmond, Virginia celebrates “The first black woman in the United States to found a bank.” In the early 20th century, Walker was an important voice for African American and women’s rights even though both groups were at the time considered second-class citizens.

The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama honors the great civil rights activist. On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus, which led to the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott ended in a federal ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States that declared the bus segregation laws to be unconstitutional. Even late into her life, as long as her health allowed, Rosa Parks continued to dedicate herself to work to promote civil rights and education.

Rosa Parks was a courageous woman, and she is justly celebrated for her contributions to the civil rights movement. However, Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus. The first woman to be arrested in Montgomery for the same reason, nine months before Parks, was a teenager, Claudette Colvin. Colvin was only fifteen years old when she was arrested on March 2, 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. In an interview with NPR in 2009, Colvin recalls that she had been studying black leaders from history in school that month. “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 had been known as a good student at her segregated high school in Montgomery, but Colvin was shunned after she was arrested, not made an icon for the civil rights community in the same way that Rosa Parks was (although many black leaders, including Rosa Parks, raised money for her defense.). Colvin told NPR, that she believed that the NAACP and other black organizations believed that Rosa Parks would be a better symbol because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.” She also said that Parks had the right hair and the right look. “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” says Colvin. “She fit that profile.” Colvin became even less desirable as a symbol of the movement when she became pregnant that year, and gave birth to a son in December 1955. However a few months after the Montgomery Bus Strike began, Colvin became one of the four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that determined the bus segregation to be unconstitutional.

Today Claudette Colvin‚Äôs name is nowhere nearly widely recognized as Rosa Park‚Äôs but her bravery has not been forgotten. In 2009, author Phillip Hoose won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for his biography Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice.¬†This African American History Month‚Äìor any time‚Äìwhy not read more about all three of these remarkable women?

-Emily Holm
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

Pin It on Pinterest