In honor of Martin Luther King Day, let's take a look at a few not-so-famous firsts in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Get on the Bus
Eleven years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus to a white passenger, Irene Morgan did the same on a Greyhound bus bound from Virginia to Maryland. It was a hot and humid July morning in 1944, and Morgan had been visiting her mother in Gloucester, Virginia. She was probably feeling the effects of the oppressive heat more than many other passengers, as she’d suffered a miscarriage just a few weeks earlier and was still not 100 percent recovered. She purchased a $5 Greyhound ticket bound for Baltimore, Maryland, where she lived with her husband and two children and where she also worked at a defense plant that manufactured B-26 Marauders.
Her seat was in the section designated for “Coloreds,” but when a white couple boarded the crowded bus near Saluda, Virginia, the driver ordered Morgan and another woman to vacate their seats. Morgan refused, stating she’d paid for her ticket just like every other passenger.
A local sheriff was summoned, and during the ensuing arrest Morgan kicked him. She was jailed for a day and charged with both resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s segregated seating laws. She pled guilty to the first charge, but protested the second and a young NAACP attorney named Thurgood Marshall took on her case. Morgan vs The Commonwealth of Virginia went all the way to the Supreme Court and won on the grounds that, because that Greyhound bus was crossing state lines, it represented “an unconstitutional burden on the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce and that it threatened free movement across state lines.”
Greyhound Bus Lines eliminated their Jim Crow seating policy after the ruling, and Irene Morgan went on to raise her children and then go to college and earn a master’s degree in Urban Studies at the age of 72.
Rock the Vote
As part of Reconstruction, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Fifteenth Amendment into law in 1870, which guaranteed that no U.S. citizen could be “denied the right to vote based upon race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The amendment was ratified on March 30, 1870, and on March 31 Thomas Mundy Peterson of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, became the first African-American to cast a vote in a U.S. election. Peterson worked as a custodian at the town’s Public School Number One, and on the morning of March 31, 1870, his boss, J.L. Kearny, approached him as he worked and suggested that he take some time off and go to the polls to “exercise a citizen’s privilege.” The issue on the ballot was whether to revise or abandon the town’s charter. Peterson not only cast his vote, he was also later selected to serve on the committee of seven to revise the charter after the election. He later became the city’s first African-American to serve on a jury. In 1989 Perth Amboy’s P.S. 1 was renamed Thomas Mundy Peterson Elementary School.
Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves
Born into a family of educators in Baltimore in 1910, Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray attended New York’s Hunter College after graduating from high school with the intent of getting a teaching degree. She earned her tuition by any means necessary, including menial jobs as well as tutoring students in remedial reading and occasionally successfully getting articles and poems published in local magazines. In 1938 she applied to the then all-white University of North Carolina (which would have made her the school’s first African-American student) but she was denied admission. Despite support from the NAACP and some national publicity, Murray’s application was still rejected.
Nevertheless, her campaign caught the attention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two formed a lifelong friendship. Murray graduated from Howard University Law School in 1944 (first in her class, and the only female) and was awarded the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for graduate work, which traditionally is accomplished at Harvard Law School. However, Murray was rejected by Harvard not because of her race, but because of her gender; despite a glowing letter of reference from President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Harvard alum himself), the university would not budge on its “males only” policy. Murray went on to earn her Master of Law degree from the University of California, and her Harvard rejection helped to form her career focus – fighting “Jane Crow” laws that discriminated against female minorities. In 1965 she became the first African-American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale University Law School.
Old School, New Thinking
The first institute of higher learning in the U.S. that freely admitted any student regardless of gender or race was Oberlin College in Ohio. Located just outside of Cleveland, the school was founded by two Presbyterian ministers in 1833. In its earliest days the school accepted qualified students regardless of their ability to pay tuition – if they were lacking funds, they could “work off” their fees by providing the manual labor necessary to sustain the college.
In 1841, three women graduated from Oberlin, making them the first females in the United States to receive their AB degrees. In 1857 a 17-year-old African-American woman named Mary Jane Patterson enrolled at Oberlin for a one year “preparatory course.” Her grades were so stellar that she was encouraged to stay for an additional three years to get a degree. In 1862 she became the first black woman in the United States to earn a bachelor’s degree from an established college. Inspired by her success, Mary’s three younger siblings all went on to graduate from Oberlin and earn teaching degrees. As for Mary, she moved to Washington, DC, in 1869 to work as a teacher and two years later became the first African-American principal of the newly-established Preparatory High School for Negroes.