Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alambama in 1913 amidst the implementation of the Jim Crow laws, the infamous "separate but equal" segregation of public facilities for whites and blacks in the Southern States. Rosa recalled watching buses taking the white children to school while the black children had to walk, "...we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world." She recounts in her memoirs how her grandfather guarded the front door with a shotgun in hand when the Ku Klux Klan marched down her street and how her school, a school founded by white northerners for black children, was burned down by arsonists twice. She married Raymond Parks in 1932, a barber and active member of the NAACP who encouraged her to finish high school. She did, becoming one of only 7% of African Americans to complete a high school degree at the time. She also became a registered voter, though she had to try three separate times to accomplish the feat. She became the only female member of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and attended the Highlander Folk School, a school set up to train activists for worker's rights and racial equality.
Public transportation was no different in terms of segregation. Although whites and blacks were permitted to ride the same bus, there were changeable sections for whites and blacks. Although a law did not permit people to be required to give up a seat they already occupied, it became customary for bus drivers to force blacks to give up their seats to white passengers when the white section became full. Additionally, if white people were already aboard the bus in the front sections, black passengers were required to board through the front to pay their bus fare, then exit the bus and reboard through the back doors to get to their seat. Rosa experienced this discrimination firsthand one day in 1943 when she tried to walk from the front of the bus back to her seat after boarding through the front door and paying her fare. The bus driver told her to get off the bus and re-enter from the back door and when she tried to comply, the driver drove off without her, leaving her to walk in the rain.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa was riding the bus home from work, sitting in the first row of the "colored section." When the white section filled up and more passengers boarded, the bus driver came back and told Rosa and 3 other black passengers to give up their seats. The three others complied, but Rosa told the bus driver no. "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, that that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in." The bus driver told her to give up her seat or he would call the police and she told him that he could call the police. He did, and Rosa was arrested for Disorderly Conduct. She was found guilt in her court case but she appealed the decision and formally challenged the legality of segregation. In response to Rosa's arrest, the black citizens of Montgomery enstated a 381 day boycott of the bus sytem, creating a huge strain on the busing industry as black riders made up about 75% of their ridership. Rosa's case eventually made it to the Supreme Court under the case Browder v. Gayle and segregation was declared unconstitutional. For her bravery, Rosa is often heralded as the first lady of civil rights. She spent the remainder of her years fighting for Civil Rights and died at the age of 92.
Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, Sojourner was born into slavery in New York. She was bought and sold, separated from her family, four times by the time she was 13 years old. When she was 20, her owner forced her to marry one of his older slaves and she had 5 children; one who died shortly after birth. In 1826, after false promises from her owner to be set free, she escaped with her youngest daughter, Sophia. She could not legally bring her other children with her because they could not be freed until they had served as bound servants into their twenties. She was taken in by the Van Wagener family and they offered to buy her services until the end of the year when the state's emancipation order would take effect. After finding out that her old owner had illegally sold her five year old son, she went to court with the help of the Van Wageners and fought for months to get him back. She eventually won the case, becoming the first black woman to win a case against a white man, and she got her son back. She became a devout Christian and in 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and went around preaching the abolition of slavery. She devoted the rest of her life to the abolition of slavery and the creation of women's rights. She also spent time recruiting black troop for the Union Army during the Civil War. When Sojourner died in 1883, over 3,000 people came to pay their respects to the ardent civil rights activist.
Perhaps one of the most famous famous of the abolition movement, Harriet was born into slavery in Maryland in 1820. She was constantly beaten by masters she was rented out to and subsequently sustained a head injury that caused narcoleptic attacks and seizures throughout the rest of her life. In 1849, she escaped slavery and ran to Philadelphia. Almost immediately after achieving freedom for herself, she went straight back to Maryland to rescue her family. Her knowledge of the area and the her utilization of the Under Railroad, a network of freed slaves, current slaves, and white abolitionists that hid and guided escaping slaves to freedom. Harriet repeatedly took routes to free other slaves, making at least 19 separate trips and rescuing over 300 slaves. Later in her life, she said, "I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say--I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger." Despite efforts to capture her and the slaves she lead to freedom, Harriet was never captured and neither was a single one of the slaves she freed. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Harriet began leading her passengers up into Canada to safety, which had abolished slavery in the 1830's. She was a key figure during the Civil War, helping Union forces as a nurse, spy, and even leading a raid to rescue slaves in the Combahee River Raid. In her later years, she also became a supporter for women's suffrage, working with other women like Susan B. Anthony. Harriet died in 1911 of pneumonia, but her legacy as the fearless leader of the Underground Railroad lives on.
Susan B. Anthony
Susan was born in Massachusetts in 1820 in a Quaker, abolitionist family of 9. Susan learned to read and write at the age of 3 but when a teacher refused to teach her long division because of her gender, Susan's father pulled her out of school and began to home school her and several other children with the help of other teachers. Mary Perkins, a teacher at the group home school, taught Susan progressive ideas about womanhood and women's equality. During her early adulthood, Susan began teaching but eventually gave it up to move to New York to take part in the temperance movement. As she became more and more active in the anti-slavery movement and women's suffrage movement, she was introduced to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another feminist, and they toured the country giving speeches and fighting for women's rights. Although a strong, confident women in her her ideals, Susan was always self-conscious of her appearance and worried that she wasn't eloquent enough to make an impact when speaking in public. Despite her anxieties, she became a renowned public presence and gave successful speeches all across the country. Along with Elizabeth, she formed the National Woman Suffrage Association and created "The Revolution," a magazine dedicated to women's rights. "Where, under our Declaration of Independence, does the Saxon man get his power to deprive all women and Negroes of their inalienable rights?"
In 1869, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), headed by Frederick Douglass, voted to support the 15th Amendment which gave black men the right to vote but denied women of both races the same right. Having spent her whole life fighting for both racial equality and gender equality, Susan began to question why she should support the rights of black men when they weren't willing to support women's rights as well. From that point forward, she focused her energies exclusively on women's rights. In 1872, she was arrested for voting in the presidential election which lead to a Supreme Court case. The judge presiding over the case refused to allow Susan to testify in her own defense, explicitly told the jury to return a guilty verdict, and at the end of the case, read an opinion statement that he had written before the case had even started. She was told to pay a $100 fine, she flat out refused the judge to his face, and she never did pay a penny of the fine for the rest of her life. The U.S. government, embarrassed by the judge and the decision he made, never went after Susan to collect on the fine. Susan died at the age of 86, stating, "[Women's suffrage] will come, but I shall not see it." Fourteen years after her death, women were granted the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was passed, an Amendment that Susan and Elizabeth wrote themselves.