An Unsung Hero
Fight for Civil Rights
Sarah Louise Keys was born in Clark’s Neck, North Carolina, a suburban community of Washington, NC in 1929 and raised on a farm in the small community of Keysville, also a suburb of Washington, North Carolina. There were four boys and three girls (Sarah was the 2nd oldest) in her family and she says that all of her family were “quiet people.” She doesn’t really know why – just none of them were loud talkers. Maybe that’s why I had never heard her name until a few months ago. I read about her online and I was astounded at what she did and that I had never heard this story. Her quiet courage on a southbound bus in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina in 1952 immediately brought to mind the story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus and I determined at that moment to seek her out and let the world know what she suffered and what she accomplished.
Sarah grew up in Keysville, North Carolina where her father was a produce farmer, a tobacco farmer, and a self-trained cement finisher, and the founder of the local Catholic Church and School in Washington. (See sidebar.) Life wasn’t easy on the farm, especially in the dry years and her father worked hard to build an overhead irrigation system the drought conditions. His children often referred to him as a missionary, a founder, and a pioneer in farming engineering. He was a strong man, a good father, and Sarah Keys grew up to be a lot like him. When asked about her Mother, she said that she was a wonderful mother. “She taught us the things we needed to know.”
In Keysville there were lots of relatives with everybody looking out for each other. The village was actually one long street where most had their own farms. Even though it was a small village, it was a large community of Sarah’s family. Located 3 ½ miles from Washington, it meant a long walk to school most days. They all went to the Mother of Mercy School where Sarah played the French Horn in the band. Sarah also loved drama and she must have been very good at it since she always got the longest part in plays and everyone would come out to see the school plays.
When Sarah graduated in 1948 she took all the good things with her that she had learned from her father, mother, and her family in Keysville and went to stay with her oldest sister, who was married and living in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. After trying out a job in a nursing home, and a local nursing school program, Sarah moved into the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary Convent in New York City, where she lived while she tried out several different jobs. She worked first at a 5th Avenue jewelry store where it was so exciting to be in the midst of all the sparkle of the holiday decorations and then she tried working at Belleview Hospital, but realized that this was not what she wanted to do so she continued working in the retail industry until she saw some ads on TV on women in the Navy or Army that were interesting and she asked herself, “Sarah would you like to do that?” She wondered how she would do living with groups of people in barracks and she thought she might like it so she inquired about the Army. After thinking about what she heard for a few weeks, she enlisted. She was ready to be independent – on her own – and the Army seemed to be the right place to do that.
In the Army Now!
Sarah joined the Women’s Army Corps and was sent to Ft Lee, Virginia in 1951 for basic training. The first night, she realized that she had no real idea what she was getting herself into but thankfully, there were three of them who had travelled on the train to Petersburg together. They turned in their orders, were sent to Orientation and told to take up their beds. Having no idea what that meant, they went along to the Supply Office where they literally picked up a rolled-up bed and returned it to their barracks. As she settled down in this strange place, she saw the farm back home so plainly in front of her and she thought, “Oh my goodness, things will never be the same.” She knew that this was a whole brand new reality that had set in – she couldn’t just get up and leave so she’d have to see how the rest was going to go. “Basic Training gave me a real appreciation for my farm. It was tough and it was rough. It was non-stop and there were no shady trees to sit under and relax.” She found it all interesting though and was very proud of herself – a country girl who had only been in small towns and small-knit groups of people and now there she was in the Army with all these other people and she was doing fine.
After Basic Training, she was given a temporary assignment in Ft Sam Houston, SanAntonio, Texas and then went on to her permanent assignment at Ft Dix, New Jersey. She was a Receptionist & Information Clerk with three phones to answer and she thought how grand this was – she didn’t have to look for a job, or join a union – she was meeting new folks every day, communicating with people from all around the country who were checking on relatives, and helping people who were coming into the hospital, both as visitors and patients. She was again very proud of herself as she gained self-confidence and became more comfortable with her new life.
She quickly learned that the nuns and her family had given her all the right things she needed for this life. And she was discovering that the military gave her a deep appreciation for every minute she had spent on the farm, which had prepared her for every place she went and everything she would become. The Convent, with its strict code of living prepared her well for life in the military and her work with the two civilian ladies at the hospital was exciting. “A man came in one morning just before I got off work with a baby in his arms. He had come in the wrong door yelling that his baby had been run over by a milk wagon. The doctor was down the hall so the two of them were running down the hall to get the baby to the emergency room – but it was in vain as the baby, only 5 years old, died from her injuries. This was a different life for her and she was so happy for the solid foundation which gave her the strength to do such things she had never done before.
When she lived in the Convent, Sarah had travelled home to North Carolina and she always remembered what her Father had told her about traveling on the bus. He said, “You can sit anywhere you want to as long as it’s a straight trip with no changes in places like DC. Still,” he said, “it’s best to ask and be sure that your ticket is straight-through.” According to the stringent laws in the 1950’s, blacks were only allowed to sit in the back seats of the bus, unless it was a straight-through interstate trip with no changes; then they could sit anywhere they wished on the bus.
The Bus Ride
She was going home on furlough and she had purchased a ticket on a through bus – one that stopped but did not change in Washington DC and Richmond. Because there was no change, she knew that she could sit wherever she wanted to sit. The bus stopped in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, where, she found out later, a new bus driver took over. Sarah was seated with a Puerto Rican Marine and they had carried on some conversations. Before the bus resumed its trip, the driver came through the bus collecting tickets to be sure that everyone was on the right bus. Sarah offered him her ticket but he refused to take it and just told her to move to the rear of the bus. She politely said that she was comfortable where she was and the driver went on to the back of the bus collecting tickets.
She still had her ticket held out for the driver but he wouldn’t take it. The driver was speaking so low that it’s doubtful anyone else knew what was going on until he made everybody get off the bus and get on the other bus except, he said, “for the woman who refused to move.” He said, “She could stay there but this bus isn’t going anywhere.” Sarah got up and followed the crowd moving off the bus. A sailor helped her with her bags and she got in line at the other bus where the driver said, “You’re not riding this bus.” Sarah didn’t know what to do so she went into the station to try and find someone to help her but, as she approached the ticket window, the woman pulled the shade down. A man watching said to her, “Miss, don’t you know where you are?” In her mind, she said, “O God I’m in Trouble! That’s where I am!” She felt like a child in kindergarten, just moving where she was told to go.
She finally got up some courage and asked the driver, “Is there something wrong with my ticket?” Before she got an answer, she heard a voice saying, “Is this the one?” The driver said, “Yes.” Coming up beside her on her right were two policemen who took hold of her arms and one said, “You’re coming with us.” They put her in the police car and started off down a dark road. Sarah was frightened and asked, “Where are you taking me?” One of the officers answered, “We’re taking you to the police station and locking you up for the night.” Sarah was dumfounded. “Why?” she asked. “What did I do?” He replied, “We can get you for anything – disorderly conduct – whatever we want.”
Sarah was really afraid now and she asked if she could make a phone call. They told her that they would make a call for her and it seemed like they had called but she later found out that they never did. Her Grandparents said no one had called that night while Sarah spent 13 hours in jail in her dress clothes in a dirty cell where she paced and cried most of the night. Sarah now says that being arrested was a strange experience and she knows that she survived because she didn’t allow the experience to change her from the quiet person she had always been to a person with a loud mouth that could have gotten her killed. She knows that another person in her place who may have responded differently may not have survived. She thinks she must have had an angel on her shoulder because she maintained her cool, never got loud or out of hand and that saved her life.
The next day around noon, the jailer brought her a sandwich and said, “Don’t make like you’re too good to eat this.” Later she thought that they had done a lot of talking about her because when she went before the Chief of Police, he asked her, “What is that uniform you have on?” She answered him, “It’s the WAC – Women’s Army Corps – don’t you recognize it?” She knew she had gone too far when he snapped at her, “That’s why you spent the night in jail – because you’re too damned smart.” By this time, Sarah was starting to get some “attitude” but she worked very hard at keeping it inside. Finally, the Chief told her, “if you pay the $25 fine, you will be released.” She was lucky that she had that much cash with her; she doesn’t know what would have happened to her if she hadn’t had the money for the fine.
Home at Last
The police took Sarah to the bus station and put her on a bus, telling her exactly where to sit and she sat there. It was after midnight when she got home and her Father asked her, “Why are you so late?” When she told him what had happened, he was furious. He said, “You weren’t disorderly – they were discriminating against you because you weren’t sitting in the right place.” He went into town, talked to the priest, and tried to get some help but he wouldn’t do anything so he approached the Baptist minister who agreed to go to Roanoke Rapids with them. It didn’t help – the police reported that she was cursing and swearing. Sarah couldn’t believe it. “Why would he get up and lie like that?” she asked incredulously. But she learned that day how things worked in Roanoke Rapids – she had lost her $25 and the only thing she could do was go back later to contest the false charges.
When she returned to her duty station, Sarah kept it all to herself but her lawyer wrote a letter to her Company Officer to ask for special leave for her to attend another hearing in Roanoke Rapids so now the Company Commander knew what had happened. When she showed up for the second hearing, there was no one there. The Lawyer didn’t show so she had no support except for her Father. They were both very upset as they put it all together and saw that things were not good. Sarah had to tell her story again, even though her lawyer was not present. Sarah was found guilty and there was no recourse in Roanoke Rapids. She had spoken to her lawyer who was very sorry for not being there. A good friend of the family, William Bowens, a WWII Veteran, told her father about a Washington DC lawyer, Dovey Roundtree so Sarah met with her on her way back to Ft. Dix. When she returned to the base, she had KP duty for which she reported on time with another WAC. The next morning, the Mess Sergeant sent her to the CO, claiming she was late (which she wasn’t). The next day, the CO Sylvia Nelson said, “I understand that you disobeyed your superior (the mess Sgt) and did not peel potatoes.” (Sarah had told him she would stay but that she would not peel potatoes and he seemed to have no problem with her). Now, things were different and her CO said, “It’s about time you learned that you are in the US Army. You have two choices. You can accept court martial or company punishment.” She took the company punishment – she had to tidy up the recreation room and clean up the coal bin. Two older women told her that the next time she was on KP to let them know and they would call in late so she would be the only one there and the Sgt would know that she was on time.
Two months later, she was transferred to Ft Sam Houston and then was assigned to Ft Knox Kentucky in the Post Locator office. Some of the girls had seen her orders to the Company Orderly Room and they told her not to take that assignment so when she reported to the Adjutant for her assignment, she made sure that her appearance was in perfect order and asked him if there was an opening at the post office because she used to volunteer at the post office in Ft Dix. When she told him of her experience, he picked up the phone and called the post office and they said they could use someone. She got the assignment. When that ended she was honorably discharged from the Army in October of 1953. She got a job in New York through the unemployment office and she worked for four days in a retail store selling women’s clothes. On the 3rd day she said to herself, “I really don’t think I want to do this. What will happen when the business goes bad? Then what will I do?”
A New Career
Sarah had always wanted to be a hair stylist. She had known a woman who was a beautician and she was so nice. She always listened to people while she worked and Sarah would watch her; in fact, she would let others go before her so that she could watch her. This was what she wanted to be so she used her VA benefits to go back to school, starting with daytime classes but soon realized that she needed a job in the meantime. So she went to school at night and worked in mail order during the day. The store owner knew that she was in school so when there was a seasonal let down, he kept her on until she finished school.
Then she worked in Manhattan for a year and then in Brooklyn. Because of her experience on the Styling Line (in large salons, there were shampooers, those who did the perms, the curlers, and the stylists), she got to work with top models in the fashion industry as a stylist and beauty consultant. It sounds glamorous but standing on her feet all day made this a challenging job. She realized that it was nowhere near as tough as Basic Training – everything truly is relative.
While Sarah was finishing her stint in the Army, her lawyer, Dovey Roundtree had been preparing for a suit against the bus company and the Interstate Commerce Commission to require them to enforce the rulings regarding blacks traveling on interstate buses. The Morgan ruling of 1946 said that states couldn’t m
ake any laws governing interstate buses so bus companies had been making their own rules until 1955 when a new ruling closed that loophole. But
that law was only partly enforced and since the Civil Rights movement hadn’t started yet no southern towns or businesses felt any need to change their ways. Once the outward demonstrations of the early 1950’s increased the pressure, things began to happen.
On May 12, 1954, Sarah Louise Keys testified before the Interstate Commerce Commission about what happened to her that night in Roanoke Rapids. The questions were tough but she told the truth and then they waited. In the end, the ruling was that there was nothing wrong with someone asking her to sit in the back of the bus. This decision didn’t do anything to require the ICC to enforce the newest rulings. Around the time Sarah graduated from beauty school, her lawyer was able, with the help of people like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, to get the ICC to reconsider the case. In November, 1955, Sarah returned to testify in front of the ICC and on the 25th of November, the case was decided in her favor. Sarah had won but she didn’t just win for herself. She won for all black people who now could travel all over the country without being harassed or asked to move to the back of any bus anywhere.
On November 25th, there were reporters who came in to her beauty salon to see how she felt about the ruling. “At long last, I feel free,” she said. “I’ve never been so happy in my life. It is just the greatest thing for my people – also a wonderful thing for all American people as well.” She was concerned that with her picture in all the papers, people would come up to her and ask if she was the lady in the paper. She traveled from Manhattan to her home in Brooklyn alone, so she hid her face on the subway. Dovey Roundtree had called her to tell her that the decision, which had been made on the 7th, was not actually rendered until that day, 18 days later.
Even after all that it would be six more years before the ICC was forced to obey the court’s directions. It was 1961 and the media pictures of the civil rights demonstrations were so embarrassing to the US government in front of the world that finally Robert Kennedy forced the ICC to enforce the ruling in the deep South where it had not been enforced. Sarah continued working as a hair stylist and beauty consultant in her own shop, which she had to sell in the 1970’s when her husband went back to college. She worked in a rented space from 1982-1986 when she finally stopped work and stayed home. Her husband died in 1991 and Sarah now lives a quiet life with some amazing memories. She says that she learned a lot in her business – from her clients – probably because she never stopped listening to them.
Freedom is Everything!
Freedom means everything to Sarah Keys-Evans and said, “We are in a generation now that is very, very serious – there are many things that the younger generation is not hearing. Fighting for one’s freedom is never over – if not for ourselves, we continue fighting for the generations to come. I fought the 3 ½ year battle as a battle of decency and there were many trials. I learned firsthand about mental and physical fear and am still acutely aware of the strain involved in fighting for one’s freedom.”The fight for freedom has been going on for centuries and Sarah says that this fight
has been fought too long for us to not use any of the lessons on the grounds that we have already traveled that way. “It is a very treacherous road,” she says, “but today’s young people should go back and learn things that aren’t taught in school, especially the women. They never knew how ‘un-free’ they were until white and black women began fighting together. They had been stifled in their freedom.”
Sarah Louise Keys-Evans is 83 years old now but her mind is sharp and her wit bubbles up when she talks about her family and the farm. She has a serious love for her country which she says “has never slipped back into not being free – it is FREE!”
**Our Heritage Magazine would like to give special thanks to Mrs. Sarah Keys-Evans for the photographs, as well as The Women’s Memorial and Ms. Amy Nathan for their assistance in making this article possible.