Happy Birthday to a hometown hero

Published 4:47 pm Monday, April 12, 2021

A national treasure and a woman who changed the laws of the land will celebrate her 92nd birthday Sunday April 18.  I am referring to my cousin, Mrs. Sarah Louise Keys Evans.

Her heroic decision during the Jim Crow era ushered in a Supreme Court ruling that changed the way Black Americans traveled in this country.

It is amazing how many local people do not know about her.

Sarah was raised here in Washington in the Keysville community and attended Mother of Mercy School.

Upon graduation, she moved to New Jersey where she joined the military. On Aug. 1, 1952, 22-year-old Sarah Louise Keys, a women’s air corps private, traveled from Fort Dix, N.J., to her family’s home in Washington. During a stop to change drivers in Roanoke Rapids NC, she was told to relinquish her seat to a white Marine and move to the back of the bus.

Keys refused, whereupon the driver emptied the bus, directed the other passengers to another vehicle, and barred Keys from re-boarding.

When Keys asked why she couldn’t keep riding the bus, she was arrested, and spent 13 hours in a jail cell.

Keys was eventually ordered to pay a $25 fine for disorderly conduct, was released, and put on another bus home. Her case was brought before the Interstate Commerce Commission and wasn’t settled until 1955.

In Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, the Court favored Keys Evans, ruling the Interstate Commerce Act forbids segregation. The ruling broke with its historic adherence to the Plessy vs. Ferguson separate but equal doctrine and interpreted the non-discrimination language of the Interstate Commerce Act as banning the segregation of black passengers in buses traveling across state lines.

Sarah’s landmark decision came just one week (November 24, 1955) before Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Al. bus, which triggered a city-wide bus boycott by Blacks and catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King into the national spotlight.

I am so very proud of Sarah. She is the epitome of courage to me.  She is my hero and a great inspiration not only to me but to millions of people in this country and around the world.

On Sunday, her birthday, I am hosting a special celebration at 2 p.m. at the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum in her honor.  I will read a proclamation from Washington’s Mayor Donald Sadler and there will be a reading from “Take a Seat-Make a Stand”, a book by Sarah’s dear friend and author Amy Nathan.

After the celebration there will be a walk to Second and Respess Streets where the old Carolina Coach Trailways Bus Station used to be. It was there that Sarah disembarked to go to her Keysville home after her arrest in Roanoke Rapids NC.  All are welcome to attend.