Overlooked trailblazer: Before Rosa Parks, NC's Sarah Keys refused to back down
Nearly seven decades after two Black Army women from North Carolina helped end discrimination on interstate buses, the state is recognizing their nearly-forgotten civil rights case.
It’s about to put up a highway historical marker near the spot where a shy, 22-year-old Army private named Sarah Keys was jailed after refusing to give up her seat for a white Marine.
Rodney Pierce, who teaches eighth-grade social studies in Battleboro, persuaded the state to put up the marker after he learned about Keys while working at a local museum. He was startled because he had never heard of her before.
On a recent day, he stood in front of Roanoke Rapids' former long-distance bus station, a now-decrepit art deco building. And he wondered aloud at Keys’ courage that night.
“We look at Roanoke Avenue now and we have lights, but we’re talking 1952, almost 70 years ago,” Pierce said. “You likely didn’t have any street lights, so you’re talking about, you’re a Black woman who’s been taken by white men and put in the back of a police vehicle.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen to you, you don’t know where they’re taking you.”
Pierce teaches his students about Sarah Keys and how her case, known as Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, changed the nation. Until a few years ago, she was sometimes able to join in by speakerphone from her home in New York City.
Keys, who now goes by her married name, Keys-Evans, is 92 and declined to participate in an interview with WUNC.
But she recorded her story a few years ago for the Eastern Carolina Christian College and Seminary in Roanoke Rapids to help raise money for a memorial honoring her in a city park.
The bus had been taking her home to Washington, North Carolina, from Fort Dix, New Jersey. It was her first leave since joining the Women’s Army Corps.
The first problem, she said in the recording, was that the bus stopped at all.
“I had purchased my ticket making sure that it was (a) straight through bus, a bus with no changes,” she said. “But to my surprise, when I got to Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, there was a big problem.”
The driver walked through the bus checking tickets and asked Keys to move to the back, so the Marine could have her seat.
"You mean to tell me you don't know the color of the United States Army uniform?"
She replied simply that she was comfortable where she was. The driver didn’t respond at first, continuing on through the bus.
Then he got off for a few minutes, came back and ordered everyone but her onto a different bus. Keys got off to try to figure out what was happening and went inside the station.
“And when I got to the ticket window, the lady behind the ticket window pulled the curtain down and dimmed the lights,” she said. “It's sort of like in a movie, you know?"
When she did that, Keys said, she turned around. A tall Black man who was stepping the terminal looked at her.
“And he said to me, ‘Miss, don't you know where you are?’,” she said. "I said to myself, 'Oh God, Sarah, you are in trouble.'”
Police officers came, and the driver pointed her out.
“They claimed that she had been unruly, had been cursing, had been disorderly,” said Amy Nathan, who wrote a children’s book about Sarah Keyes, and is now working on an adult version of her story.
“And of course, if anyone knew Sarah, they would know she would never have been unruly,” said Nathan, who stays in regular contact with Keys. “As her sister said, she was the quietest of us all, no one would ever have expected her to get into any kind of trouble.”
Keys was charged with disorderly conduct and held overnight in a jail cell with a mattress on the floor so dirty she wouldn’t touch it.
She might have been shy. But young Black women didn’t join the Army back then without having a steely streak.
The next morning, a jailer came and took her to the chief of police.
“And the chief of police said, ‘Is that a uniform you’re wearing?’” Keys said.
“I said ‘You mean to tell me you don't know the color of the United States Army uniform?’ So he said to me, 'That's why you spent the night in jail because you're too damn smart.'”
He fined her $25 and threatened to slap her. When she finally got home, her father — himself a Navy veteran — urged her to fight the charge.
Eventually, an NAACP lawyer steered them to attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree of Charlotte, then practicing in Washington, D.C.
Roundtree had been among the first Black female officers in what became the Women’s Army Corps. And had also been forced off a bus while traveling the South in uniform, while passing through Miami recruiting for the Army.
Author Katie McCabe, who helped Roundtree write her autobiography, “Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights,” said Roundtree had been shaped by battling with her Army commanders over segregation in the ranks.
"But I am here as well, to shake my fist at the system and demand something else, something better.”
“She says that the military made her a lawyer even before she became a lawyer,” McCabe said. “I think for Sarah Keys, it was the case itself. That was so formative. And then when the two came together, they had this common understanding: We are military women, we deserve better, we will not take this.
“You, Dovey Roundtree, will be my advocate. But I am here as well, to shake my fist at the system and demand something else, something better.”
And even though there was an age difference and their personalities were much different — Keys quiet and reserved, Roundtree confident and sometimes even brassy — the pair were bound by shared experience, McCabe said.
“A year before Dovey’s experience in Miami, Congress had declined to pass, and the military did not support, a bill that would have offered protection to African American personnel traveling through the Jim Crow states,” McCabe said. "So if you were Black and traveling you were on your own, and those two women understood that, so they came from a place of common pride.
“They both had great pride in their service and also I would say great anger — in fact, rage — at the injustice that had been done to them by their country with no backup, no support from the Army."
Roundtree knew they wouldn’t get a fair shake in a Southern court, so Roundtree and her partner, Julius Winfield Robertson, filed suit in federal district court in Washington, D.C. That court, though, refused to hear the case. So they hit on the strategy of tackling it through the Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulated travel across state lines.
A hearing examiner for the ICC rejected the case, too. But Roundtree asked U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of New York to intervene and press for a hearing from the full commission. The commission gave in.
When they first met Keys, her attorneys had been worried about how she would hold up under aggressive questioning. But in an ICC hearing, the young private, in uniform, testified calmly.
“And what Dovey saw was, I would say, a coming of age, on the part of Sarah Keys,” McCabe said.
It took years, from the time of her arrest to a final decision in 1955, but they won.
McCabe said it's hard to overstate the importance of the Keys case, and a companion ICC case involving railroad travel. It struck at the heart of the doctrine that allowed things to be segregated by race.
“It is the only — now, every word here matters — Keys versus Carolina Coach Company is the only explicit repudiation of the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ by any court or administrative body in the area of interstate transportation,” McCabe said.
“I like to be remembered as someone who helped somebody along the way."
The decision was announced just days before Rosa Parks was famously arrested in Alabama for not giving up her seat, bringing attention to the fight against segregation on city buses.
Roundtree, who died in 2018, regarded the Keys case as her greatest legacy. She spoke at her alma mater, Spelman College, in 1995.
“And now we get on the bus and travel — ha! — as if it’s nothing,” she said. “Time was, you sat in the back seat or you went to jail. Sarah Keys went to jail. And now, no more. For the law is you cannot be segregated or discriminated against on an interstate bus."
Despite its significance, Keys v. Carolina Coach Company didn’t receive nearly as much attention as some other landmark civil rights cases.
McCabe says in part that’s because it wasn’t argued before the Supreme Court and because it took years for the federal government to actually enforce it.
But now it is getting more recognition, with the memorial in the Roanoke Rapids park, Nathan’s upcoming book about Keys, and the new state historical marker — right in front of that bus station.
“I like to be remembered as someone who helped somebody along the way,” Keys said in the recording. “I like pioneer, trailblazer, you know? For me, I like those terms."
And now, she's a trailblazer more people will know about.
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