In 1952, two African-American military women
challenged segregation law to end Jim Crow policies on interstate
Sarah Keys was on leave, traveling in uniform on a bus from New
Jersey home to her home in North Carolina. When the bus reached
Roanoke Rapids, NC, after midnight, there was a
change of drivers. The new bus driver requested that PVT
Keys, seated toward the front of the bus, exchange seats with
a white Marine, also in uniform, seated near the back of the
Keys refused. She was arrested, detained overnight
in jail, and fined $25. Convicted of disorderly conduct, Keys began
a legal battle against discrimination and prejudice.
Johnson Roundtree, a former WAC officer and then an attorney in
Washington, DC, agreed to take the Keys case. In 1942, Roundtree
had volunteered for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) at
the advice of her mentor, Mary McLeod Bethune. (Bethune had worked
for years to desegregate the militaryboth men's and women's
services and actively recruited qualified African-American candidates.)
Roundtree became one of 36 African-American
women to graduate in the Army's first class of commissioned officers.
After World War II, she attended Howard University Law school
on the GI Bill, one of the school's first female students.
Johnson Roundtree and her partner Julius Robertson initially filed
suit for Keys in the US District Court for the District of Columbia
in Oct. 1952, but the court decided the suit was out of their
jurisdiction and refused to hear the case.
Roundtree then filed suit with the Interstate
Commerce Commission (ICC). The suit, Keys
v. North Carolina Coach Company, stated that Keys had experienced unjust discrimination,
undue and unreasonable prejudice, and false arrest and imprisonment
on the basis of race and color.
Finally in 1955, the eleven-man
ICC commission agreed with Keys and Roundtree and reversed the separate-but-equal
Jim Crow policy in force on all interstate transportation since
A few months later in Montgomery,
AL, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus, and
a 381-day boycott ensued. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled
that state and local laws segregating public transportation were