Challenging the System: Two Army Women Fight for Equality

Written by: Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Curator
Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.

In conjunction with the Dedication of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial in October 1997, Army veterans Sarah Keys Evans and Dovey Johnson Roundtree presented a special gift to Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, President of the Women’s Memorial Foundation. In a handsome frame rest documents and photographs which tell how, in 1952, two military women challenged segregation law. Three years later, their challenge resulted in a key civil rights decision in which the Interstate Commerce Commission struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in interstate public bus transportation.

On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order No. 9981, mandating an end to racial discrimination and segregation in the armed forces. To facilitate the order, the Truman Administration formed an executive committee headed by Charles O. Fahy, to prepare and submit a plan for desegregating the services. Almost two years elapsed, however, before the Fahy Committee submitted its final report. In the interim, the services followed established policy regarding recruiting, training and assigning black personnel. In January 1950, the Fahy Committee submitted its report, and the Army issued a new directive entitled, “Utilization of Negro Manpower in the Army.” This directive announced the elimination of quotas, segregated units, and segregated facilities. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) conformed with the Army directive by revising its administrative policies and assignment procedures. By the middle of that year, WAC training and field units, as well as billeting and messing facilities, were integrated.

Sarah Louise Keys
When Sarah Louise Keys of Washington, North Carolina, entered the WAC in 1951, both the Army and the WAC were officially integrated organizations. After completing her training at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, Private Keys was assigned to Ft. Dix, New Jersey, as an information clerk and receptionist at the Army hospital. In August 1952, Private Keys was granted a furlough to visit her parents in Washington, North Carolina, and purchased a bus ticket home. Private Keys traveled in uniform, proud and excited to be going home for the first time since she joined the Army. When the bus reached Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, after midnight, there was a change of drivers. The new bus driver requested that Private Keys, seated toward the front of the bus, exchange seats with a white Marine seated near the back of the bus. Private Keys, who had gained self-assurance from her military experience, refused to move from her seat. The bus driver told his other passengers to move to another bus to complete the journey. He did not allow Private Keys to board the second bus. Instead, she was taken by force to the police station, charged with disorderly conduct, and held in jail overnight. She was not allowed to contact her family. At 3 p.m. the following afternoon she was fined $25.00 and allowed to leave the jail.

Initially, Sarah Keys was shocked by her experience and embarrassed about her arrest. She did not want to talk about it and preferred to forget about it. But her family rallied around her and convinced her that she needed to fight back.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree
The Keys family lost the first round of court battles, and paid court costs on top of the original fine. David A. Keys, a concrete mason and cement finisher, dissatisfied with his daughter’s lawyer, asked his friend William Bowen to recommend legal counsel for his daughter. Bowen suggested Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a lawyer who had been an officer in the WAC during World War II. Dovey Johnson had experienced discrimination when she attempted to apply to the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942. A recruiter in Charlotte, North Carolina, had refused to give her an application. Johnson obtained her application in Richmond, Virginia, and was accepted into the first Officer Candidate School Class of the WAAC. Johnson and 36 other black women were among the first class of women commissioned as officers in the WAAC on August 29, 1942.The Army assigned Johnson as a recruiter for the states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. She and her fellow WAAC recruiters traveled constantly, speaking at high schools, colleges, community meetings, and local radio stations. During her travels, Johnson was, on occasion, forced to deal with local “Jim Crow” laws separating blacks and whites on buses and trains and in waiting rooms and rest rooms. Johnson’s next assignment sent her to the WAAC Training Center at Ft. Des Moines, Iowa, as a training officer. During that time, the WAAC became the Women’s Army Corps and the commander of Ft. Des Moines considered the idea of forming an all black training regiment staffed by black officers. Johnson spoke eloquently against this idea at a staff meeting, and the commander decided not to form an all black regiment. After the war, she attended Howard University Law School and began practicing law in Washington, D.C. One of her former law professors, Frank Reeves, worked for the NAACP in the Washington, D.C. office. When the Keys family approached the NAACP for help, Reeves sent them to Dovey Johnson Roundtree.

The Challenge
Dovey Johnson Roundtree and her partner Julius Robertson initially filed suit for Keys in the US District Court for the District of Columbia in October 1952, but the court refused to hear the suit because it was out of their jurisdiction. Encouraged in her battle by her father, Keys and her lawyers then filed suit with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The suit against the North Carolina Coach Company alleged that Keys had experienced unjust discrimination, undue and unreasonable prejudice, and false arrest and imprisonment on the basis of race and color.

The initial ICC reviewing commissioner declined to accept the case, claiming that the recent Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education “did not preclude segregation in a private business such as a bus company.” Roundtree and Robertson filed exceptions, and they ultimately prevailed in obtaining a review by the full eleven-man commission.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s second Army assignment took her to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, where she worked in the post office. Sarah Keys was discharged from the service in 1953, and made her home in Brooklyn, New York, where she became a beautician. The ICC decision was handed down in November 1955, reversing the “separate but equal” policy which had been followed since 1896. The ICC ruled that black passengers who paid the same amount for rail and bus fare as white passengers must receive the same service, without being shunted into seats reserved only for black

In 1958, Sarah Keys married George Evans, a family counselor with the Bedford Stuyvesant Alcoholism Treatment Center. Her brother, Elijah Keys, became the first black high school teacher employed by the state of Minnesota. He went on to become a college professor, teaching in San Francisco, California. Sarah and George Evans made their home in Brooklyn, New York.

Sarah Keys Evans and Dovey Johnson Roundtree had hoped to be reunited at the 1997 Dedication of the Women’s Memorial, but Ms. Roundtree was unable to come. Speaking about the three-year battle, Sarah Keys Evans said, “I fought [that] battle as a matter of moral decency. There were many trials before triumphs. I learned first hand about mental and physical fear. I am aware of the strain involved when fighting for one’s freedom or human rights. Today I am very much aware of the fact that man must be open-minded and fearless before he can be honest in his assessment of himself or that of his fellow man.”

In a letter to Brigadier General Vaught, Dovey Johnson Roundtree stated, “The ICC’s decision in the case Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company . . . [went] to the very heart of what we as Americans have always fought for in battlegrounds around the world: freedom and justice. Mrs. Evans and I wish the plaque to stand as tribute to all women who, while serving their country in the armed forces, also fought in America’s ‘other war’— the war for civil rights.”

The commemorative plaque is on display at the Women’s Memorial Education Center to remind us all that equal treatment under the law is not something that anyone should take for granted.