Sarah Keys: The Army Veteran Who Was Arrested for Refusing to Give Her Seat to a White Marine in 1952

Sarah keys was an African American Army veteran and major figure in the civil rights movement in the United States who was arrested and jailed for refusing to give her seat to a white marine in 1952.

Sarah Keys: The Army Veteran Who Was Arrested for Refusing to Give Her Seat to a White Marine in 1952

Born in 1928 in Washington, North Carolina, Sarah Louise Keys was the daughter of David Keys, a Navy veteran of World War I. Enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps in 1951, she completed her training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, and served at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

As a Private First Class on August 1, 1952, Keys traveled from Fort Dix to her family’s home in North Carolina via a Carolina Coach Company bus. When the bus stopped to change drivers, the new bus driver demanded that Keys relinquish her seat to a white Marine. Keys, weary from her journey, refused to yield to the indignity of segregation.

During a stop for a driver change, the new bus driver insisted that Keys give up her seat to a white Marine. Despite her exhaustion from the trip, Keys staunchly refused to succumb to the degrading practice of segregation.

The bus driver, adhering to the discriminatory laws of the time, called the police, and Keys was arrested for her act of defiance and spent 13 hours alone in a jail cell in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. She was then ordered to pay a $25 fine for disorderly conduct.

Sarah Keys: The Army Veteran Who Was Arrested for Refusing to Give Her Seat to a White Marine in 1952

The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), a leading organization in the civil rights movement, recognized the significance of Keys’ stand against racial injustice and took up her case. Frank Reeves, who was then the head of the Washington DC office of the NAACP, referred Sarah Keys to Dovey Roundtree due to Roundtree’s own experiences with bus segregation during her World War II WAC service.

After several dismissals and rejections, Dovey Roundtree’s courage and determination eventually led to significant legal victories in the fight against segregation. In 1955, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ruled against segregated seating on interstate buses and trains, and in September 1961 put a permanent end to segregation in travel across state lines.

Sarah Keys: The Army Veteran Who Was Arrested for Refusing to Give Her Seat to a White Marine in 1952
Sarah Keys (middle) in the Women’s Army Corps basic training. Photo courtesy of Mrs. Sarah Keys Evans

In 1958, Sarah Keys married George Evans, and together they continued to advocate for civil rights and equality. In recognition of her courage and contributions, the city of Roanoke Rapids in North Carolina declared August 1 as “Sarah Keys Evans Day” in 2020, honoring her legacy and ensuring that her story remains etched in history.

Keys passed away on November 16, 2023, at the age of 95, leaving behind a legacy of courage, resilience, and commitment to equality.

Although her name may not be as widely recognized as other civil rights icons, Sarah Louise Keys’ contributions to the struggle for equality remain profound and enduring and helped pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

After learning about the Sarah Keys, read about Isaac Woodard, the African-American Veteran Who Was Attacked and Blinded by Police Officers in 1946 for arguing with a white man

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora

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