Postcard

A postcard from the North Carolina State Archives shows the old Roanoke Rapids bus terminal, which was built in 1941.

ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C. — An act of civil disobedience soon will be recognized with a new North Carolina Highway Historical Marker in Roanoke Rapids.

The marker commemorates the actions of Sarah Keys and the subsequent lawsuit in 1952 that shaped the federal prohibition of segregation during interstate travel.

Keys v. Carolina Coach Company arose from an incident in August 1952. Keys, an African American woman and member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) stationed in New Jersey, was traveling by bus to her hometown of Washington, N.C. At the Roanoke Rapids Trailways terminal, a new driver ordered her to move from her seat to the back of the bus in deference to a white Marine. Keys refused and was arrested on disorderly conduct charges following the dispute. Her arrest was upheld by North Carolina courts.

Keys and her father brought the case to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which assigned the case to Dovey Johnson Roundtree, herself a former African American WAC who had undergone a similar ordeal in 1943. Roundtree and her law partner, Julius Winfield Robertson, sued both Carolina Trailways and the Northern company from which Keys had purchased the ticket. Three years later, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ruled on the case and the companion (railway) case, NAACP v. St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, in 1955. According to news reports, the ICC applied the logic used in the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case, to end the practice of bus seating based on the “separate but equal” doctrine derived from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and upon which Carolina Trailways based its defense. In both 1955 rulings, the ICC determined that the Interstate Commerce Act prohibited segregation.

While the case established a legal precedent, Keys v. Carolina Coach nearly faded into obscurity as a significant moment in civil rights history. It was overshadowed by the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, which began weeks later. But its importance was recognized by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who cited both Keys v. Carolina Coach and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1960 decision Boynton v. Virginia, which ended segregation in transportation terminals, in a May 1961 petition urging the ICC to enforce desegregation policy within interstate travel.

The marker, placed near the bus station’s former location at 1118 Roanoke Ave., in Roanoke Rapids, will be unveiled during a ceremony on Saturday, Jan. 15 at 2 p.m. Additional information about the marker can be found at http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=E-127.

For more information about North Carolina Highway Historical Markers, contact Ansley Wegner at ansley.wegner@ncdcr.gov.

About the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR) is the state agency with a vision to be the leader in using the state's natural and cultural resources to build the social, cultural, educational and economic future of North Carolina. NCDNCR's mission is to improve the quality of life in our state by creating opportunities to experience excellence in the arts, history, libraries and nature in North Carolina by stimulating learning, inspiring creativity, preserving the state's history, conserving the state's natural heritage, encouraging recreation and cultural tourism, and promoting economic development.

 

NCDNCR includes 27 historic sites, seven history museums, two art museums, three science museums, three aquariums and Jennette's Pier, 41 state parks and recreation areas, the N.C. Zoo, the N.C. Symphony Orchestra, the State Library, the State Archives, the N.C. Arts Council, the African American Heritage Commission, State Preservation Office and the Office of State Archaeology, and the Division of Land and Water Stewardship. For more information, please visit www.ncdcr.gov.