Unfortunately, at the time it was felt that Claudette Colvin was not the ideal representative for Black Rights, and she was considered too young and strong-willed to be a symbol of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As a result, her justified act of defiance and critical contribution to the end of segregation is often overlooked by many.
Anna Murray-Douglass and Claudette Colvin are little-known figures in African-American history, often being left out of narratives involving prominent contributions towards black liberation. Anna Murray-Douglass grew up in the 19th century as the first emancipated child to her newly-freed parents. While she played a pivotal role in American history, most of us know her husband Frederick Douglass as a household name, and literally nothing of her role in his freedom. Anna was not just the woman behind the man; she is literally the entire reason that we all learn about Frederick Douglass in grade school.
Anna met her husband when he was working (under slavery) as a ship caulker and helped him succeed in his second attempt to escape by buying his train ticket north and providing his disguise. As a newly-free man, Frederick married his rescuer and became the abolitionist leader that eventually published The North Star. The publication’s motto was: “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.” But how many of us learned that Anne was the force behind her husband’s freedom? In the beginning of their marriage, Anna provided financial support for her family working as a cobbler and laundress when her husband’s income was not sufficient to care for their five children. This was in no way due to lack of effort on her husband’s part; Frederick struggled to provide as well and eventually their family became financially successful due to both of their contributions. But even though Anna later provided a safe harbor for a stop on the Underground Railroad and should have rightfully carved her own place in history as a civil rights activist and abolitionist, she lived as most women did at the time—in the shadow of all men.
In another interesting example of a gap in our childhood Black History lessons, many don’t know that Rosa Parks wasn’t the first to be arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. The first person to do this was actually arrested nine months before Parks. Claudette Colvin grew up with her adoptive parents in a poor segregated neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama. She grew up in a world where even though the 15th amendment was half a century passed and the women’s right to vote was newly established, she was not allowed to drink from a white fountain or touch a white person. She had enough of it in 1955 when the driver of her bus told her and her pregnant seat mate, Ruth Hamilton, to get up and stand in the back so a non-pregnant white woman could have their seat. Ruth objected first, saying that she had paid her fare and did not feel like standing. Colvin refused as well. A man behind the two made way so that he could stand in place of her and her pregnant seat mate, but Colvin still refused, stating that it was her Constitutional right. She was arrested, and convicted of violating segregation law, assault—which was denied by witnesses—and disturbing the peace.