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RENE MORGAN was feeling poorly the muggy July morning when her refusal to bow to bigotry would alter history.

Still recovering from a miscarriage, she boarded a crowded Greyhound bus at a crossroads stop in Gloucester, Virginia, bound for Baltimore. She walked back to the fourth row from the rear, well within the section where segregation laws required black passengers to sit. She picked an aisle seat beside a young mother holding an infant. A few miles up the road, the driver ordered the two black women to stand so a young white couple could take their seats.

But Irene Morgan said no, a bold and dangerous act of defiance and dignity in rural Virginia or anywhere in the South of 1944.

“I can’t see how anybody in the same circumstances could do otherwise,” recalled Morgan, brushing off suggestions that she did something brave. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’d paid for my seat; I was sitting where I was supposed to.”

Eleven years before Rosa Parks refused to cede her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus and sparked a new chapter in the civil rights movement, Irene Morgan’s spirited and unflinching “No” was a stick of dynamite in a cornerstone of institutionalized segregation.

Her arrest and $10 fine were appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court by a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, resulting in a landmark 1946 decision striking down Jim Crow segregation in interstate transportation. She inspired the first Freedom Ride in 1947, when 16 civil rights activists rode buses and trains through the South to test the law enunciated in Morgan v. Virginia.

But Morgan’s name and her contribution have been all but forgotten, reduced to little more than a footnote in the history books. Even many scholars of African-American history have never heard of Morgan or her case.

Now an 83-year-old great-grandmother living on Long Island, Irene Morgan Kirkaldy will have a measure of her legacy restored Saturday in Gloucester. The town where she got on the bus and challenged an ugly fact of life for black Americans will honor her with a day called “A Homecoming for Irene Morgan.” Four scholarships will be established in her name.

Even in Gloucester, a town in which her family has deep roots dating back to slavery, Morgan’s is not a household name. Volunteers researching local history for the county’s 350th anniversary next year came across her connection to Gloucester by chance. Testing her name recognition, they asked everyone they knew whether they’d ever heard of Irene Morgan. They got blank looks.


“It’s the most amazing story,” said Jann Alexander, who is coordinating the homecoming. “She’s a role model for our children and a link to our past. When I think about honoring someone who made such a sacrifice, I get all choked up.”

Morgan’s story began on a Grey-hound bus in 1944, when many of the pillars of segregation already were under attack.

As World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific, the black press in this country was urging a “double V campaign” for victory against the enemies abroad and the enemies at home. Black GIs who had fought for freedom overseas returned home with a heightened sensitivity to their lack of freedom here. There were numerous incidents in which black soldiers were shot, beaten, or forcibly ejected from buses and trains for sitting in sections reserved for whites or taking too long at a rest stop.

Throughout the South, with little national attention, many blacks were refusing to vacate their seats in individual acts of resistance.

“Rosa Parks deserves a great deal of credit for turning the tide, but there were many Rosa Parkses and a big number of Irene Morgans, too,” said Leon F. Litwack, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.

Unlike Parks, however, Morgan was not seeking a showdown. Her Seventh-day Adventist family eschewed all signs of aggrandizement, such as jewelry and makeup, and stressed the need to act righteously and trust in God. The sixth of nine children who were just two generations free of slavery, she came of age during the Depression. Her father did whatever work he could find, from painting houses to mowing lawns. Morgan drifted in and out of high school, depending on whether she had a job cleaning houses, washing clothes, or caring for the children of white people.

“We were born into a segregated world,” said Morgan’s slightly younger sister, James Laforest, who was named after an uncle. “From birth, we knew there were certain things that could not be. We were persona non grata in certain stores downtown. But we stayed away from confrontation. Our family instilled in us to do the best we could, because one day this, too, would be gone.”

Morgan was 27 in the summer of 1944. She had left her daughter and son with her mother in Gloucester so she could return home to Baltimore for a checkup after the miscarriage. The events of that day roll off her tongue as vividly as if they had happened an hour ago instead of 56 years ago.

Dressed for travel, as people did in those days, she was wearing a nice dress and high-heeled shoes when she bought her $5 ticket from the “Colored” window at Haye’s grocery store.

A half hour or so out of Gloucester, a white couple boarded. The driver ordered Morgan and her seatmate to move. Not only did Morgan refuse to budge, but she refused to let the woman next to her relinquish her seat.

“Where do you think you’re going with that baby in your arms?” Morgan recalls telling her.

Faced with two recalcitrant passengers who refused to be intimidated into obeying the day’s segregation mores and law, the driver headed into the Middlesex County town of Saluda and stopped outside the jail. A sheriff’s deputy came aboard and told Morgan that he had a warrant for her arrest.

She ripped it up and threw it out the window.

“I hadn’t done anything wrong,” she said.

But after her cavalier shredding of the warrant, the deputy grasped her arm to yank her off the bus.

“He touched me,” she said. “That’s when I kicked him in a very bad place. He hobbled off, and another one came on. He was trying to put his hands on me to get me off. I was going to bite him, but he was dirty, so I clawed him instead. I ripped his shirt. We were both pulling at each other. He said he’d use his nightstick. I said, “We’ll whip each other.”

To this day, she recalls no grander purpose in mind than doing what the moment called for.

“I was just minding my own business,” says Morgan, whose face shows few signs of age and whose hair is just beginning to be salted with white. “I’d paid my money. I was sitting where I was supposed to sit. And I wasn’t going to take it.”

Dragged off the bus and thrown in jail, she yelled out the barred window to ask some passing black youths to call a local minister and have him contact her mother. Within an hour her mother arrived to post a hefty $500 bail.

Morgan’s trial was held in Middlesex Circuit Court. Two details stood out to Morgan: The court was packed with black and white spectators sitting side by side, and on the courthouse door was posted a charter for the Ku Klux Klan.

Morgan pleaded guilty to the charge of resisting arrest and was fined $100. But she refused to plead guilty to violating Virginia’s segregation law.

Her attorney, the late Spottswood Robinson III, of Richmond, made the practical argument that segregation laws unfairly impeded interstate commerce. Robinson, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, purposely did not make the moral argument that segregation laws were unfair under the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection.

“The Supreme Court wasn’t ready to take that argument,” said U.S. District Judge Robert Carter, who as a young NAACP lawyer assisted Robinson. “The case was significant in that what we were trying to do was break down segregation.”

Still, Morgan was found guilty and fined $10.

She never heard the appeals argued on her behalf by two NAACP lawyers: Marshall and William Hastie, the dean of Howard Law School, which was at the center of the civil rights struggle.

In a 6-1 decision handed down June 3, 1946, the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s segregation statute on buses traveling from one state to another.

Robinson telephoned Morgan to tell her about the ruling.

“We all laughed and said, ‘She won,’” recalled Laforest. “We were so proud of her. It was a big step, not only for Irene but for all black people. And not just for my race, but for the people of America.”

Although the Morgan case was front-page news and Greyhound immediately ordered its drivers not to enforce segregation, change did not come overnight.

A year later, eight white and eight black activists with the newly formed Congress of Racial Equality set off on a two-week “Journey of Reconciliation” through four Southern states to explain and test the Morgan decision.

On buses and trains, they sang a song they called “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!”

    “On June the third the High Court said,
    When you ride interstate Jim Crow is dead.
    Get on the bus, sit anyplace,
    ’Cause Irene Morgan won her case.
    You don’t have to ride Jim Crow.”

Along the way, however, 12 of them were arrested on six occasions for sitting together, black and white, in both the front and back of the bus and refusing drivers’ orders to segregate.

“The decision of June 3, 1946, outlawed segregation in interstate travel, but June 4 was pretty much the same as June 2,” said Robin Washington, who produced an award-winning documentary on the Journey of Reconciliation. “On the other hand, the decision certainly laid the groundwork for changing everything. We may not know it, but we owe a lot to Irene Morgan.”

As Morgan gets the recognition that so long eluded her, it may be tempting to consider her a remarkable woman for one long-ago heroic act. But friends and family say her whole life has been about doing right and good.

“She takes on otherwise Herculean efforts, but only when conflict touches her and her family,” said her granddaughter Aleah Bacquie. “She doesn’t seek it out.”

ver the past five decades, Morgan has led a quiet but extraordinary life. Widowed by her first husband, she married Stanley Kirkaldy, a dry cleaner, in 1949. Her two children from her first marriage have given her five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

For many years, she ran her own business providing maid service and child care in Queens. But she always dreamed of continuing her education. So after winning a scholarship in a radio contest, she earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from St. John’s University in 1985—at age 68. She was awarded a master’s degree in urban studies from Queens College in 1990—at age 73.

She has continued to inspire her family with acts grand and neighborly. In Baltimore, she passed out petitions demanding an end to school segregation without telling anyone who she is. She wrote to the pope seeking his intervention in the case of a Haitian whose children had been barred from parochial school. She rescued a neighborhood boy from a burning building. Every Thanksgiving, she invites two homeless residents over for dinner and laundry.

“She always taught us that if you know you’re right, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” said her daughter, Brenda Bacquie. “It’s a moral thing. It’s something you have to do. She doesn’t see herself as a hero. She saw something that had to be done, and she rushed in, like all heroes.”

Morgan is unruffled about being overlooked in the pantheon of civil rights heroes. Even her neighbors have no clue who she is.

“It never bothered me, not being in front,” she said demurely. “If there’s a job to be done, you do it and get it over with and go on to the next thing.”

She remains a private woman, reserved and modest in an age when neither attribute is valued much. When Howard University wanted to award her an honorary doctorate, she declined, saying, “Oh, no, I didn’t earn it.”

© 2000, Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.

Carol Morello is a staff writer for the Washington Post. Post staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

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© 2000, Adventist Review.