As a substitute teacher at a New York City Charter School, I have the privilege of teaching a variety of subjects for 5th-8th graders. This week my coverage involved a 6th Grade History class. Once my scholars were working on their assignment, I took a break and asked the class, “Does anyone know who Rosa Parks is?” All twenty-two students raised their hands with confidence. I then asked the class, “Does anyone know who Claudette Colvin is?” One boy shyly raised his hand and questioned if it had anything to do with Black History. One girl raised her hand and stated, “She was a 15-year old girl who sat in the middle of the bus during the Civil Rights Movement and was arrested before Rosa Parks.”
If so many of our students are aware of Rosa Parks’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, why are so few familiar Claudette Colvin?
Claudette Colvin was a Civil Rights activist born on September 5, 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama. On March 2, 1955, at the age of 15, she was riding home on a city bus from school when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Claudette believed that because she had paid her fare like everyone else riding the bus, it was her constitutional right to sit wherever she wanted to. As a result of her act of civil disobedience, she was handcuffed, involuntarily removed from the bus and arrested on several charges–including violating the city’s segregation laws.
The NAACP considered using Colvin’s case to challenge the segregation laws, but decided against it because of her age. Colvin also became pregnant around the time of her arrest and they felt an unwed mother would attract too much negative attention in a public legal battle. Her son, Raymond, was born in December 1955.
Prior to her trial, Claudette was considered to be a very quiet student in school who earned mostly A’s. Even though she pleaded not guilty, the court ruled against her and put her on probation. The sentence was very light for the Jim Crow South but it was impossible for her to escape the court of public opinion. The once quiet student was now identified a troublemaker by some. Societal consequences continued to follow her throughout life; she dropped out of college and she had trouble finding a job.
Despite her personal challenges, Colvin became one of the four plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case. The decision in the 1956 case ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.
Two years later Colvin moved to New York City where she had her second son, and worked as a nurse’s aide at a Manhattan nursing home. She retired in 2004.
As teachers, students learn from us in the classroom. It is pivotal that the material we teach goes beyond the textbook and encourages curiosity. Next time Black History Month comes around or your unit is covering Women’s Rights, take the time out to drift beyond the Rosa Parks narrative and educate your students on the many revolutionaries that have changed society. Rosa Parks was just one of the few women who refused to give up her seat and let’s keep in mind that before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin. There are a number of resources available for finding information about other lesser known Black History figures. We love the Zinn Education Project and our Facebook page is filled with Black facts. We encourage you to check them out!
by Chaquenya Johnson, an Urban Policy Analysis & Management degree candidate at the New School for Public Engagement