Robin Washington column: Irene Morgan remembered — and why we have historic markersEditor’s note: On Saturday, a historic marker was dedicated in Saluda, Va., to Irene Morgan, who died at 90 in 2007. Eleven years before Rosa Parks, Morgan refused to give up her seat to a white couple on an interstate bus, leading to a 1946 Supreme Court case that found segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. News Tribune editor Robin Washington, who produced a television documentary about her and the early Civil Rights Movement, was asked to speak at the dedication. Here are his comments — and a postscript.
Editor’s note: On Saturday, a historic marker was dedicated in Saluda, Va., to Irene Morgan, who died at 90 in 2007. Eleven years before Rosa Parks, Morgan refused to give up her seat to a white couple on an interstate bus, leading to a 1946 Supreme Court case that found segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. News Tribune editor Robin Washington, who produced a television documentary about her and the early Civil Rights Movement, was asked to speak at the dedication. Here are his comments — and a postscript.
SALUDA, Va. — If you drive up the George Washington Memorial Highway from Hayes Store to the Middlesex County Courthouse here — the trip Irene Morgan took almost 70 years ago — you’ll see a lot of historic markers. You’ll also see there’s already one about the courthouse.
Why do we need historic markers?
Well, some of you may have seen the documentary I produced about Irene Morgan and the 1947 Freedom Ride that followed. I learned about the history when I was working at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group with headquarters in an old mansion in Nyack, N.Y. I would explore its archives in the basement to learn about the fascinating people who worked there long before me — including George Houser, Jim Farmer and Bayard Rustin, all early architects of the Civil Rights Movement.
I was drinking in this history when a new caretaker suggested naming the rooms after some of its great people, and asked me for ideas for its two kitchens. I immediately said, “John Nevin Sayre and A.J. Muste.” A few days later I was giving an orientation to a new intern and excitedly mentioned their names. She said: “A.J. Muste — that’s the guy the kitchen is named after!”
That’s why we have markers, and that’s why the road is the George Washington Memorial Highway. If you don’t know what he did here and why it’s important, maybe, like the A.J. Muste Kitchen, you’ll be inspired to look it up.
I’ve got nothing against George, but for me, the route from Hayes Store to this spot is the Irene Morgan Highway. It’s a journey as significant as the one Washington took to give this country life, and make it great. I encourage you to travel it, and imagine it in 1944.
Back then it had no strip malls and less connection to the surrounding communities. Irene Morgan would have been almost alone on the bus when she boarded. It would get more crowded as it rode through Gloucester County — and if I am correct about the demographics then and today, the color of the riders would change as it went. You can see how once the driver determined he had trouble after she refused to give up her seat (and she was already in the back) he’d have to know about the courthouse ahead at the bend in the road. That’s why we’re at Middlesex County Courthouse today, not Gloucester County’s.
Maybe that’s an accident of history, but is it an accident? Are there any? When my documentary first aired on television in Boston, a woman named Ginny Boyd saw it. She also had a connection to Gloucester County, and was at a meeting to plan Gloucester’s 350th anniversary celebration where they were discussing whatever important had happened there. She raised her hand and said, “Irene Morgan got on the bus at Hayes Store” — all from having seen one second on the screen in a shot of a letter from Thurgood Marshall addressed to Morgan, “care of Hayes Store.” Ginny’s quick eye led to a marvelous celebration honoring of Irene in 1999, as really, the most important thing that had happened in Gloucester County in 350 years, and leading to her place in history books.
Today, we make that history a little more official, but we’re not done yet. With the massive amount of historical records now on the Internet, we are on the verge of learning so much more. “Where are you going with that baby in your arms?” Irene asked of the other black woman sitting next to her, headed for Ardmore, Penn. Maybe soon, we’ll know who she was — and maybe that baby is here with us today, or not far from that road outside.
There are no accidents in history. Irene Morgan may not have known she’d help spark the Civil Rights Movement, one of the few completely reformative, sustaining, nonviolent revolutions in human history. But she knew her dignity was worth a struggle on a bus and a cell in the jail here. Our job today is to mark her history and thank her — and never forget — how she changed this road and country forever.
Postscript: Those were my comments as written, though at times I departed from the script. One change I hadn’t anticipated, however, was that among the attendees — including dignitaries such as NAACP national president Ben Jealous — was a gentleman whose very presence answered a question I’d asked. He was the nephew of the woman on the bus with Morgan — a living bridge to history much closer than we think.
Robin Washington may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about Irene Morgan may be found at www.robinwashington.com/jimcrow.