Irene Morgan; A Daring Act, A Humble Life

The story is familiar. An African American woman boards a bus in the segregated South and sits in the back, as required by law. The bus fills and the driver demands that she give up her seat to white riders. The woman refuses—an audacious act, defying decades of Jim Crow customs—and for her insolence she is arrested and taken to jail. The scene? Southeastern Virginia, eleven years before Rosa Parks’s arrest sparked the infamous Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In fact, long before Rosa Parks earned her well-deserved place in history, there were many other women like her whose identical act of civil disobedience–refusing to give up a seat for white passengers–laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement. Their courage is not accorded the honor it deserves. Their graves are not decorated, their lives passed over by history books. Indeed, some of the names and stories have been lost. A precious few, however, still remain: Elizabeth Jennings, Claudette Colvin, Irene Morgan.

Morgan is not a household name, but that’s how she preferred it. Her daring act of July 16, 1944, however, belied her humble demeanor. On that day, Morgan boarded a bus in Gloucester County bound for Baltimore, her hometown, and unwittingly made history. Although she sat four rows from the back, in the section designated for African Americans, the driver requested that first Morgan and then the woman sitting next to her move for a white couple that boarded about fifteen minutes into the trip.

Morgan, then a 27-year-old mother of two, had taken her children to stay with her mother in Gloucester and was returning to Baltimore to see a doctor. She not only told the driver that she wasn’t going to give up her seat, but she encouraged the woman beside her, who held an infant, to stay put, too. When the bus stopped in Saluda in Middlesex County, a sheriff’s deputy boarded, but Morgan wouldn’t budge. The deputy served her a warrant for her arrest, which she promptly tore to pieces. Morgan told a Washington Post reporter in 2000 that when the deputy tried to arrest her, she kicked him “in a very bad place.” A second deputy arrested Morgan only after a physical confrontation.

Authorities charged Morgan with resisting arrest. She pleaded guilty and paid a fine. But for the second charge, violating Virginia’s segregation laws, Morgan refused to admit guilt. After all, she had been sitting in the section for African Americans. Morgan’s arrest caught the attention of the NAACP, and a young Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African American Supreme Court justice, was one of the lawyers who took on Morgan’s case.

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The Middlesex County Courthouse in Saluda, VA. Top right: the small black window at ground level between the AC units is probably where Morgan was detained after resisting arrest.

The Supreme Court banned segregated interstate travel in its ruling on Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia. Still, many states in the South refused to comply with this decision and years later, civil rights pioneers launched the so-called Freedom Rides inspired in part by Morgan’s case.

After her first husband died, she remarried in 1949, becoming Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, and lived a quiet life with her husband in New York City. In the last few years of her life, Morgan moved to Hayes in Gloucester County with her daughter, Brenda Bacquie, who still resides there along with several close and extended family members. “It was always her dream to return to Gloucester,” says Bacquie. “She was overjoyed when we returned here.” An exhibit at the Gloucester Museum of History now pays tribute to the place Morgan was happy to call home.

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Left: The Irene Morgan exhibit at the Gloucester County History Museum. Right: Morgan’s Presidential Citizen’s Award medal.

Morgan shunned the spotlight for half a century, electing instead to give quietly to her community, providing money and assistance for children and homeless people. Only late in her life, at the urging of family members, did Morgan publicly acknowledge the importance of her defiant act. She was featured in a 1995 public television documentary called You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow. In 2000, during the county’s 350th anniversary celebration, the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution honoring Morgan for “having the strength, courage and fortitude to take a true and powerful stand against barriers to equality for minority groups.” In the years following, she received both the Presidential Citizen’s Award, personally presented by Bill Clinton, and the Oliver W. Hill Freedom Fighter Award. Last year, a historical marker was dedicated in Saluda where authorities arrested, detained and tried Morgan.

Still, Morgan’s defiant deed that knocked some overdue sense into our segregated nation seems under-appreciated. She is little known on the streets of Baltimore where she spent so much of her life. The Middlesex County Courthouse is not frequented by Civil Rights Movement tourists, as are some better-known sites. Her grave in Gloucester County, Virginia is simple, quiet, unadorned. When she died in 2007 at the age of 90, Morgan left behind a nation that owes her, and all the lesser-known heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, a debt of gratitude.

 Irene Morgan Grave

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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