This Day in History

July 16, 1944: Irene Morgan Refuses to Change Seats on Bus

Time Periods: 1920
Themes: African American, Democracy & Citizenship, Laws & Citizen Rights, Women's History

On July 16, 1944, Irene Morgan defied Virginia authorities by refusing to change her seat on a segregated bus in Virginia. Morgan was traveling from Virginia to Maryland, when she was told by authorities that she had to move to the back of the bus.

On her way for a doctor’s appointment and already sitting in the area designated for Black passengers, she defied the driver’s order to surrender her seat to a white couple. She stated that because it was an interstate bus, the laws of Virginia did not apply.

Washington Afro-American cover with Irene Morgan.

Her act of self-defense is explained at the Jim Crow Museum website,

When handed an arrest warrant, she tore it up and tossed it out the window. One of the officers swore at her and tried to grab her arm to physically remove her from the bus. According to Morgan:

“He touched me. 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.”4

After being subdued, she was dragged off the bus, and locked in the Middlesex County jail. Morgan shouted through the bars to ask someone to tell the local minister to call her mother. Continue reading.

Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP took on her case and in 1946 the Supreme Court ruling, the court stated in part,

It seems clear to us that seating arrangements for the different races in interstate motor travel require a single, uniform rule to promote and protect national travel. Consequently, we hold the Virginia statute in controversy invalid.

Southern states refused to enforce the decision, leading to the Freedom Rides. Learn more in the article “Irene M. Kirkaldy: Case Spurred Freedom Rides.

Also read about school teacher Elizabeth Jennings in 1854 New York, another story on #tdih that pre-dates the Montgomery Bus Boycott of resistance to segregated travel. Read about many more Transportation Protests: 1841 to 1992