Unsung civil rights pioneer seeks to clear name after 60 years in NYC

NEW YORK (PIX11) – When Rosa Parks bravely refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in 1955, her courageous action was widely recognized as the beginning of the civil rights movement. But nine months before that, another brave African American – a 15-year-old girl – was doing the same thing, in the same city in Alabama.

Not only has Claudette Colvin never received the same level of recognition as Parks, but her daring act, which was considered criminal at the time, has remained on her record. It all happened in Alabama, but the 15-year-old who fought for his rights there at the time ended up becoming a New Yorker for most of his adult life.

She is now back in Alabama, 66 years later, struggling to get her record cleared after all this time. She has cited her life in New York as a blessing for her situation. “I should not have been arrested,” Colvin said in an interview last week, “because I did not break the law.”

She spoke after submitting papers and called for her conviction for assaulting a police officer to be deleted from her journal. She struggled with an officer while being arrested for refusing to give up her seat in a bus to a white girl, and was given indefinite probation for the incident in March 1955. It created some attention at the time and even helped inspire local activists, led by Pastor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, to begin the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

But in part because of the scrutiny she faced, Colvin could not find work in Alabama after high school. She ended up moving to the Bronx, where she lived for more than six decades, until a year or so ago.

Pilar Villafane lived across the hall from Colvin in an apartment building in the Parkchester neighborhood, calling Colvin his “best friend” in the complex. “Why should they give her a hard time?” said Villafane. “She’s a lovely person.”

Colvin had only visited Alabama occasionally after moving to New York, and each time she was there, she and her family were concerned for her safety as she still had the indefinite probationary period on her post. It had been on her juvenile registry, and as a result, it could not be officially enforced after Colvin grew up.

However, she had never been informed about it and now wants to make sure that it is deleted from even her youth folder. Colvin’s story was largely forgotten until 2009, when a book entitled “Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice” by Phillip Hoose shed new light on her bravery.

In the book, as well as in other interviews and articles, Colvin has credited New York City for giving her a lifeline and strength to handle new fights. She found work for decades as a nursing assistant at a Manhattan nursing home, and she became active in 1199 SEIU, the city’s union representing health professionals.

New York City also renamed a block in Colvin’s honor. The intersection of East Tremont Avenue and Unionport Road has a street sign with her name on it.

Now, recently returning to the South, Colvin said she strikes back strongly by getting her record cleared. Both the mayor and the district attorney in Montgomery have said it is anything but a given that Colvin’s record will soon be erased.

As for her, she said it is a necessary step to further influence change beyond herself. “It may not benefit you,” she said, “but it will benefit the next generation.”


Leave a Comment