In Virginia, a History of Protests by Black Transit Riders

Long before Rosa Parks made history in Alabama, our area saw acts of civil disobedience on segregated buses and trains.
Bus Riders

Two girls at D.C.’s Greyhound bus terminal in 1941. (Photo by John Vachon/Library of Congress FSA 8C20621)

On March 6, 1933, Miller Brockett was cooling his heels in the Arlington County jail. As far as law enforcement was concerned, the 23-year-old Black resident of Arlington’s Halls Hill neighborhood had committed a crime—assaulting a bus driver who’d ordered him to move to the back of a bus in accordance with Virginia’s segregationist Jim Crow laws. Brockett saw his act as a form of righteous protest.

According to a Washington Post report, the incident occurred aboard a bus that started out in Washington, D.C., then crossed over Key Bridge into Rosslyn, at which point the driver told Brockett to change seats. Brockett refused, and when the bus stopped in Halls Hill, he allegedly struck the driver and fled. (Documents indicating the length of his jail sentence and whether he was fined are elusive.)

Brockett wasn’t the only Black transit rider in the area to resist segregated seating. In fact, many did so long before Rosa Parks’ famous 1955 act of defiance in Montgomery, Alabama.

In January 1946, officers removed Alfred and Anna Marshall, who lived in Nauck (now Green Valley), from an Alexandria, Barcroft & Washington Transit Co. bus for refusing to move to the rear, the Post reported. The Marshalls’ case went to court, where their defense attorney was James H. Raby—a prominent Black lawyer who rose to fame later that same year when he defended activist Lottie Taylor, who had similarly refused to relinquish her bus seat in Fairfax County. The Taylor case made it to the Virginia Supreme Court, which in 1948 ruled in Taylor’s favor and desegregated bus travel in the commonwealth.

Other acts of protest took place before there were buses. Decades earlier, in August 1906, D.C. resident Barbara Pope boarded a train at Union Station that was heading west to a resort town in Loudoun County. As Pope’s train crossed into Virginia, the conductor instructed her to move out of the white section. She refused and was taken off the train in Falls Church, precipitating a landmark state court decision that determined interstate travelers could not be fined under segregationist state laws.

According to D.C.-based historical writer and author David A. Taylor (no relation to Lottie), Pope testified in court that she had “been annoyed before” by Jim Crow laws and “didn’t want to be annoyed again.”

“Pope’s spirit of activism,” Taylor says, “infused following generations with the conviction that principled civil disobedience can achieve victories for civil rights.”

Categories: Local History