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Bettye Rice Hughes, A Negro tourist in Dixie (Review)

January 20, 2012
"Colored" waiting room sign, Roma, Georgia, 1943

Colored Waiting Room sign, Roma, Ga, 1943 (Public Domain: Library of Congress, via Wikipedia)

I have plenty to read at the moment, but when I see a Library of America story come through that is set in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the American South, well, I can’t resist. I’ve never heard of  the author Bettye Rice Hughes, which turns out to be not surprising as the Library of America people don’t know much about her either. In fact, at the end of their brief, but always interesting, introductory notes they write “If any of our readers happens to have additional information about Bettye Rice Hughes, we’d love to hear from you at lists@loa.org.” So, if you do, please contact them!

Anyhow, the article. LOA starts with some background, describing the Freedom Rides which occurred in the American South in 1960-1961. Their aim was to test compliance with the September 1960 Interstate Commerce Commission‘s (ICC) rules prohibiting interstate carriers from using segregated bus terminals, and mandating that seating on buses be “without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin.” Despite this and an earlier Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation in interstate bus terminals, several Freedom Ride buses had met with violence, two being firebombed. In the wake of all this, in 1962, Miss Hughes set out alone, on a bus

to see at first hand how many Southern states were complying with the ICC ruling; and I also wanted to see if a female Negro tourist traveling alone – unheralded and unprepared for – would receive a different reception from that which had greeted the Freedom Riders.

What a brave woman! She travelled through Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and back home via Texas but, she writes

interstate passengers going from east to the west by Greyhound bus over the southern route never set foot on Mississippi soil.

In fact, the bus took a circuitous route to drive around Mississippi! I guess we ca guess why …

Without spoiling anything – after all this is an article not a piece of fiction – I can report that she returned home unscathed. But that’s not to say it was all smooth sailing. In most of the places she visited she found that the letter of the law was being followed. However, the segregated areas – waiting rooms, cafeterias and toilets – still existed and her black American co-travelers continued to use them. Hughes though always used the “main” facilities and while on occasions the staff tried to move her on to “the other restaurant where you belong”, she stood her ground and was (eventually) served. As her journey wore on, she felt she was being watched by her black travel companions:

The other Negro passengers, who went to the waiting rooms formerly designated as “Colored”, had started watching to see what I was going to do at rest and lunch stops. Several of them asked me, ‘Are you riding for us?’ I said that in a sense I was. But no one offered to go into the main waiting area with me.

She provides several anecdotes to describe her experience, and the article – less than 6 pages – is worth reading for these and for her reflections on them. While she made it through safely, she says, “the threat of violence was always there”. She concludes that “the advances that have been won through group action” now need to be “reinforced by individual action”. Southern white people need to “get used to seeing Negroes in waiting rooms, rest rooms, and cafeterias” and Southern Negroes also need “to get used to seeing other Negroes bypassing the segregated areas so that they may take courage and insist on the best facilities and services available for their money”.

All I can say, again, is, what a brave woman … and what a shame we don’t know more about her.

Bettye Rice Hughes
“A Negro tourist in Dixie”
First published in The Reporter, April 26, 1962
Available: Online at the Library of America 

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Hannah permalink
    January 20, 2012 6:20 pm

    Thank you for a great post and for bringing this brave woman to our attention! It doesn’t surprise me one bit that little is known about her. Women are largely ignored by historians.

    • January 20, 2012 11:06 pm

      Glad you liked it Hannah … women are ignored a lot though I wonder whether in her case she didn’t write much (or she got married and changed her name so was hard to track!!)

  2. January 20, 2012 11:48 pm

    What a jarring and inspiring article. I love reading about the Civil Rights Movement and having that brought to life in such a way is so relevant and powerful.

    There is still so much to learn though. My son brought another child’s bag home by mistake and found his Halloween mask inside – a Ku Klux Klan mask! And my son is black!

    That situation did not pan out very well.

    • January 21, 2012 12:13 am

      You mean LAST Halloween, as in 2011, Catherine? Wow. Did they think it was funny? Some things just aren’t funny I think – certainly not that as a child’s Halloween mask. Anyhow, glad you liked the article. It’s a good one … such first hand experience is so valuable and it’s nicely written as a piece of journalism I think.

  3. January 21, 2012 1:44 am

    I have never heard of Bettye Rice Hughes. So sad that we haven’t, but thanks ot LOA we at least know a little about her now. And I agree, what an incredibly brave woman!

    • January 21, 2012 4:55 pm

      Glad — though not surprised — that you agree Stefanie! I wonder how many other people and stories like this are out there. I’d love to know how old she was when she did this. I was fascinated by the white waitress who agreed with the white customer that she didn’t like the desegregation but was friendly to her? Where did her greatest hypocrisy lie? Agreeing with the white customer to keep her onside, or being nice to the black customer because that’s what you do!

  4. January 21, 2012 8:47 pm

    There are people in this world with such courage and such faith in the belief in a better world. It’s humbling and inspiring, all at once.

  5. January 23, 2012 12:07 pm

    I grew up in the Deep South but at the end of this era.

    There were no black children in my kindergarten class. There were 3 in my first grade class. I went to a public (free, financed by the state) school.

    So, I really didn’t see segregation in action.

    Hughes was a brave lady!

    • January 23, 2012 6:50 pm

      Oh thanks for sharing your experience Isabel … I guess attendance at school is largely driven by where you live? Presumably, back then particularly, black and white people tended not to live in the same neighbourhoods?

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