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

"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” 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 

Howard Zinn, Finishing school for pickets

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn, 2009 (Courtesy: B-Fest at Athens Indymedia, using CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Wikipedia)

I have been remiss lately with my Library of America reading. Busy-ness has taken its toll, but it just so happened that this week I was (briefly) between books and the LOA offering looked right up my alley, so I decided to read it over breakfast. “Finishing school for pickets” was published in 1960, making it the most recently written of the LOA items I’ve read to date. It was written by Howard Zinn (1922-2010), an American writer, historian, activist and all-round intellectual. You can read the essay yourself, online, at the Library of America site.

However, before I discuss this essay, a little background. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. She wasn’t the first to take such action but it was this particular occasion which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott whose aim was to end segregation on the city’s public transport. The battle was finally won in a Supreme Court ruling in late 1956. But, more importantly, it played a pivotal role in the fledgling Civil Rights Movement in the USA. Now, jump a few years and over the border to Atlanta, Georgia, and we are in the time and place of Zinn’s essay.

In 1960, Howard Zinn was chair of the history department at Spelman College, America’s oldest “black college for women” (Wikipedia). This college was well-known as, more or less, “a finishing school” for young black women. They were encouraged to “be nice, be well-mannered and ladylike”, to “not speak loudly” and not “get into trouble”. As Zinn says, “if intellect and talent and social consciousness happened to develop also, they were, to an alarming extent, by-products”. Here is the opening para of the essay:

One quiet afternoon some weeks ago, with the dogwood on Spelman College campus newly bloomed and the grass close-cropped and fragrant, an attractive, tawny-skinned girl crossed the lawn to her dormitory to put a notice on the bulletin board. It read: Young Ladies Who Can Picket Please Sign Below”. (Let’s not worry here about the “attractive, tawny-skinned” descriptor as Zinn’s heart was clearly in the right place).

Zinn goes on to chronicle various subversive actions being undertaken by the “still ‘nice'” but politically aware students. He says: “They are well-mannered, but this is somewhat tempered by a recent declaration that they will use every method short of violence to end segregation”. And so what do they do in the cause of desegregation? They sit in the front (aka white) area of buses; they occupy the white section of the Georgia Legislature’s gallery “in a pioneering show of non-violent resistance”; they show up “at the main Atlanta library in sufficient numbers to worry [my emphasis] the city administration into a decision to admit Negroes there” (what the? the librarian in me asks), and so on. Zinn writes that:

Spelman girls, more sheltered than women at the other colleges, were among the first to leave the island and to begin causing little flurries of alarm in the segregated outside world.

These activities, he says, may have bewildered the conservative matriarchy of Spelman, but they infuriated the “officialdom of the State of Georgia”. However, this did not stop the students of Spelman (and the other colleges of the Atlanta University Center) who continued their campaign even though, as Zinn describes it, many of them came from “the deep South … the Faulknerian small towns of traditional Negro submissiveness”.

It’s a highly readable essay, with light-handed use of various rhetorical devices to progress his argument, but it does not conclude on any great triumphs. After all, in 1960, there was (and, some would say, there still is) a long way to go in the cause of true racial equity. Zinn’s goal was, I assume, to raise some awareness amongst the white readers of The Nation. I can only hope he did so. As for him, he was fired from Spelman in 1963 “for insubordination” (his words), that is, for siding with his students in their fight for desegregation.

Zinn died earlier this year. Not long before he died he said that he would like to be remembered “for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality,” and “for getting more people to realize that the power which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it. Black people in the South used it. People in the women’s movement used it. People in the anti-war movement used it. People in other countries who have overthrown tyrannies have used it.” (Wikipedia).

This essay is clearly just one tiny example of how he went about achieving this lifelong passion. I am indebted to the Library of America for making it available to us.