Claudette Colvin

The OG Rosa Parks You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Claudette Colvin, photo courtesy of Alean Bowser via NPR

In the final few days of Black History Month, we’re featuring Claudette Colvin as our first Unsung History.

At age 15, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Sounds like a familiar story, right? The thing is… Ms. Colvin took this stand nine months before Rosa Parks did.

Claudette Colvin was taking the bus home from school on March 2, 1955. When the bus driver asked her to move, she refused, citing the fact that she’d paid her fare and it was her constitutional right to remain seated. The 15-year-old was placed in handcuffs by two police officers.

At the time, Colvin’s segregated school had been studying black leaders. She was also living in the wake of the case of Jeremiah Reeves, a classmate at Booker T. Washington High who was charged with allegedly raping a white woman in 1952, for which he was later executed. Claudette Colvin was fired up. And living in an era of Jim Crow, she had reason to be. She told NPR in 2009, “We couldn’t try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot … and take it to the store. Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.” So she stayed seated.

Why has Colvin’s story gone so unrecognized? Simply put, Rosa Parks was a better figurehead; she was a well-spoken adult and secretary of the NAACP. Colvin was a teenager and experienced hardships after her arrest that led to civil leaders viewing her as an inappropriate spokesperson. She ended up being one of the four female plaintiffs in the case Browder v. Gayle, which was the case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Alabama. She continued to struggle in Alabama, despite her contributions to the civil rights movement, and moved to New York City, where she worked in a nursing home in Manhattan before retiring in 2004.

Claudette Colvin in 2015, photo courtesy of Julie Jacobson/AP

Further reading material:

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phil Hoose

Material sourced from:

Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land: Constance Markievicz

Back in August 2019, the wonderful Valerie Gritsch compiled Tales From Wo-Fan’s Land on her blog, History Is Important. It was a project inspired by English singer-songwriter Frank Turner and his album No Man’s Land, which features 13 songs inspired by women from history. You can take a look at Val’s introduction to the project here, and read other pages on other wxmen written by my fellow fans! I chose to write on Constance Markievicz, an Irish revolutionary.

Constance Markievicz (Digital image from: ‘Soldiers Are We’: Women in the Irish Rising)

Born as Constance Gore-Booth in 1868, the woman who would become known as Countess and Madame Markievicz was the eldest child of Henry Gore-Booth, an Arctic explorer and AngloIrish landlord who actively provided food for his tenants in Co. Sligo during the famine of 1879-80 and was deeply concerned about their wellbeing. The family split their time between London and Sligo, and Constance saw the class and wealth disparity between the English landlords and Irish tenants first-hand. Constance inherited her father’s social justice advocacy, alongside her sister, poet and suffragette Eva Gore-Booth, and actively pursued it as her life goal. 

She married Polish-Ukranian artist Casimir Markievicz in 1900 and they settled in Dublin. She became a prominent landscape artist, mingling with others in the Irish art scene. She was described as being vivacious and daring, with a fiery spirit. At the home of fellow artist Sarah Purser, Markievicz became involved with several Irish revolutionary patriots and in 1907 she discovered journals that promoted Irish independence from British rule. The more knowledge she gained, the more compelled she felt to do something. She joined left-wing Irish republican party Sinn Féin, as well as Inghinidhe na hÉireann, a nationalist women’s group, in addition to founding Cumann na mBan, a women’s paramilitary organization. She also founded a paramilitary scouting organization for young boys, essentially running a commune to house them and pull them out of poverty. She drifted from her husband, who was not Irish and therefore did not share her passion, and began referring to herself as Madame Markievicz during their separation. 

Her views combined feminism, socialism, and Irish nationalism. She actively worked against poverty imposed by English law, such as schoolchildren’s meals being restricted; Constance fed them “Irish stew” in protest. She also helped run a soup kitchen that fed thousands of people each day during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, during which companies locked their employees out for attempting to unionize, though this was eventually unsuccessful. The 1914 Government of Ireland Act was supposed to give Ireland home rule from Britain, but the Suspensory Act prevented this as a result of World War I. The Easter Rising of 1916 was a response to the lack of home rule in Ireland. Markievicz joined the Irish Citizen Army as a liason officer and as a sniper. When she was arrested after the Rising failed, she kissed her pistol before surrendering. She was kept in a cell in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, though the only woman of the 70 arrested to be kept in solitary confinement. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. While 16 men were executed, Markievicz was spared solely on the basis of her sex, instead having her sentence commuted to life imprisonment with hard labor. Her response: “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She converted to Catholicism while imprisoned at Aylesbury in England and was released in June 1917 after the English government granted amnesty. She became a major in the Irish Citizen Army, was the president of Cumann na mBan. Many Irish nationalists, including Markievicz, were imprisoned again in 1918 in a British attempt to stifle Irish uprising in favor of fighting in World War I. In 1918, despite being imprisoned, she became the first woman to be elected as a MP in the House of Commons. She refused to take her seat in solidarity with Sinn Féin, who were instead meeting as the First Dáil, the Irish Republic’s first parliament. She and her colleagues were released solely out of fear that death due to influenza would allow them to be martyrized. The Anglo-Irish Treaty set up an Irish Free State, which Markievicz opposed, and she left the government in 1922 as a result. She actively participated in the Irish Civil War and was imprisoned again briefly in 1923. Displeased with the Irish Free State and desperately wanting a socially just Irish Republic, she left Sinn Féin and joined its offshoot, Fianna Fáil, in 1926. She went back to her grassroots movement, opening bathhouses and participating in other social work. She died on July 15, 1927 from appendicitis complications, dissatisfied with the lack of progress made in the revolutionary movement. Markievicz’s funeral was attended by thousands and she was eulogized by Eamon de Valera, who would become the 3rd President of Ireland decades later.

Constance Markievicz was a remarkable woman. Rather than sitting idly by or even just using her voice without taking any real action, Markievicz first used her position of power and wealth to actively improve the lives of the poor, before becoming a radical revolutionary. As she gained more knowledge and passion about British oppression of Ireland, she used every resource she had to fight for the Irish Republic and never backed down from what she believed in, despite coming from a background that would have allowed her to live quietly and ignorantly. She overcame all adversity, including men on both sides critiquing her gender and class. She was adamant about using her privilege to improve the lives of others and of her entire country. As she told the court during her 1916 trial, “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.”

This information came primarily from Anne Haverty’s book Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary, Michael Foy and Brian Barton’s The Easter Rising, and the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast episode on her, in addition to my own knowledge on her from visiting Ireland.

Interview with Harold Perrineau from 2013

I’m starting at the beginning with this blog, with a throwback to my writing career in its infancy. I wrote film reviews for my high school newspaper, and through the power of social media I created a few interview opportunities for myself. I’ve done some revisions of this article for this blog primarily to update its readability in 2020.

Harold Perrineau is a man of many roles, having most notably played Michael Dawson in the groundbreaking ABC television series LOST. He is also widely regarded for his roles in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, HBO’s Oz, and the hit FX show Sons of Anarchy. Perrineau graciously agreed to do an interview for my high school newspaper and this blog, and I truly cannot thank him enough for that. When I made the call, Perrineau was in the grocery store, and hurried out to his car to answer my questions.

     “How did you get into acting?” was the very first question, and it brought Perrineau back to his teenage years. He referred back to his high school experience in New York, where he had found a passion in music, more specifically the violin. His aunt was attending Long Island University at the time, where a theatre program for children called “Of, By, and For” was taking place. Perrineau, his brothers, and his cousins auditioned for the program, and Perrineau’s aunt paid for the program when they were accepted. For Perrineau, that was when it “all clicked,” and he knew that was what he wanted to do for a living. I asked if he had thought about it before attending the program, and he responded saying that he had only really thought about it in the sense that he had a fondness for television and musicals and thought that it would be cool, but never took it seriously because he didn’t know how to get started with it. It was more of a dream for him, and it wasn’t until he got to experience the theatre program that he finally realized that he truly wanted to become an actor.

     From here, we moved into talking about some of the shows that he has been involved in, beginning with Oz. I asked him if he felt that the legacy of Oz, which was revolutionary in its time due to it being the first hour-long dramatic show on cable television, has impacted shows such as Breaking Bad. His response was that he hopes that yes, the legacy of Oz does affect modern-day shows not only because of the introduction of violence on cable television, but also because it showed the human aspect of the violence and that you can’t just get away with hurting someone without ramifications, which is shown nowadays in so many shows. Having also starred in season five of Sons of Anarchy, I asked him if he believed that the legacy of Oz had carried into that show as well, and he wholeheartedly agreed. Before Oz, everything that Sons of Anarchy includes, meaning gangs, violence, illegal activities, and things of the sort, were not on cable television at all. In summary, we all have Oz, and Harold Perrineau, to thank for paving the way for so many of the shows today that we know and love.

     Myself being a major LOST fan (we call ourselves “LOSTies”), I couldn’t resist asking about the show. If given the opportunity to play any other character on the show, Perrineau still would have played his own, Michael, but said that he did love Jorge Garcia’s Hurley and Dominic Monaghan’s Charlie; he wouldn’t have minded playing either of them if he couldn’t have been his own character.

     When the show concluded in 2010, there was a great deal of controversy over the finale and how it ended, and I wanted to know how Perrineau himself felt about it, having been a part of the show since the beginning. “I thought it was really great that they came right back to the people. At the end of the day, the finale was more about the people, which is what the show was about in the very beginning,” Perrineau said, “So it wasn’t about time-changing or flash forwards or [flash] backwards or any of the supernatural stuff. It was just like, ‘Oh, this is about a group of people who belong together.’ Now, I don’t know why Michael and [his son] Walt weren’t there, but I did like the way that that sort of ended up.”

      I asked Perrineau what the craziest experience that he had with a LOST fan was. For him, there were too many crazy experiences to remember, but the craziest time was right after the first season aired in 2005. Being stuck in Hawaii filming, the cast was so secluded from everything that they didn’t realize the impact that the show was having on the public. When they got to go home for the first time since the show had aired, Perrineau recalled a lot of screaming from fans, and it was then that he realized that the show was actually a phenomenon. In one particular instance, he remembered a kid running up to him in the supermarket yelling, “You’re Walt’s dad!” and he thought it was the weirdest but coolest thing.

     Though he already has a wide acting résumé and has portrayed so many different roles, his dream role that he hasn’t already played is that of a superhero character. “Everybody wants to be a superhero,” he said, “That would be kind of cool to have to go to the gym every day and look like a superhero. Like if I could look like The Wolverine, that would be awesome!”

     The most difficult role for Harold was in the film Woman on Top with Penelope Cruz, in which he played a transgender woman. “I played this character Monica, and I hadn’t played that type of character before. It was one of my most challenging but also most rewarding [roles]. It was really tricky and challenging, but I had a lot of fun and had to do a lot of things like wear extensions in my hair and I had these nails that were cemented on my fingers and I just had no idea how difficult it was to have long nails. I was like, ‘How do women do this?! I keep poking myself in the eye! This is terrible!’ So I had to get used to all these things, and playing this character that was really out-there and outrageous and creative and fun and sexy and all this stuff, and it was really challenging for me to play that role.” 

     Seeing as how this interview was conducted partially for the purpose of being published in a high school newspaper, I asked Perrineau what his advice would be for any aspiring teenage actors. “For me, best thing is always to learn my craft. Take the time and learn how to do it, especially while you’re still in high school and you can experiment and you can try things and you can fail at things, and you don’t have the pressures to have a job or care for your children or pay your rent,” Perrineau advises, “You can really just experiment and learn and perfect your craft of acting. Explore your chance to act and try things that are outside of yourself.”