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Commemorating Sarah Keys Evans

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You can learn more about an unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement, Sarah Keys Evans, when you visit Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.

“Closing the Circle” is a series of eight paintings that tell the story of Evans, a member of the U.S. Army who took a historic stand for justice during a bus ride in August of 1952. Located in Martin Luther King Park at Wyche Street and Virginia Avenue near downtown Roanoke Rapids, the mural was unveiled during a special ceremony in 2020.

In an interview she did for the short documentary that was released in March of 2019, the 90-year-old Evans recalls the events that thrust her into the spotlight: “I was making my first journey home after entering the military. I had purchased my ticket, making sure that I had a straight-through bus—a bus with no changes. But, to my surprise, when I got to Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, there was a big problem.” 

The bus driver told Evans she had to move to the back so a white man could have her seat, but she refused. The driver then cleared everyone but Evans off the bus, and allowed them to board another bus. Shortly thereafter, Evans was arrested and jailed overnight. The next morning, she was released and completed her trip to Washington, North Carolina. Her family filed a lawsuit that, after three years and an initial denial, led to a 1955 decision by the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission prohibiting segregation on all interstate buses. 

“I’d like to be remembered as someone who helped somebody along the way,” said Keys in the documentary. 
 

More about the Mural

“Closing the Circle,” which was painted by local artist Napolean Hill, includes eight panels depicting different parts of Keys’ story. Here are details about each section:

Panel 1: Sarah had joined the Black Women’s Army Corps, and she is shown in her uniform in 1952.


Panel 2: A bus station scene represents Sarah’s 1952 ride on a Carolina Coach Company bus from Trenton, New Jersey, to her home in Washington, North Carolina, with the now-famous stop in Roanoke Rapids.


Panel 3: When she arrived in Roanoke Rapids, Sarah was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white man.
Panel 4: A figure of Sarah is shown behind bars, depicting the night she spent in the local jail.


Panel 5: Sarah’s dad David, shown in the foreground of the painting, urged his daughter to take action against the bus company. He was called “her greatest supporter for justice.”
Panel 6: In 1854, the Interstate Commerce Commission dismissed Sarah’s complaint against the Carolina Coach Company in its first ruling on the matter.


Panel 7: Two key figures in the fight, female attorney Dovey Roundtree and U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, are featured in this section. Roundtree filed the complaint with the ICC on Evans’ behalf, and Rep. Powell urged the ICC to reconsider that complaint.


Panel 8: The final panel shows a bus and a beaming, bright sky overhead following the November 1955 ICC ruling that banned segregation and discrimination on interstate buses.

That 1955 decision by the Interstate Commerce Commission set the stage for a figurative passing of the baton from Evans to Rosa Parks. Just weeks later, Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to vacate her seat and move to the back of a bus. 

While it would take until 1961 for government officials to direct the ICC to begin enforcing those provisions, the efforts of Evans and Parks, as well as groups like the Freedom Riders, had a major impact on the growing U.S. Civil Rights movement.
 

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