Unsung civil rights pioneer seeks to clear name after living in NYC for 60 years

National

PARKCHESTER, The Bronx — When Rosa Parks bravely refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in 1955, her courageous act was widely acknowledged as the beginning of the civil rights movement. But nine months before that, another courageous African American — a 15 year-old girl — did the same thing, in the same Alabama city.

Not only has she never been given the same level of recognition as Parks, but her bold action, which was considered criminal at the time, has remained on her record.

It all happened in Alabama, but the 15 year-old who fought for her rights there back then ended up becoming a New Yorker for most of her adult life. She’s now back in Alabama, 66 years later, fighting to have her record cleared after all this time.

She’s cited her life in New York as being a boon to her plight.

“I shouldn’t have been arrested,” Colvin said in an interview on Tuesday, “because I wasn’t breaking the law.”

She spoke after filing papers calling for her conviction of assaulting a police officer to be expunged from her record. She struggled with an officer while being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white girl, and was given indefinite probation for the March 1955 incident.

It generated some attention at the time, and even helped to inspire local activists, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, to begin the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  

However, in part because of the scrutiny she faced, Colvin couldn’t find work in Alabama after high school.

She ended up moving to the Bronx, where she lived for more than six decades, until a year or so ago.

Pilar Villafane lived across the hall from Colvin in an apartment building in the Parkchester neighborhood and called Colvin her “best friend” in the complex.

“Why should they give her a hard time?” Villafane said. “She’s a lovely person.”

Colvin had only visited Alabama occasionally after moving to New York, and whenever she was there, she and her family were concerned for her safety, since she still had the indefinite probation on her record.

It had been on her juvenile record, and as a result couldn’t be officially enforced after Colvin became an adult. She’d never been informed of that, however, and now wants to ensure that it’s cleared from even her juvenile file.

Colvin’s story was largely forgotten, until in 2009, a book titled “Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice” by Phillip Hoose, shone a new light on her act of bravery. 

In the book, as well as in other interviews and articles, Colvin has credited New York City for giving her a lifeline and strength to handle new struggles.  

She found work for decades as a nurse’s assistant at a Manhattan nursing home, and she became active in 1199 SEIU, the city’s union that represents healthcare workers.  

New York City also renamed a block in Colvin’s honor. The intersection of East Tremont Avenue and Unionport Road has a street sign with her name on it. 

Now, newly returned to the South, Colvin said she’s strongly striking back by getting her record cleared. Both the mayor and district attorney of Montgomery have said that it’s all but given that Colvin’s record will be expunged soon.

As for her, she said that it’s a necessary step to further affect change beyond herself.

“It might not benefit you,” she said, “but it will benefit the next generation.”

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