PARKCHESTER, The Bronx – When Rosa Parks bravely refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955, her brave act was widely recognized as the start of the civil rights movement. But nine months earlier, another brave African American – a 15-year-old girl – did the same thing in the same city in Alabama.
Not only has she never received the same recognition as Parks, but her courageous approach, which was considered criminal at the time, has remained on her files.
It all happened in Alabama, but the 15-year-old who was fighting for her rights at the time became a New Yorker for most of her adult life. 66 years later, she is now back in Alabama, fighting to have her record erased after all this time.
She has called her life in New York a blessing for her plight.
“I shouldn’t have been arrested,” Colvin said in an interview on Tuesday, “because I didn’t break the law.”
She spoke after filing papers requesting that her conviction for assaulting a police officer be removed from her file. She fought with a police officer while she was being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white girl and was given a permanent probation for the incident in March 1955.
It caught some attention at the time and even helped local activists, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, to be inspired to begin the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
However, in part because of the exact test she was subjected to, Colvin was unable to find work in Alabama after high school.
She eventually moved to the Bronx, where she lived for more than six decades until about a year ago.
Pilar Villafane lived across from Colvin in an apartment building in the Parkchester neighborhood and called Colvin her “best friend” on the property.
“Why should you make it difficult for her?” said Villafane. “She’s a lovely person.”
Colvin had only visited Alabama occasionally after she moved to New York, and whenever she was there, she and her family were concerned about her safety as she still had unlimited probation.
It was on her youth record, so it couldn’t be officially enforced after Colvin grew up. However, she was never informed of this and now wants to make sure that it is even deleted from her youth file.
Colvin’s story was largely forgotten by the time a 2009 book entitled “Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice” by Phillip Hoose shone a new light on her 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 face new struggles.
She found work as a nurse in a Manhattan nursing home for decades and became active in the 1199 SEIU, the city’s union that represents health workers.
New York City also renamed a block in Colvin’s honor. At the intersection of East Tremont Avenue and Unionport Road there is a street sign with your name on it.
Now freshly returned to the south, Colvin said she’s striking back hard by clearing her record. Both the Mayor and District Attorney of Montgomery have said it is far from there as Colvin’s file is about to be deleted.
She said it was a necessary step in making change beyond her.
“It may not be of use to you,” she said, “but it will be of use to the next generation.”