Houston woman's protest in 1950's helped pave way to desegregate train system

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Rosa Parks is known as the mother of the freedom movement in the nation's civil rights history when she refused to give up a seat in the colored section of an Alabama bus to a white passenger. It was during the time of segregation, and separate accommodations.

Passenger trains, like public transportation, were also segregated. A Houston woman played a role in changing that.

GertrudeJane Holliday grew up in Houston. Her mother was a teacher, and her father had a neighborhood business. She was a good student and popular and was named Miss Jack Yates in high school.

She went away to college in the 1950s, attending Fisk University in Nashville. There, Holliday was a fraternity sweetheart. A train trip back to Houston in December 1955 put her on her own civil rights path.

"I got on the train, happily coming home for Christmas," she recalled. "I took a seat with all my belongings, and the conductor started challenging me and telling me I needed to go to another coach. I did not."

Looking back, the confrontation was inevitable at the time.

"I decided enough is enough because you shouldn't segregate people," she said.

It was a long train ride back to Houston with a stop in Lake Charles.

"The conductor got a policeman to come on board, and now I had three men over me, yelling at me to move," she said.

Concerned she might be arrested, she prayed.

There was no arrest, but she said, "they took all my belongings, my luggage and my coat, trying to make me move. I continued to sit in my seat. I guess I've always been a person who wanted justice for people and it just wasn't right."

Her resistance was passive, but unyielding. Rather than use loud words, she sat quietly, but she said she was cold without her coat. Before the train finally pulled into Houston's Union Station, she said they returned all her belongings. She said they did that without saying anything to her.

She told her parents the story of the stand she made on a passenger train. Eventually, it was told to a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier. It was published on the front page with a story about the Birmingham bus boycott and Rosa Parks.

Change eventually came in the form of desegregation. GertrudeJane Holliday became a teacher, a volunteer with the United Way, and was the first African American named to the Houston Public Library Board. She would later become its chairman.

In her 80s now, she reflects on the change she has seen, and been a part of. She hopes her story will be a lesson to others who believe in something strongly enough, to risk doing something about it. Then as now, she said the question should be asked- "If you don't do it, who's going to step up to the plate."

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