"High Yellow"
Ellen Broms

[As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]

Hi, my story is about the Freedom Rides. In 1961, I was 19 years old. I was at Cal State L.A., and I joined a group of about 11 of us who went, by train, to the South. Most people think of Jackson, Mississippi as being the place where most of the Freedom Rides occurred and 300 people were arrested in Jackson. But there were 18 or 19 of us who were arrested in Houston, Texas.

How did we get there? In 1960, we protested in support of the sit-ins that were occurring in the South. We had the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles where JFK was nominated as the Democratic nominee for President, and we were picketing him. We were outside [the convention hall] asking for support of the sit-ins in the South and wanting it to be part of the platform. So that was 1960.

And then in 1961, Martin Luther King came to speak in Los Angeles, and Mahalia Jackson sang, and I was very moved. I mean, I had just been one of the students participating in our own kind of independent student union kind of thing, but I joined CORE, went through some training, and [joined] the Freedom Ride to Houston which was one of the last Freedom Rides.

The summer had been full of Freedom Rides, mostly to Jackson. We took the train to Houston. We sat in. I'm not going to tell the history of the Freedom Rides; you can read a book by Ray Arsenault [Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice] if you're a student and you're interested in that. Also, Eric Etheridge has a book called Breach of Peace which is also excellent about the Freedom Rides.

My story though is that we were sitting in at the [segregated] lunch counter at the train station and we were arrested. They took us first to city jail and then to the county jail. And I was booked as "high yellow." [Laughing]

For those of you have read the literature, you know that means they thought I was Black. And I've always thought: Well, I'm the only one. But in reading Eric Etheridge's book, Breach of Peace, I find that a couple of people in Jackson also who were probably Jewish and dark like me , were arrested and integrated the jails in Jackson.

[Note — In the 1960s, segregation by race was common in southern jails. Separate cells were designated for each race and gender.]

Well, I briefly — ever so briefly — integrated the jail in Houston. I was in a cell that was full of the Black women. It was pretty darn crowded, and I was put on a mat between the bunks. However, I was found out, because there was another woman, Marjorie, who was also fair complected, but she was Black (she had green eyes as opposed to my brown eyes). [She was put in with] the other white women, Beverly and Pat, who were concerned: Where was Ellen? They thought that maybe I had said something and gotten in trouble and they didn't know where I was.

So [the guard] came looking for me, said my name, and then of course I got nervous: What do they want me for? But it was because Beverly and Pat were concerned. So I was moved to the white women's tank. But they didn't have any cells for us, so we were sleeping in the day room, again on mats, on the floor, and that's like the dining area. And I don't know, has anybody been in Houston, Texas in the summer time? Hot, muggy, horrible, and we, of course, didn't have a change of clothes. They didn't bring our suitcases with us. And we basically stripped down.

The other women were curious about us. They loaned us clothes, like slips to sit in, to live in essentially. We really didn't wear many clothes in there. And we were there, in jail, for about eight-ten days.

The white men were not so fortunate. And I thought there would be two others from the Houston ride here, both the Steves, and I don't see any Steve here. They were beaten up. The white men beat up the white Freedom Riders and were very hostile, so they were taken out in four days. The white women treated us very well, shared things and were nice to us. We exchanged books and pleasantries, and they were just very curious about us. And they were also really impressed that our lawyers visited us pretty frequently. And we were bailed out eventually rather than stay the whole 30 days, as the folks in Jackson were. Mostly because CORE really needed the money, and we needed to be out there in the urban Houston area, going to churches, going to tell our stories and raise money for CORE, because they really needed it.

So we all went to the PYA office, because the students from Houston, the Black students there who had been sitting in were Progressive Youth Association. We joined them, and they had their own office. They knew people who housed us while we were there. We were in Houston like a total of 30 days. We were there while we went to trial. The first trial was a mistrial. The second trial they found us guilty, and then it was overturned though later on.

As you might imagine, we're all students. We're all getting really nervous, because this was August. We were arrested August 11th, and we were worried: Are we going to get back to school on time? What will our parents say if we don't start the semester? But I did. I went back to Cal State L.A. and told my story and stayed as an activist, not entirely in the Civil Rights Movement but like others, in the Women's Movement. I was married early, started having children, and now I'm in Grandmothers for Peace and Jewish Voice for Peace. [Applause] And still very concerned about what's going on. And I found that libraries are a wonderful place. You can make displays in libraries, and in the past few months, I've done displays on the Civil Rights Movement and on the Peace Movement. And I urge you to go to your communities and see if they want you to do a display. It's fun, and it's easy, and it's a lot more comfortable than standing outside with a sign in the rain, in the cold and the dark.


Copyright © Ellen Broms, 2010

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