Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Irene Morgan Kirkaldy (1917-2007)
MSA SC 3520-15242

Biography:

Irene Morgan Kirkaldy was a warm and courageous woman.  While she never set out to be a hero, her life made a significant impact on the world around her.  As her daughter, Brenda Bacquie, once said, “She [didn’t] see herself as a hero. She saw something that had to be done, and she rushed in, like all heroes.”1

On April 9, 1917, Irene Amos, later known as Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, was born in Baltimore, Maryland.2 The grandaughter of former slaves, Irene was the sixth of nine children born to Robert and Ethel Amos.3 The Amos’ were devout members of the Seventh-Day Adventist church and raised their children in that environment.  Growing up, Kirkaldy was in and out of high school, picking up odd jobs cleaning, doing laundry, and providing child care, in order to help support her family through the Great Depression.

As a part of their religous upbring, Kirkaldy and her siblings were taught not to question authority.  However, on July 16, 1944, Kirkaldy stood up to those in authority, and refused to be intimidated by racial prejudice.4 On that day, Kirkaldy refused to give up her rightful seat on a bus, a full eleven years before Rosa Parks staged her famous bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama.

At the time, Kirkaldy was a young, working mother with two small children.  She worked at a defense plant that manufactured B-26 Maruaders and her husband, Sherwood Morgan, worked as a dockman.5 Kirkaldy lived with her husband and children in Baltimore, but had been visiting her mother in Gloucester, Virginia, and was returning home for a doctor’s appointment, having recently suffered a miscarriage.6 When she bought her ticket, and boarded the bus, she certainly had no idea, or any plans, regarding what would take place.

Having taken a seat near the back of the bus, the area designated for African-American passengers, Kirkaldy settled in for the long ride from Gloucester to Baltimore.  Not long into the trip, a young white couple boarded, and as the bus was crowded, the driver, authorized under the Jim Crow laws, told Kirkaldy and her seatmate to move.  Kirkaldy refused and would not allow her neighbor to give up her seat either.  Years later she would recall her response and say, “I refused to give up my seat because I had my ticket.  I paid my fare and I didn’t feel that it was right for him to tell me that I would have to get up and give my seat for another person who had just gotten on the bus.”7

When Kirkaldy and her seatmate refused to relinquish their seats to the white couple, the bus driver drove to a nearby town’s jailhouse.  A policeman boarded the bus, and informed Kirkaldy that he had a warrant for her arrest.  She responded by ripping it up and tossing it out the window.  Her resistance made the policeman angry, and he grabbed Kirkaldy, attempting to drag her off of the bus.  She violently fought him, and another police officer; however, they successfully removed her from her seat on the bus and arrested her, putting her in jail.  When her mother was notified, she came immediately and posted the large, $500, bail for her daughter’s release.8

The case went to trial on October 18, 1944, and Kirkaldy was charged with two crimes.9  The first charge filed against her was resisting arrest and the second, refusing to comply with the segregation laws of Virginia.  Kirkaldy pled guilty to the first, and paid a $100 fine for resisting arrest; however, on the second charge, that of violating segregation laws, she refused to plead guilty or pay the $10 fine.10 It took extreme courage for Kirkaldy to publicly declare that she was not guilty of violating any segregation laws; the courthouse was packed and the Ku Klux Klan charter was posted on the door.11 Nevertheless, she maintained her innocence; she and her lawyer chose to appeal the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, arguing that transportation segregation impeded interstate commerce.  When the case was reviewed, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed the previous decision, giving no credence to the argument of impairment of interstate commerce.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been seeking a test case opposing transportation segregation to bring before the United States Supreme Court.  When they heard of Kirkaldy’s defiant refusal to yield her seat, as well as the ensuing court case and decisions, they decided that hers was the ideal case.12 Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers took the case to the Supreme Court, maintaining the argument regarding the evils transit segregation posed to interstate commerce.13  It was the first transit case the NAACP brought before the Court, and was a full eight years before the landmark segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.14

The Supreme Court decided in favor of Kirkaldy in a 6-1 decision, handed down on June 3, 1946, almost two years after the events that sparked it.15 The Morgan v. Virginia decision was certainly a landmark one, but sadly, it did not have the immediate effect on transit segregation that some had hoped it would.  As Robin Washington, producer of "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow," an award winning documentary about civil rights, said, “The decision of June 3, 1946, outlawed segregation in interstate travel, but June the 4th was pretty much the same as June 2.”16 However, despite the fact that many Southern states refused to enforce the new ruling, the case had a long term impact.  Mr. Washington noted that Kirkaldy’s actions and the resulting Supreme Court decision, “certainly laid the groundwork for changing everything.”17

One direct, and almost immediate, effect of Morgan v. Virginia, was the inspiration of a few men to begin the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947.18  These men began what can only be described as the predecessor to the Freedom Rides of the 1960s.  Their goal was to ride through the South, testing the impact that the Supreme Court decision had on forced segregation, of buses in particular.  They often sang a song, part of which paid tribute to Irene Morgan’s case, saying, “Get on the bus, sit anyplace, ‘Cause Irene Morgan won her case.”19 George Houser, one of the leaders of the Journey of Reconciliation noted that the movement paid little attention to court cases, other than Morgan v. Virginia, because that decision was their inspiration.20

Prior to the case coming before the U.S. Supreme Court, Kirkaldy and her family moved to New York, where both she and her husband had found jobs.  She was unable to attend the proceedings of the Court.  However, when interviewed about her reaction to the decision by the Afro-American, a Baltimore based newspaper, she said that, “I’m very glad tension of the case is over…I’m glad mine was a test case to bring the issue into the open. It’s a victory for me and all colored people.”21 Newspapers all over the nation carried the story of the Morgan v. Virginia decision; however, within a few short months, Kirkaldy and her case had largely been forgotten.

In 1948, at the age of 32, Kirkaldy was widowed, leaving her alone with two young children.22 About a year later, she married Stanley Kirkaldy, who owned a dry-cleaning business.23  Eventually they began a business that provided cleaning services and childcare.

Kirkaldy had always desired to further her education, and so was thrilled to receive a college scholarship after entering a radio contest.  In 1985, many years after she was forced to forgo the completion of her high school education, Irene Kirkaldy, at the age of 68, received her bachelor’s degree in communications from St. John’s University, in New York.24 Five years later, at the age of 72, she received her master’s degree in urban studies from Queens College.25

Mrs. Kirkaldy passed away on August 10, 2007, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.26 For the last several years of her life, she lived in the very town where she boarded a bus and took a stand against the racial inequalities of the day.  While her achievement was largely forgotten for a time, she lived to see recognition for the legacy she gave to the civil rights movement.  In 2000, Gloucester County honored her as part of it's 350th anniversary celebration.27And, a year later, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal.28  While her family describes her as a humble woman, who did only what she felt she had to, her granddaughter said that the eventual recognition of her role in history did give her, “a measure of joy.”29

Mrs.  Kirkaldy’s heroism and humality were not merely restricted to the events and aftermath of that July day in 1944.  As her family has noted, Kirkaldy’s whole life, not just that one act, was about doing what was right.  Even after her court case was over, she continued her interest in civil rights.  Immediately following the case she went on to hand out flyers supporting the end of segregation in schools.30Aditionally, many years later, she wrote to the pope, campaigning for the rights of a Haitian boy barred from attending parochial school in New York.31

Kirkaldy’s kindness and humility were pervasive characteristics of her life.  Not only did she minimize her role in the civil rights movement, but she continuously put others before herself.  Once, she saved a neighbor’s child from a burning building.32 When she woke up to find the neighbor’s house in flames, she immediately rallied people to help her put out the fire.  Then, in her later years, her husband suffered a back injury and was left a quadriplegic.  Kirkaldy continued to invest herself in his care, demonstrating her love for him.  Warmth and kindness to those around her was a tradition, just like her annual tradition of having homeless people over for Thanksgiving dinner and allowing them to do their laundry in her home.33

The granddaughter of Virginian slaves, Irene Morgan Kirkaldy had a profound effect on the civil rights movement that has largely gone unrecognized.34  Farai Chideya, a host for NPR once said, “If it weren’t for Ms. Kirkaldy, the civil rights movement might never have been.”35  This is no exaggeration. Her case before the Supreme Court laid down precedent for anti-segregation cases to follow, as well as sparking the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, predecessor to the Freedom Rides.  Historian Raymond Arsenault says of Kirkaldy, “though technically not a veteran of the Freedom Rides, she was perhaps the one indispensable person in the long saga that stretched back to the summer of 1944.”36 Her story, which began in Maryland, was an integral part of the greater story of the struggle for racial equality and justice.

Endnotes:

1. Carol Morello, "The Freedom Rider a Nation Nearly Forgot: Woman Who Defied Segregation Finally Gets Her Due," Washington Post, July 30, 2000. Return to text
2. "Irene Morgan," Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 65, Gale, 2008, Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2010). Return to text
3. 1930 Census, Baltimore City, 12th Ward ED 572, p. 84, Amos household. Return to text
4. Derek Charles Catsdam, Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides, (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009). Return to text
5. Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 11. Return to text
6. Richard Goldstein, "Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, 90, Rights Pioneer, Dies," New York Times, August 13, 2007. Return to text
7. Jacki Lyden, host, "Irene Morgan Kirkaldy Discusses the 1944 Incident in Which She Refused to Give Up Her Seat on a Bus to a White Couple," NPR, Weekend All Things Considered, August 5, 2000. Return to text
8. Morello. Return to text
9. Richard Dier, "Morgan Vs. State of Virginia: Case to be Supreme Court Hot Potato," Afro-American, January 26, 1946. Return to text
10. Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb, "Irene M. Kirkaldy; Case Spurred Freedom Rides," Washington Post, August 13, 2007. Return to text
11. Lyden. Return to text
12. Arsenault, 17. Return to text
13. Goldstein. Return to text
14. Arsenault, 17. Return to text
15. Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373 (1946). Return to text
16. Morello. Return to text
17. Ibid. Return to text
18. Ibid. Return to text
19. Lamb. Return to text
20. Catsam, 47. Return to text
21. Richard Dier, "Mrs. Morgan Hails J.C. Bus Victory," Afro-American, Jun 15, 1946. Return to text
22. Arsenault, 525. Return to text
23. Morello. Return to text
24. Lamb. Return to text
25. Morello. Return to text
26. Goldstein. Return to text
27. Lamb. Return to text
28. Ibid. Return to text
29. Ibid. Return to text
30. Morello. Return to text
31. Ibid. Return to text
32. Abdullah. Return to text
33. Morello. Return to text
34. Arsenault, 592, note #2. Return to text
35. Farai Chideya, host, "Fighting Jim Crow Before Rosa Parks," NPR, News & Notes, August 15, 2007. Return to text
36. Arsenault, 525. Return to text
 

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