The Freedom Riders were part of a national civil rights movement that began in May of 1961 in which activists rode interstate buses across the segregated South to shed light on how desgregation laws were not being enforced. The goal was to incite the public so as to pressure the government into tightening up the laws.
Their mission was a success. In September, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that effective Nov. 1, 1961 all interstate transportation lines and terminals were to be desegregated.
A member of the Freedom Riders movement hailed from Elmira. Patricia Elaine Bryant was 20 years old at the time when she and four friends took a train down to Jackson, Mississippi with the intent of being arrested. Bryant was the only African American in her group, all of whom were arrested and slapped with the heaviest penalties of anyone who had been arrested at that point, after sitting in the “whites only” section of the Jacksonville train station.
Bryant was released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary on June 16, only about a week after she’d been arrested. She was welcomed back home at the Chemung County Airport and greeted by a large, celebratory crowd. Bryant went on to finish out her degree in social work at Ithaca College.
Rachel Dworkin, archivist for the Chemung Valley History Museum, discovered the local connection to the Freedom Riders through the Elmira/Corning branch of the NAACP, which donated its history collection to the museum. She found a set of articles about Bryant in the collection.
“I read the article and thought, this is the coolest story, I have to share this,” Dworkin said.
Dworkin said its important to remember this piece of history because it reminds us of the power of the collective.
“She was part of a larger movement. she was one person and what she did was relatively small but she was working with hundreds of others – there were over 400 people arrested as part of the Freedom Fider movement – and collectively they shamed the nation into actually enforcing the laws against segregation,” Dworkin said.
The NAACP collection can now be viewed in a virtual exhibit on the museum’s website.