The year was 1961, and Betty Daniels Rosemond, then 21, was on a Freedom Ride. Her bus pulled into a Greyhound station in Poplarville, Miss., around 8 p.m.
Three fellow Freedom Riders went inside the station to see if they could get served in the white seating area. In a matter of minutes, those Freedom Riders were physically removed from the station by local residents, thrown into the back of a pickup truck and driven off.
Rosemond entered a phone booth to call the headquarters of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one the leading civil rights activist organizations of the time, to alert them about what happened.
The bus drove off. An unfriendly crowd gathered nearby, looking for her.
This was one of many scenes Rosemond described to Dater High School students to share her experiences as a Civil Rights Activist and Freedom Rider.
“For Black History Month, we often learn about and discuss the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Rosa Parks and others,” said Maurice Huey, Chief Operations Officer of the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, while introducing Rosemond. “But today, we are hearing from someone who lives right here in Cincinnati, and who is very brave and resilient. She was one of the Freedom Riders we’ve learned about.
“She was also my Sunday school teacher when I was a kid,” he added with a smile.
With that, senior Khyri Smith kicked off an interview with Rosemond. She started at the beginning: her childhood in New Orleans. She and her mother frequented Woolworth’s Lunch Counter, where they ate at the back of the restaurant. At the black counter. Every time. They could not sit at the white counter – even if it was empty.
“I wanted my mother to be able to sit at any lunch counter she wanted to sit at, in her favorite restaurant,” Rosemond shared.
When she came of age, Rosemond joined CORE after successfully completing rigorous training that tested one’s ability to remain nonviolent, even while harassed with racial slurs, taunts and shoves.
And, despite her mother’s worries about her personal safety, she began participating in Freedom Rides.
Back to that night in Poplarville, Miss.
“If we died, we died. We knew the cause was right,” Rosemond said.
The CORE headquarters received Rosemond’s phone call and immediately notified U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy of the situation. Kennedy contacted the town’s officials and said that if they did not release those Freedom Riders, the Coast Guard would be there in a matter of hours.
As for Rosemond, she continued to hide in that phone booth. Someone working at a nearby gas station came out to the road to see what was going on, and she was able to discreetly get his attention. The stranger borrowed a truck from the gas station, and she got in.
That kind stranger drove Rosemond back to New Orleans—nearly 75 miles. That was the only route to safety.
A student asked how she was able to forgive those who did horrible things to her and to those around her, and how she maintains her perspective now when she sees violence and racism today.
A spiritual woman, Rosemond talked about her faith, which helped her sustain those difficult times when neither her future nor safety were certain. Her faith helped her forgive those who said racist things and committed racist acts toward her. Her faith helped her carry on and be a part of the change she wanted to see in the world.
“Change starts with you,” Rosemond said in her closing remarks. “It goes back to looking in the mirror and at yourself and knowing that you can make a change by living it.”