A visit to Columbia, South Carolina, reveals a city that celebrates its significant history. Monuments, markers, preserved historic districts and buildings demonstrate a commitment to discovering and telling the state’s past in all of its glory, flaws, trials and triumphs.
And that’s no exception for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s when African Americans in South Carolina, like others around the nation, sought to change law to ensure fair treatment and equality. There are historic markers throughout the capital city at places of peaceful protests and sit-ins, marking the schools they attended, identifying the churches where they met and documenting the private homes where they lived.
These markers permanently commemorate defining moments in South Carolina’s past before the stories fade from history.
One such important story that might have been lost is that of Sara Mae Flemming. A wayside interpreting her story is installed on Main Street in downtown Columbia, between Washington and Hampton streets. Hidden in plain sight around cafes, boutiques and restaurants, the wayside tells the story of a young maid who, after work, sat in a wrong spot on the city bus, was assaulted by the bus driver and removed from the bus, all of which happened about 17 months before Rosa Parks’ defiance.
Today the wayside is included in a guided walking tour led by the non-profit preservation organization Columbia63, based in nearby University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research.
The wayside explains how Flemming worked as a maid in 1954 and used public transportation regularly. On June 22, 1954, as she sat on a bus after work, Flemming believed she was sitting in an appropriate seat even though it was in front of two white passengers.
The white bus driver admonished Flemming before assaulting her as she tried to exit the bus from the front door.
Though Flemming wanted to put the incident behind her, Modjeska Simkins, South Carolina’s NAACP state secretary, refused to let the incident die. The NAACP and attorneys filed suit in federal court in 1954. By early 1955, however, the federal judge dismissed the case, citing that integrated schools as decided in Brown vs. Board did not apply to all public facilities. Several months later, Flemming’s team won on appeal and captured national headlines, including one in the Chicago Defender newspaper that read “Court Bans Segregation on City Buses in Dixie.” The ruling was largely ignored until Rosa Parks was arrested and the Montgomery bus boycotts began.
After her courageous action on the bus and subsequent trials, Flemming faded from the scene. She and her husband, John Brown, had three children and lived out their lives peacefully in the Columbia area until she died of a heart attack on June 16, 1993 at age 59.
Though her feat would be largely forgotten in light of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, Sara Mae Flemming’s contribution is not ignored today.