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Fighting the Good Fight Longtime thrift store manager Betty Daniels Rosemond saw the Civil Rights fight from the frontline as a Freedom Rider

Betty Daniels Rosemond was crouched down at the bottom of a phone booth, one ear tentatively listening to people on the other end of the line while the other was tuned in to a mob of angry voices screaming on the other side of the street.

“I know another n---er got off the bus,” they yelled as they ran around.

The group of men came storming up to the local bus station when they heard that Freedom Riders were in town. The men already forced three of the Freedom Riders into the back of a pickup truck and drove off, and now were in search of one that got away—Rosemond.

Freedom Riders were a key component to the early Civil Rights movement, volunteers who would board buses and travel throughout the South, getting off at each stop to see if federal desegregation laws were being enforced. Often they would get arrested, pushing the issue of Civil Rights into the local courts. Mostly, though, they were met with contempt and distain, sometimes violence, particularly in the Deep South—places like Poplarville, Miss.

Poplarville is a tiny town along the Pearl River, about halfway between New Orleans to the south and Hattiesburg to the north along U.S. 11. It was well known among Civil Rights advocates because of a lynching that took place a year earlier. A black man was beaten to death and his body was thrown in the river. It’s not the kind of place you wanted to be if you were a young black woman pushing for civil rights, but it’s exactly where Rosemond found herself.

Each Freedom Rider was assigned a task, and hers was to call the Freedom Ride organizers—CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality—if anything happened. When her friends were pushed into the pickup truck, Rosemond ran across the street to a phone booth, only to watch as the bus drove off without her and the mob grew angrier.

Crouched low and scared for her life, a man walked up next to the phone booth to see what the commotion was all about. He was elderly, and black.

“You have to help me,” Rosemond whispered.

“Stay low,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

He walked back to the service station behind the phone booth. “I have an emergency at home. I have to borrow the truck.”

He pulled up next to the phone booth and opened the door. “Get in, but stay out of sight.” He drove her to two different homes, thinking the owners could protect her for the night. Both declined. The fear from the lynching was still too strong.

“I’ll drive you to the interstate,” he said. “Maybe you can catch a ride.”

As they rode, he prayed out loud. “Dear God, tell me what to do. I’ve got eight kids and can’t put them in danger, but I can’t just drop her off on the side of the highway.”

It was more than 70 miles back to New Orleans, but by the time they got to the interstate the man didn’t care. “OK, I’ll take you.”

They pulled into the CORE headquarters in New Orleans. “Don’t tell anyone I did this,” he said. “It will cost me my life.”

***

Rosemond sits in the breakroom at the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store on Colerain Avenue recounting the harrowing tales of life in the 1960s and the fight for Civil Rights. Young African-American workers pop in and out, not listening to her stories and unaware of how all that she did helped pave the way for the freedom they now have.

The environment is a familiar one for Rosemond. For 41 years she worked as a thrift store manager for St. Vincent de Paul, moving from stores in Norwood to Spring Grove to Finneytown to Colerain as the program grew. When the Colerain store relocated to its current location four years ago, she decided to retire.

“I’m 81 years old,” she says. “I’ve been working since I was 13. It was time to turn it over to someone younger.”

Still spry but moving a bit slower than she did in the past, she still comes in four days a week, helping out however she can for four hours a day.

In the heart of her Civil Rights efforts, she met a man from Cincinnati who came down to New Orleans to help. She followed him north in 1962 and has been here ever since.

“When I first moved here, I was working at Rinks, and when they closed I panicked,” she says. “I needed a job. I said, ‘Lord, help me.’ He told me to call St. Vincent de Paul. I called down and got an interview with Mr. Havalon. I got all dressed up and caught the bus downtown. I was wearing a dove lapel pin because I wanted the Holy Spirit with me, and I walked into Mr. Havalon’s office and he had on the same dove lapel pin. We talked, but he said they didn’t have any openings. I was so disappointed. I got all dressed up and took the bus downtown. But that afternoon my phone rang and they told me I got the job and started at the Norwood store on Monday.”

Managing thrift stores was never her goal. She loved school and was intent on getting a college education so she could be an English teacher. Her family worked for a wealthy businessman in New Orleans who agreed to pay her tuition. She enrolled at the Louisiana State University campus in New Orleans in 1959, the first year it was desegregated.

“There were only a dozen black students, and we weren’t allowed to participate in any activities and some of the professors treated you like you were invisible,” she says. “You’d raise your hand because you had a question and they would ignore you.”

One day she came home and there was a news program on the TV talking about CORE and the Freedom Riders. The first group started in Washington, D.C., and was headed to New Orleans, but their bus was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan in Anniston, Ala. As the riders piled out of the bus they were beaten.

“That night there happened to be a meeting at our church for people interested in joining CORE,” she says. “Well you know I had to go.”

CORE members were trained to be nonviolent. They would be slapped, harassed and pushed by trainers, and if the response was violent in any way they weren’t allowed to join.

“I survived the training,” she says, “although I came close a couple of times.”

The training paid off. While picketing against the segregated lunch counters at Woolworth’s in New Orleans, two young boys came up to her and blocked her path.

“They spat in my face and called me names and harassed me,” she says. “I was crying, but I didn’t say anything. Finally a preacher came by and wiped my tears and told me to continue. The Lord told me as I stood there, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And that’s so true. Nobody is born a racist.”

***

Occasionally, her home phone will ring and a young man from her church will be on the other end.

“Is the Freedom Bus leaving tonight?”

“Sorry, you missed the bus.”

“Well if it leaves again, are you getting on it?”

“I will if you help me get on.”

Rosemond laughs at the conversation, but is serious about the last part.

“I’d do it all again,” she says. “We were motivated by a higher power. God was in the movement and we couldn’t stop. Wherever we had to go, we went.”

She rode buses through Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi. She was arrested in Virginia for refusing to leave a whites-only restaurant. She was sentenced to six months in jail and fined several hundred dollars, but her case was appealed and ended up in front of the Supreme Court. She won.

“Whenever something happened, it only motivated us more,” she says. “We knew we could have gotten killed, but if we did, we did. I would always tell my mom, ‘I’ll see you when I get back,’ but we didn’t know if we would come back.”

During the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, she was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey about her experiences. In 2014, she was inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame, and later invited to the National Women’s Law Center banquet in Washington, D.C., where President Barrack Obama was the keynote speaker. He met with the Freedom Riders privately before the event, giving each one a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“I was remembering all that my mom went through,” she says. “She would love to go shopping on Canal Street downtown and eat lunch at Woolworth’s, but she always had to eat in the back. And if she was on a bus, it didn’t matter if there were 10 open seats, they could make her move to the back of the bus.”

Civil rights, she says, has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go. To help, she continues to share her story, speaking on college campuses and churches and anywhere people will listen. Even in the breakroom of the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store on Colerain Avenue.

“I wanted to be a high school English teacher, but now I teach history,” she says. “And I would only change on thing: That man who helped me and gave me a ride back to New Orleans, to this day I don’t know who he was.”