Remembering the Fight for Civil Rights with Mae Breckenridge Haywood
Mae Breckenridge Haywood got arrested simply for asking for a soda.
The year was 1960, and this Portsmouth native was a student at Virginia State College. Mae, who is Black, participated in a sit-in protest in Petersburg by going to the Whites-only section in a diner.
Instead of being served a beverage, she got hauled to jail and charged with trespassing.
Mae tells her story, hoping that people will remember the struggle for Civil Rights and avoid racist practices that hurt People of Color.
"Racial equity means acknowledging the history," she said. "It means learning the history; learning what has happened before and sharing that history."
Growing up in Portsmouth, Mae, whose last name was Griffin at the time, lived in an all-Black neighborhood and attended all-Black schools, including the renowned I.C. Norcom High. As a child, she did not fully grasp the impact of segregation and the unequal facilities and treatment that she and many Blacks experienced.
As she got older and ventured off to Virginia State College – now known as Virginia State University – Mae became aware of the unfair treatment of Blacks in everyday life, and she decided to speak up about it.
She learned of protests that college students were conducting to stand up for Civil Rights through news reports. A leader in the local NAACP suggested that Mae and other Virginia State College students do the same.
Ready to protest, Mae and her friends walked from campus to town to the Trailways bus station, which had a segregated diner. Mae's task was to go to the Whites-only section, sit down, and ask for service. Mae said she and her friends sat peacefully and tried to order food. The White servers refused and then called the police on the students. Mae got arrested and booked in the city jail with 14 others, including a minister. A judge later dismissed the charges.
"I was miserable in jail," Mae recalled. "I was in jail for a Civil Rights issue, and when I was put with a regular criminal, I was miserable. But my stamina to try to work to get equal facilities stayed with me forever."
Mae graduated from college and became a librarian in the public school system for 36 years.
She retired in 2001 and became a founding member of the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth. She helped preserve a historic building formerly used as a segregated public library for Black residents. Through volunteering and advocacy, along with support from the community foundation, Mae helped restore the building and convert it to a history museum called the Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum. It sits at 904 Elm Avenue in Portsmouth, and it stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration.
Follow this link to learn more about the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth.
Follow this link to learn more about racial equity.