Columbia City of Women Honoree
Sarah Mae Flemming
Image courtesy of the John H. McCray papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
On June 22, 1954, Sarah Mae Flemming walked from her home at 1107 Page Street and boarded a bus operated by the South Carolina Electric & Gas Company (SCE&G) at the intersection of Main and Taylor streets, a routine she followed every weekday morning on her way to work. Flemming, just four days shy of her twenty-first birthday, worked as a maid for a white family in one of Columbia’s affluent suburbs. Despite the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education the previous month, which declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional, South Carolina’s public spaces remained rigidly segregated. The placement of the color line on Columbia’s SCE&G buses, which shifted with the number of black and white riders, was enforced by the drivers, who were legally vested with the powers of a deputy sheriff.
That morning, Flemming took the seat of a white woman who was exiting the bus. To her left were two African American women, and several white women sat closer to the front. According to Flemming’s testimony two years later, the driver, Warren H. Christmus, told her, “Can’t you wait until someone gets off the bus before you sit down? Get up. And I mean right now.” In his defense at trial, Christmus explained that she was sitting in front of two white people.
Embarrassed, Flemming pulled the cord for the next stop, located at Main and Washington streets, despite it being more than two miles from her employers’ home. According to Flemming, Christmus blocked her from exiting the front door of the bus with a punch, forcing her back down the aisle to the rear door. She returned home and then to the hospital, where she was examined and released. Although she chose not to mention the incident to her family until the following week, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, state secretary for the South Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (SC NAACP), heard about the altercation and saw it as an opportunity to strike another blow to legalized segregation. Simkins hired attorney Phillip Wittenberg, who had tried a similar case that was dismissed on appeal. On July 21, 1954, Wittenberg filed suit on Flemming’s behalf in federal court, alleging that her 14th amendment rights had been violated and asking for $25,000 in actual and punitive damages.
Like her newfound advocate Simkins, Sarah Mae Flemming was the eldest child of farmers who owned substantial land, but their similarities largely end there. Flemming was born on June 28, 1933 to Mack and Rosetta Flemming, who raised seven children on 130 acres about four miles north of Eastover. Mack Flemming also worked on WPA-funded road construction projects. Descendants of men and women enslaved in lower Richland County, neither of the Flemmings received more than an elementary school education. Sarah Mae Flemming entered the workforce after completing 10th grade at the segregated Webber School in Eastover. She spent the early 1950s working as a maid and sending most of her paycheck to her parents to help support her younger siblings. The lawsuit would thrust her into the national spotlight more than 16 months before Rosa Parks took her seat aboard a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
On February 16, 1955, Judge George Bell Timmerman dismissed the case on the grounds that “separate but equal” school facilities had been ruled unconstitutional, but did not apply to “separate facilities for the races in defendant’s buses." In coordination with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF), led by Thurgood Marshall, local attorneys Matthew J. Perry, Jr. and Lincoln C. Jenkins, Jr. joined Wittenberg for the appeal heard by the US Fourth Circuit Court on June 21, 1955. That court overruled Timmerman on July 14, “noting the old doctrine that separate but equal facilities for Negroes are constitutional can no longer be ‘regarded as a correct statement of the law.’” (The State, August 2, 1955). The Chicago Defender touted the ruling two weeks later with the headline, “Court Bans Segregation on City Buses in Dixie.”
By then, Timmerman’s son, George Bell Timmerman, Jr., had been elected and installed as the 105th governor of South Carolina. Governor Timmerman, S.C. Attorney General T.C. Callison, and Mayor J. Clarence Dreher, Jr., pledged to aid SCE&G in bringing the appeal to the Supreme Court. On April 23, 1956, the highest court dismissed the appeal as frivolous, leaving most observers certain that the ban on segregation on intrastate buses was deemed unconstitutional. Callison called it “another unwarranted invasion of state and municipal rights,” and the leaders of the Citizens Councils of South Carolina claimed the ruling was “dictatorial and unconstitutional.” Flemming, speaking to the Associated Press, offered two sentiments:
“It was the right thing to do. I only hope it won’t lead to trouble.”
— The State, April 25, 1956
Judge Timmerman would subsequently preside over two trials in 1956 and 1957, both with all-white, all-male juries. In describing the proceedings, The State reporters repeatedly referred to the now-married Sarah Mae Brown as “the Flemming woman,” or “the Brown woman,” and her witness, an African American woman named Elizabeth King, as “the King woman.” The first trial began June 12, 1956, with Brown represented once again by Phillip Wittenberg. That night, the Ku Klux Klan burned an eight-foot-tall cross in his yard. Timmerman dismissed the case the following day, before the defense could present witnesses. Brown, represented by Lincoln C. Jenkins, Jr. and Robert L. Carter, again successfully appealed before the US Fourth Circuit Court, who on November 29, 1956 sent the case back to Timmerman. The final trial, in which Matthew J. Perry, Jr. joined Jenkins for the plaintiff, proceeded to jury deliberations on June 11, 1957. After 30 minutes, the jury decided SCE&G still owed Sarah Mae Flemming Brown nothing.
Brown and her husband lived the rest of their lives in Eastover, raising three children: John Earl, Wanda, and Bruce. She died in 1993 at the age of 59, having never spoken publicly about her role in ending segregated travel accommodations.
Sarah Mae Flemming was forcibly removed from an SCE&G bus at this corner in 1954 after sitting in front of two white women. Her lawsuit, Flemming vs. SCE&G, helped end segregated transportation in Columbia.
Flemming’s heroic act and determination served as a powerful example for individuals such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. as they continued the quest for justice and equality.
Dr. Bobby Donaldson
Want to learn more about Sarah Mae Flemming? Connect with a historian at Historic Columbia or visit SCETV.org.
Interested in advancing the health, economic well-being, and rights of South Carolina's women, girls, and their families? Check out what's going on at WREN.