#52Ancestors – Week 6: Favorite Name – Vella Lassiter, Civil Rights Champion

Novella Anna Lassiter
Novella Anna “Vella” Lassiter, 1894-1994

I have chosen Vella Lassiter, whose full name was Novella Anna Lassiter, not because the name itself is my favorite over others, but because of who she was and what her name represents to me. I have written about her before. Unfortunately, through some unforeseen circumstances, that post is not currently accessible. However, this time I am pleased to be able to post this information because it is Black History Month and this year she is being honored in her home town for her courage in standing up against injustice. This post is excerpted primarily from my book on her family’s community, From Hill Town to Strieby.

Born 4 September 1894, Novella Anna Lassiter, “Vella” was the second of thirteen children (twelve of whom survived) of Winston and Ora (Kearns) Lassiter, of the Lassiter Mill community in Randolph County, North Carolina.[1] She was the granddaughter of Colier and Kate (Polk) Lassiter, and great granddaughter of Miles Lassiter, an early African American Quaker, about whom I have also written. Vella was my 2nd cousin three times removed.

Vella attended Strieby Church School, about two miles from her home in Strieby, in neighboring Union Township. Strieby was founded by the Rev. Islay Walden under the auspices of the American Missionary Association.[1] From there she went on to Peabody Academy in Troy, in the next county, Montgomery County, and then to Bennett College, in Greensboro. Vella graduated in 1913 from the Normal program and eventually earned her Masters’ degree from Miner Teachers College, in Washington, DC. (Miner became part of DC Teachers College which became the foundation for the Department of Education at the University of the District of Columbia.[2]) Vella went on to become a teacher, first back at Strieby, then the combined school at Red House School in the nearby Mechanic area, then at Central School, a Rosenwald school in the county seat of Asheboro, and finally at a school in Reidsville, in Rockingham County, North Carolina, where she taught for 40 years.  However, being close to her family, she often came home on weekends to visit, so it was in 1937.

 

Vella Lassiter Bennett College Diploma
Vella Lassiter’s Bennett College Diploma, 1913

Vella was returning to Reidsville on Easter Monday afternoon. She was on the first of her two bus trips. The first bus would take her from Asheboro to Greensboro, about 35 miles away in Guilford County. From there she would take a bus to Reidsville. She had bought her ticket and was seated on the bus – next to a white person. The bus was crowded and there were no more seats. The bus driver apparently objected to Vella sitting next to a white person. Vella was asked to give up her seat, get off the bus, and wait for the next one. Anyone who knew Vella knew she was a force of nature. Vella said “No.” The bus driver attempted to force her off the bus. Vella resisted. Eventually two policemen were needed to drag her to the door and throw her onto the sidewalk. She would later tell people there was no way she would make it easy for them to throw her off that bus. After all, she had bought a ticket and she was just as good as any white person.[3] 

Bus Case Hotly contested image (2)
The Carolina Times, 12 August 1939, p. 3

Vella called one of her brothers to come and take her to Reidsville, but she also called a lawyer, her cousin, prominent High Point, North Carolina, African American attorney, T. F Sanders (grandson of Wiley Phillips Lassiter and great grandson of Miles Lassiter). With his assistance (and that of prominent civil rights attorney, F.W. Williams, of Winston Salem) Vella sued the Greensboro-Fayetteville Bus Line, on the grounds that they had sold her the ticket for that specific bus trip and consequently were required to transport her.[4] To everyone’s surprise she won the case in a jury trial in November of that year. She was awarded $300 in damages. The bus company appealed to the North Carolina State Supreme Court.[5]

Bus Company Will Appeal (2)
The Courier, 28 July 1939

Two years later in 1939, the decision was upheld by Judge Allen H. Gwyn.[6] Vella had won. In reporting the victory on 12 August 1939, The Carolina Times newspaper, published in Raleigh, wrote that: Possibly the most significant victory regarding the rights of Negroes was won in Randolph County last month when attorney P.[sic] W. Williams, prominent Winston-Salem lawyer emerged victorious in a suit against the Greensboro-Fayetteville Bus Line.[7]

Wins Important Case image -clipped
The Carolina Times, 12 August 1939

Her success was particularly significant because there was only one other lawsuit before hers that had gone to the North Carolina State Supreme Court and won, that was a 1914 housing segregation lawsuit in Winston-Salem.[8]

Lassiter Family Home, Lassiter Mill Road - 1982.jpg
Lassiter Family Home, Lassiter Mill, New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Photo by Margo Lee Williams, 1982.

After more than 40 years of teaching, Vella retired to the family home in Lassiter Mill, where she lived until her death in January 1994, at 99 years of age. She is buried in the Strieby Church Cemetery. [9]

Figure 50-Strieby Church Sign in memory of Vella Lassiter
Strieby Congregational C.hurch sign, in memory of Novella A. Lassiter, Strieby, Union Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Photo by Margo Lee Williams, 2014

 

Endnotes

[1] Novella Anna Lassiter, 4 September 1894 -2 January 1994. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1700s-Current [Database on-line]. Retrieved from: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/83486598

[2] Williams, M. L. (2016).  A Civil Rights Story: Vella Lassiter. In From Hill Town to Strieby (Crofton KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc.), pp. 155-159.

[3] UDC’s History. University of the District of Columbia-1851. Retrieved from: https://www.udc.edu/about/history-mission/

[4] Jones, K. L. (1993). Novella Anna Lassiter (361). The Heritage of Randolph County, North Carolina, pp. 343-344.

[5] Bus Case Hotly Contested in Randolph County. (12 August 1939). The Carolina Times, p. 3. Retrieved from: http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn83045120/1939-08-12/ed-1/seq-6/#date1=1939&index=0&date2=1939&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&lccn=sn84025826&lccn=2014236904&lccn=2015236558&lccn=sn98058906&lccn=sn83045120&lccn=2015236794&lccn=sn92074045&lccn=sn92073929&lccn=2015236793&lccn=2015236573&lccn=2015236572&lccn=2015236571&lccn=2015236570&lccn=2015236569&lccn=2015236568&lccn=2015236567&lccn=2015236766&lccn=2015236765&lccn=2015236764&lccn=sn97064597&lccn=sn98058907&lccn=2017236906&lccn=sn96027351&lccn=2015236599&lccn=2015236750&lccn=sn92072987&lccn=2016236536&lccn=2015236585&lccn=2015236586&lccn=sn97064595&lccn=sn83025849&lccn=2014236900&lccn=sn85042324&lccn=2015236574&proxdistance=5&rows=20&words=Bus+Case+Contested+Hotly&phrasetext=Bus+Case+Hotly+Contested&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1&type3=on

[6] Bus Company Will Appeal Verdict. (28 July 1939). The Courier. Courtesy of Randolph Room, Randolph County Public Library.

[7] Wins Important Case. (12 August 1939). The Carolina Times, p. 6. Retrieved from: http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn83045120/1939-08-12/ed-1/seq-3/

[8] Wins Important Case. (12 August 1939). The Carolina Times, p. 6. Retrieved from: http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn83045120/1939-08-12/ed-1/seq-3/

[9] Gershenhorn, J. (2010) A Courageous Voice for Black Freedom: Louis Austin and the Carolina Times in Depression-Era North Carolina. North Carolina Historical Review, 87(1):85; and Williams, M. L. (2013). Vella Lassiter, 1937 Bus Suit. The Miles Lassiter Family of Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: http://mileslassiter.tribalpages.com/tribe/browse?userid=mileslassiter&view=78&ver=352&storyid=49456.

[10] Novella Anna Lassiter, 4 September 1894 -2 January 1994. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1700s-Current [Database on-line]. Retrieved from: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/83486598

 

 

 

 

 

 

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