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Freedom Rider to share experiences, message with UHV, community

Joan Browning didn’t set out to become a civil rights activist during the 1960s. She just wanted to go to church.

Joan Browning

But when Georgia State College for Women President Robert E. Lee found out that the white student was attending a black church, Browning was forced to leave the college. After that eye-opening experience, Browning moved to Atlanta, where she got a job at Emory University Library.

“That was where I met Casey Hayden, who is from Victoria, Julian Bond and a lot of the young activists in the civil rights movement,” she said. “They were wonderful, witty and wise people. I was lucky to be a part of it.”

Browning will share her experiences and some of the things she learned during the Civil Rights era with University of Houston-Victoria students and the community. On Tuesday, she will give a presentation to a UHV civil rights class. The next day, she will give a public presentation at 7 p.m. in the Alcorn Auditorium inside UHV University West, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. The Wednesday presentation is free and open to the public.

Beverly Tomek

“The people who took part in Freedom Rides and other civil rights protests are often seen as radicals or exceptional individuals,” said Beverly Tomek, a UHV assistant professor of history. “But so many of them were ordinary people who saw segregation was wrong and decided to do something about it. It’s important for us to listen to and remember stories like Joan Browning’s and share them with future generations.”

Browning is a writer and lecturer who lives in West Virginia. For 13 years, she was a development consultant to the Greenbrier Community College Foundation. She has written autobiographical accounts of her experiences, including the article “Invisible Revolutionaries: White Women in Civil Rights Movement Historiography” for the Journal of Women’s History. Browning and Hayden have autobiographical chapters in the collection “Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement.” During the civil rights era, she participated in sit-ins and picketed segregated stores and facilities in addition to the 1961 Albany Freedom Ride.

During her visit to UHV, Browning plans to share her experience as one of the people who took part in the last Freedom Ride. Freedom Riders were protestors who would sit in segregated areas of public buses. The rides were deliberate provocations to try to force the South to stop segregation, which already had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

At that time, Browning was dating a Georgia Tech student on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship. He wanted to go on a Freedom Ride, but if he got arrested, it would cause his expulsion from Georgia Tech and send him to Southeast Asia, so she went instead. That made her the last person chosen to take part in the final Freedom Ride. The bus traveled from Atlanta to Albany, Ga.

“Casey Hayden helped me prepare for that ride,” Browning said. “She told me what kind of supplies I should bring and what I should wear in case I was arrested, which I was.”

Although her personal experiences are important testimonies of the fight for civil rights, Browning wants to emphasize the importance of leadership. During the protests and the effort to stop segregation, the leadership of people like Hayden helped make the sit-ins and rides successful, she said.

“I want to try to give people something useful to contribute to their lives now, not just curiosity at how things were done in the past,” Browning said. “I get discouraged when people think they can’t do anything to bring about change. Wherever you are, you have the ability to inspire change. That’s the whole message from the 1960s: You’re not helpless, and you can make a difference.”

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973, offers courses leading to 70 bachelor’s, master’s and specialist degree programs and concentrations in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.