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What is: 407 Ashton Street, Clarksdale, Mississippi

What was: Vera Mae Pigee’s Beauty Salon was opened in 1955 and became more than a successful business. Because it was a successful business that didn’t depend on the white community, she was able to be an activist and keep her job. Her Salon was a safe space for civil rights organizing activities; it was a shelter; it was a classroom where literacy was taught to local residents, as part of an effort to increase African American voter registration; and it was a place for local food and clothing drives.

Vera Mae Pigee was a significant civil rights organizer and activist.  In 1959, she helped lead a demonstration at the Illinois Central train terminal where 3 students tried to purchase train tickets from the “white” side of the counter. They were all arrested when the police arrived.  In December 1961, when Pigee and her daughter entered the whites-only bus terminal waiting area, they were harassed by the Clarksdale police. They filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The incident sparked additional protests against the bus terminal and the police department. Those protests forced the Greyhound terminal to end its segregation policy on December 27, 1961.  Ben C. Collins, the Clarksdale chief of police, called her “the most aggressive leader of the NAACP in Clarksdale.

In the 1970s, Vera Mae Pigee moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she studied sociology and journalism at Wayne State University. On December 14, 1985, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities from Urban Bible College of Detroit, in recognition of her work in the field of civil rights. She later became an ordained Baptist minister and continued working with the NAACP. Dr. Vera Mae Pigee passed away in Detroit on September 18, 2007, at the age of 83.  Source: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/people-african-american-history/vera-pigee-1924-2007/

In the fall of 1961, weeks after her daughter’s own protest at the railway station, Pigee and Idessa Johnson, another member of the NAACP Clarksdale branch, walked into the whites-only section of the Clarksdale Greyhound Bus Terminal. It was a personal goal for Pigee to desegregate the bus terminal. On entering the terminal, the women did not find resistance, and Pigee asked for a round-trip ticket from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Clarksdale and for an express bus schedule. The transaction took place without incident. When returning from school she used the whites side of the lobby without incident. However, going back to school and using the whites only side of the lobby four policemen entered the white waiting room where she sat with her mother and a family friend. Harassing them with a barrage of questions, the officers threatened arrest. The repported this to the NAACP….In December 1961 all the segregation signs had disappeared from the Clarksdale bus terminal and the Clarksdale train station. Police had voluntarily removed the signs after the Justice Department informed the city that it faced a law suit. Source: http://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/articles/369/1961-in-mississippi-beyond-the-freedom-riders