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As funeral services were held in New Jersey to honor the late Sarah Keys Evans today, members of a committee which brought an inclusive arts project to Roanoke Rapids gathered at the plaza to honor her legacy as a civil rights icon.

“Today we have come to take some time to stop and acknowledge and memorialize a beautiful lady, a trailblazer, a strong tower, a sister, a veteran, a friend, and one known to the world,” said Georgette Kimball, a member of Sarah Keys Evans Committee. “We just thank God for her. That’s why we’re standing here today to memorialize and just say, ‘Thank God for her life.’”

Ophelia Gould Faison read from Jeremiah 29, verses 11 and 12, which say, “For I know the plans I have for you … Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future …”

Reverend C.E. McCullom, one of the people instrumental in bringing the plaza to Roanoke Rapids along with the other committee members, said before his opening prayer, “Today we gather to say our final goodbyes and salute this remarkable woman who touched our lives in more ways than we can imagine and for being the trailblazer she was.”

McCullom said, “To continue Sarah’s legacy is essential. The Sarah Keys Evans Plaza memorial will ensure that we remember her story, her service and her unwavering commitment in pursuit of justice. Today we memorialize her bravery, her strength and conviction. Heaven has prepared a place for Sarah in history that no one can take from her. As I look upon this grand monument erected in her honor I’m filled with a great sense of pride in knowing that future generations will visit this site.”

The minister said the committee had the opportunity to learn the story of her arrest on a bus layover in Roanoke when Keys, then a member of the Women’s Army Air Corps in 1952, refused to give up her seat to a white Marine.

It was, McCollum said, the story of a young African American woman “whose acts of bravery changed the trajectory of history for all of us.”

Parks and Recreation Director John Simeon, whose department oversees Martin Luther King Jr. Park where the plaza is located, helped Gould Faison lay a wreath in honor of Keys Evans, who died on November 16. 

Gould Faison then lit a memorial candle in her honor.

“Today we come to celebrate the life and legacy Ms. Sarah Keys Evans — a civil rights icon …” Kimball said. “We pay homage to her today in the city of Roanoke Rapids — here her birthplace of civil rights on August 1, 1952.”

Roanoke Rapids, Kimball said, “Is the place where she lit the spark to justice and equality when she refused to give up her seat for a white Marine as she was traveling home to Washington, North Carolina from New Jersey on a Carolina Coach bus.”

It was at the bus terminal on Roanoke Avenue where she was taken off the bus, arrested, “and spent the night in a filthy jail cell and charged $25 for disorderly conduct.”

On November 7, 1955, in the Keys v. Carolina Coach Company action, the lawsuit was settled and because of that ruling, Kimball said, “We can be seated on any mode of transportation because Sarah Louise Keys refused to give up her seat. We are glad we are able to celebrate the life of Mrs. Evans for the past four years here at the Sarah Keys Evans Plaza.”

Keys Evans, in her own humble way, Kimball said, “Was so honored and elated that we acknowledged her after the many years that this had passed. She challenged us in her own words to know ourselves and to help to make this world a better place.

“So today we eulogize a trailblazer, a pioneer with a God-sent purpose. I too believe that every person, everything happens for a season. I believe that God has a purpose for all things … Today we thank God for the plans he had for Sarah Keys Evans and the trail she blazed for our world starting right here in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. To God we give the glory for a lady who was blessed to live for 95 years upon this earth.”

Sharon Peele sang the song May the Work I have Done Speak for Me.

Ervin V. Griffin Sr., also a member of the committee, said, “I know it’s a sad day but it’s also a joyful day because I certainly hope my life will reflect on the world like her life has. I hope there will be many, many things that we have done that people have to carry forward. If Sarah Keys was here I think that she would tell us that, ‘I’ve done my part, I’m going to take my rest but you can’t take yours. It’s time for you to make your own trail. There are still things that we need to do in this life.’”

Keys was the perfect example of making your own trail, Griffin said. “For many, many years we didn’t know about her. But nonetheless it was still there — the important things that she had done.”

Griffin said the committee rejoiced that they had the opportunity for four or five years to hear her through conversations. “Those are things we can look at in the future and remember that if Sarah Keys could give up all of that, the little bit we have to give up now to make the world better for people coming behind us we need to do it.”

Florine Bell, in her benediction, said she was honored to be invited to the service and to honor “this great woman, your servant, a native of North Carolina now being honored here in Roanoke Rapids. You allowed us to see her faith, you allowed us to hear her voice. We want to thank you for allowing her to be one of your early servants, an early civil rights advocate, a social justice advocate.”

Bell in her closing prayer said, “We ask that this work may continue on to walk in her footsteps in promoting social justice all over this land.”