Joan Trumpauer Mulholland

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Joan Trumpauer Mulholland
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland - 2013.jpg
Mulholland in 2013
Joan Trumpauer

(1941-09-14) September 14, 1941 (age 77)
Washington, D.C., United States
EducationDuke University
Tougaloo College
Known forFreedom Riders
Home townArlington, Virginia
Children5 sons

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (born September 14, 1941) is an American civil rights activist and a Freedom Rider from Arlington, Virginia. She is known for the following: taking part in sit-ins; being the first white to integrate Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, and joining the Delta Sigma Theta sorority;[1] joining Freedom Rides; and being held on death row in Parchman Penitentiary.

She ultimately retired after teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for 40 years and started the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation, dedicated to educating the youth about the Civil Rights Movement and how to become activists in their own communities.

Early life[edit]

Joan Mulholland, born as Joan Trumpauer[2] in Washington, D.C., was raised in Arlington, Virginia,[3] during the Civil Rights era.

Her great-grandparents were slave owners in Georgia, and after the United States Civil War they became sharecroppers. Her mother was the first in her family to marry a "Yankee". Both of her parents had good government jobs.[3]

Joan Trumpauer attended a Presbyterian church and Sunday school regularly.[4] She practiced memorizing verses as well such as: "In as much as you have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for such is the Kingdom of God."[3] The morality she was taught at church was in direct contrast to the segregation around her and hatred her parents espoused.[5]

Joan later recalled an occasion that forever changed her perspective, when visiting her family in Georgia during summer. Joan and her childhood friend Mary dared each other to walk into "nigger" town, which was located on the other side of the train tracks. Joan stated her eyes were opened by the experience: "No one said anything to me, but the way they shrunk back and became invisible, showed me that they believed that they weren't as good as me."[6][citation needed]

At the age of 10, Joan began to recognize the economic divide between the races. At that moment, she vowed to herself that if she could do anything to help be a part of the Civil Rights Movement and change the world, she would.[4]

Her desire for activism created a tension and divide between her and her mother. She had planned on going to a small, church university in Ohio or Kentucky, but her mother would not allow it out of fear of integration. Instead, her mother insisted she apply to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she was accepted.[4]


Duke had separate campuses for men and women. In the first and second week of school, women rushed and pledged for sororities. Joan and her roommate were uninterested and went to a different event held by the International Club, instead. This behavior was unusual for Duke and the University sent a counselor to visit the girls to see if they were unhappy.[3]

In the spring of 1960, Joan participated in her first of many sit-ins. Being a white, Southern woman, her civil rights activism was not understood. She was branded as mentally ill and was taken in for testing after her first arrest. Out of fear of shakedowns, Joan wore a skirt with a deep, ruffled hem where she would hide paper that she had crumpled until it was soft and then folded neatly. With this paper, Joan was able to write a diary about her experiences that still exists. In this diary, she explains what they were given to eat and how they sang almost all night long. She even mentioned the segregation in the jail cells and stated, "I think all the girls in here are gems but I feel more in common with the Negro girls & wish I was locked in with them instead of these atheist Yankees."[7]

She has stated she got a lot of support from the faculty at Duke University, but not from the administration.[3] She dropped out of Duke in the fall, after being pressured by the Dean of Women to stop her activism.[8]

Freedom Rides and prison[edit]

In the summer of 1961, the historic Freedom Riders, a group of black and white activists, challenged the legally segregated buses and bus stations of the south by refusing to travel separately. Thirteen riders left on two Greyhound buses en route to New Orleans from Washington, DC.[9]

Anniston, Alabama was the most dangerous of all towns where the riders stopped. On Mother's Day, the two buses arrived in Anniston and were set on fire. Churchgoers, along with their children, were reported to have watched as the riders attempted to escape the flames of the bus, only to be beaten by the townspeople until the police stopped the chaos. After this event, many thought they saw the end of the Freedom Rides. Instead, a call was made to Mulholland in D.C. and to Diane Nash asking for more riders.[4]

Mulholland, along with Stokely Carmichael (the activist and later SNCC chairman), Hank Thomas, and many others took a different freedom ride. The group took a plane to New Orleans, then rode on the Illinois Central train to Jackson, Mississippi, with members of the Congress of Racial Equality.[4]

After the new group of Freedom Riders were arrested for refusing to leave a bus waiting area in Jackson, Mulholland and others were put inside a paddy wagon and taken to the most dreaded prison in MississippiParchman Penitentiary, a jail in the Delta, not far from where Emmett Till had been murdered in 1955. This prison had a reputation for violence, and several inmates had disappeared. It was June 1961. Mulholland was 19 at the time and refused to pay bail.[4]

On the ride there, the driver stopped at a house in rural Mississippi. Mulholland and the other activists reportedly began to fear for their lives. In retrospect, Mulholland later recounted, the driver had probably needed a pit stop and only desired to frighten the riders.[4]

When they got to Parchman, the women were issued coarse denim black-and-white striped skirts and t-shirts. Prior to being locked in cells, the women were stripped and each given a vaginal exam. The matron cleansed her gloved hand, prior to each exam, in a bucket of liquid that Mulholland said smelled like Lysol. In prison, Mulholland was segregated from her fellow Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) friends. She described the experience as isolating, with everyone unaware of what was going on.[4]

They were housed on death row for two months. "We were in a segregated cell with 17 women and 3 square feet of floor space for each of us," she recalled in 2014.[5][10][11]

Many of the freedom riders remained behind bars about a month, but Mulholland had no plans and no place to go until school opened in the fall. She served her two-month sentence and additional time to work off the $200 fine she owed. Each day in prison took three dollars off the fine.[11]

Tougaloo College[edit]

Soon after Mulholland's release, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton E. Holmes became the first African-American students to enroll at the University of Georgia. Mulholland thought, "Now if whites were going to riot when black students were going to white schools, what were they going to do if a white student went to a black school?" She then became the first white student to enroll in Tougaloo College in Jackson, where she met Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Ed King, and Anne Moody.[12]

When Dr. King came to Tougaloo College to give a speech, it was Joan who escorted him to the science building where he was to speak. Mulholland states that King was the hero of the movement, but many often got frustrated with him for preaching all of the time.[4] Two years later, Mulholland was the first white student accepted into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.[8] Later, Joan also became a secretary for SNCC.

Mulholland has stated that, during her attendance at Tougaloo College, crosses were occasionally burned on campus. Several of the local authorities were worried that something might happen between her—a white woman—and one of the black men. There were various attempts to shut down Tougaloo but the school remained open because its charter predated the Jim Crow laws.[4]

She received many letters scolding or threatening her while she was attending Tougaloo. Her parents later tried to reconcile with their daughter, and they bribed her with a trip to Europe. She accepted their offer and went with them during summer vacation. Shortly after they returned, however, she went straight back to Tougaloo College.[4]

Jackson Woolworth's sit-in[edit]

Mulholland participated in the May 28, 1963 sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Jackson with 13 other activists, such as fellow Tougaloo student Anne Moody, professor Dr. John Salter, and white Tougaloo chaplain Reverend Ed King. The activists were beaten, smeared with condiments, and berated. The crowd yelled at the students, screaming the phrase "communist" at them constantly. One man pointed out of the crowd to Mulholland, calling her a "white nigger".[5][12][13]

The sit-in started with Moody and two other black students, Pearlena Lewis and Memphis Norman, sitting down at the white counter. Police could not arrest them because the Supreme Court had ruled that police could only act on an invitation by the store manager, and could not come in of their own accord.[citation needed]

Around the time Mulholland arrived at Woolworth's, Norman had been dragged to the floor by former police officer Benny Oliver, who wore tennis shoes, and was being kicked repeatedly. The assault continued until an undercover police officer arrested both Norman and Oliver. Moody and Lewis were both torn from their seats later on. Moody had been thrown against the counter. Around this time, Mulholland noticed a man walk past Moody with a knife and called out, "Annie, he's got a knife." She then walked to the counter and sat down next to Moody and Lewis. People started to yell slurs such as "traitor," "communist," "black bitch," and "white nigger." Mulholland was lifted by her waist by one man and Moody was lifted from her stool by two high school boys. Both of the girls were dragged by their hair out of the store.[12]

Mulholland's assailant was arrested outside and she was allowed to go free. She returned to the lunch counter with Moody. At that moment there were two whites and two blacks, all female. Soon Salter arrived, joining the two women at the counter. The crowd grew more violent. Salter received a cigarette burn on the back of his neck, he was hit in the jaw with brass knuckles, and a pepper water mix was thrown into his eyes. She started to fear for their lives just before things started to draw to a close. The sit-in ended at about 2:00 p.m. when the president of Tougaloo College got a hold of the National Office of Woolworth, who advised the store manager to shut the store down.[4][12]

This event ended up being one of the most violent sit-ins. Mulholland recalled being told by reporters that it was one of the most frightening stories they had ever covered on the Civil Rights Movement.[citation needed] Bill Minor, then the Mississippi correspondent covering civil rights events for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and who was there that day, says the Jackson Woolworth's sit-in was "the signature event of the protest movement in Jackson. The first one there was with real violence."[14]

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom[edit]

On August 28, 1963, Mulholland helped to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.[4] She rode to Washington, D.C. with Moody and the Rev. Ed King and his wife. On their return, the group stopped in a federal park in Tennessee, where they spent the night. The next morning, Moody and Mulholland woke before the Kings and went to the bathroom where they found showers. They used showers one at a time and, having forgotten towels, used the paper towels in the bathroom to dry each other off. The women were discovered in the bathroom as two white women walked in, disturbed by Moody and Mulholland's actions. Moody and Mulholland returned to the now awake Kings, told them the story, and were quickly rushed from the park. Moody recalled seeing a group of white women come into view and watch just as the integrated car drove away.[12]

16th Street Baptist Church bombing[edit]

A few days after the March on Washington, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) set off a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, just before Sunday morning service. The bomb injured 15 people and killed four children.[15] Mulholland took a piece of glass from the explosion, glued it to black ebony wood, and fashioned a necklace out of it. She also carried a piece of the glass in her wallet for years, feeling it every time she reached for her change.[4]

Michael Shwerner[edit]

Mulholland was the one who gave Michael and Rita Schwerner an "orientation" on what you need to know about being a white activist in the state of Mississippi. The next day, Michael was killed, along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Mulholland explained that she is aware that nothing she could have added in the information she gave Schwerner would have prevented what had happened.[4]

Later career[edit]

She later worked at the Smithsonian Institution, the United States Department of Commerce, and the Justice Department, before teaching English as a second language.[10]

Personal life[edit]

Joan was born in Washington D.C., and was raised in Arlington, Virginia, during the Civil Rights Movement. She was born to two parents, whom had good government jobs. Her great-grand parents were slave owners in Georgia, till the victory of the Civil War. As of 1982, Mulholland is retired and living in Virginia. She has five sons.[11] Due to Joan's bravery for participating as an activist and at least three dozen sit-ins, she was disowned by her family. She was even hunted down by the Klan for execution.



In the PBS documentary, Freedom Riders (airdate May 16, 2011), Mulholland is featured as one of 40 former college students from across the United States who embarked on a bus ride from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, on May 6–16, 2011, retracing the original route of the Freedom Riders. In her interview for Freedom Riders, she recalls the harrowing conditions at Parchman.[10]

Loki Mulholland, her son, produced an award-winning documentary film entitled An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (2013).[16]


The Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation is dedicated to educating youth about the Civil Rights Movement and how to become activists in their own communities.[citation needed]


Joan also travels several times a year to screen her documentary and later interact with students via a Q&A panel. In 2015 she had 45 planned events, which included Q&A's, college visits, and special appearances at libraries around the United States. For example, on May 13, she had a Q&A with the Naples, Florida community at Barron Collier High School,[1] and her last events for 2015 included two showings of the documentary at Lutheran College, Rosslyn, Virginia, and a screening and discussion at Pierce College, Puyallup, Washington.[citation needed]

As of November 4, 2015, there were seven events set for her calendar in the year 2016, at locations ranging from the states of Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, to the UK. On the February 15, 2017 episode of the American satirical show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was interviewed by writer Ashley Nicole Black along with fellow civil rights leaders Frank Smith Jr., Nell Braxton Gibson, Luvaghn Brown, and Dorie Ladner for a segment on Black History Month.[17]


  1. ^ a b "Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, First White Initiated into Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Coming to Barron Collier High School April 13, 2015". Naples Daily News. April 9, 2015.
  2. ^ "White Civil Rights Activist Returns To Miss. 40 Years Later". News One. Retrieved 2017-06-14.
  3. ^ a b c d e Ditter, John (March 17, 2013). "Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Oral History Interview Conducted by John Dittmer in Arlington, Virginia". The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. Prod. Loki Mulholland and K. Danor Gerald. By Loki Mulholland. Dir. Loki Mulholland. Perf. Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Loki Mulholland, Michael J. O'Brien, Hank Thomas, Dion Diamond, Dorie Ladner, Joyce Lander, Rev. Reginald Green, Luvaghn Brown, Sylvia D. Thompson, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Rev. Ed King, Reuben V. Anderson, Eric Etheridge, Robert Luckett, Prof. John R. Salter, Jr. Bridgestone Multimedia Group, 2013. DVD.
  5. ^ a b c Sean Barron (April 24, 2014). "Joan Mulholland's extraordinary life". The Vindicator. Retrieved March 11, 2015.
  6. ^ "Joan Trumpauer Mulholland oral history interview conducted by John Dittmer in Arlington, Virginia, 2013-03-17". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2018-03-10.
  7. ^ Etheridge, Eric (2008). Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders. New York: Atlas & Co.
  8. ^ a b "'An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland' Screening and Panel Discussion". The National Press Club. March 20, 2014. Retrieved March 11, 2015.
  9. ^ "1961 Freedom Rides Map". Library of Congress. Retrieved March 10, 2018.
  10. ^ a b c "Joan Trumpauer Mulholland". The American Experience: "Freedom Riders". Retrieved June 12, 2013.
  11. ^ a b c "Why We Became Freedom Riders". The Washington Post. May 17, 2007.
  12. ^ a b c d e Moody, Anne (1968). Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Bantam Dell.
  13. ^ Abel, Elizabeth (May 14, 2015). Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow (eBook Collection (EBSCOhost) ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
  14. ^ Burns, Trip (May 23, 2013). "Real Violence: 50 Years Ago at Woolworth". Jackson Free Press. Jackson, Mississippi. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  15. ^ Henry Hampton (director), Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Wyatt T. Walker & Charles Sherrod (1987). Eyes on the Prize (IV) - No Easy Walk, 1961-1963 [with English Subtitles]. PBS.CS1 maint: Uses authors parameter (link)
  16. ^ Stanley Nelson (March 11, 2013). "Civil rights pioneer Joan Trumpauer Mulholland shows what ordinary hero can do". Clarion Ledger.
  17. ^ "Samantha Bee Segment Asks Civil Rights Leaders' Advice On Resistance". Newsy. Retrieved 2017-02-17.

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