In Memoriam: Frances Wilson Canty

by Bob Linnenberg ’63

Withrow lost a loyal alumna on November 21, 2022, when Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame honoree Frances Lee Wilson Canty, a member of the Withrow class of 1957, passed away. While a student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University in Nashville, Frances took part in lunch counter and movie house sit-ins protesting the segregation imposed by governments in the southern United States.

She became active in the civil rights movement and took part in voter registration drives. In May 1961 a bus carrying Freedom Riders was attacked in Anniston, Alabama, by a mob led by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The bus was firebombed. On Mother’s Day a second bus containing Freedom Riders was attacked in Birmingham, Alabama. Because of this and the earlier assault, Frances and nine other students left Nashville for Jackson, Mississippi, to continue the struggle. Frances had become a Freedom Rider herself.

The Freedom Riders were primarily student activists, both white and Black, who rode buses to protest segregation on interstate buses and bus stations in the south. Freedom Rides were initially organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) because the segregation of interstate transportation facilities had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but was not being enforced in the southern states.

In Mississippi, Frances and the other Freedom Riders were soon arrested and jailed for 60 days for attempting to integrate the “Whites Only” bus station waiting room. Due to overcrowding in the Jackson jail, they were transferred to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary where the Freedom Riders were housed on Death Row.

After her release on bail, she returned to Nashville where she found that because of her involvement in the civil rights movement, she had been expelled from Tennessee A & I, a predominately Black institution. Frances then returned to Cincinnati, married, and raised five children while having a long career at the Internal Revenue Service.

 In 2011 Frances was honored with an honorary degree from Tennessee State University, the successor to Tennessee A & I. In 2014 she was inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

Also in 2011, President Barak Obama issued a proclamation honoring the 50th anniversary of the non-violent integration efforts of the Freedom Riders. Frances was able to meet the president and soon after was invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show where the Freedom Riders were honored for their part in the civil rights movement. There is now a Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama.

Withrow is justly proud of Frances Wilson Canty and honored by her role in making our nation a better place.

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