Dr. Vera Mae (Berry) Pigee participated in a demonstration that would desegregate the Illinois Central train terminal in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Under her leadership, three young students, Adrian Beard (16 year old student attending Immaculate Conception Catholic School), Wilma Jones (14 year old student attending Higgins High School), and Mary Jane Pigee (Vera Mae’s 18 year old daughter at Central State College) went into the terminal on August 23, 1961 intending to challenge Mississippi’s segregated waiting rooms law. When the agent at the counter refused the purchase, police were called because the protesters refused to move. Their actions initiated the civil rights movement in Clarksdale.
Vera Mae Berry was born September 2, 1924 to the union of Wilder Berry (a barber and tailor) and Lucy Wright Berry (a domestic worker who also raised livestock), near Glendora in Leflore County, Mississippi. When the father deserted the family, her mother moved and raised Vera and her brother, Paul, in Tutwiler in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. At the age of 14 Vera Mae Berry married Paul Pigee Jr. who was then 18. She gave birth to their daughter, Mary Jane, on September 1, 1940. Vera Pigee traveled to Chicago to study cosmetology and then returned to Clarksdale where she opened Pigee’s Beauty Salon. Pigee also became a civil rights activist when she helped charter the NAACP branch in Coahoma County, Mississippi in 1953 and served as its first secretary.
In 1959 Coahoma County NAACP Youth Council was chartered and Vera’s daughter became its first president. Two years later on August 23, 1961, members of the Youth Council participated in the demonstration at the train terminal. They were arrested and convicted for violating Mississippi’s segregation law. Undeterred, in the fall of 1961 Vera Mae Pigee and another member of the chapter, Idessa Johnson, went to the whites-only section of Clarksdale Greyhound Bus terminal to stage a protest and continue to challenge the segregation law. This time they were not arrested.
Then in December 1961 she and Mary Jane were harassed by Clarksdale police when they entered the whites-only terminal waiting room. They filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The incident also sparked additional protests by other black residents of Clarksdale against the bus terminal and the police department. Those protests forced the Greyhound terminal to end its segregation policy on December 27, 1961.
Pigee continued her civil rights activism by helping to establish the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of civil rights organizations throughout Mississippi which continued to challenge segregation and discrimination between 1962 and 1965 and was most famous for initiating the 1964 Freedom Summer.
Years later Vera Mae Pigee moved to Detroit, Michigan and earned an Associate of Arts and Masters of Arts degrees with majors in sociology and journalism at Wayne State University. On December 14, 1985 she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humanities Degree from Urban Bible College of Detroit, in recognition of her work in the field of civil rights. She continued speaking about her experiences in the Mississippi Civil Rights movement and in 1975 published a two-part autobiography, Struggle of Struggles. 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.