Join us for a new series of stories from the Center for Local History highlighting members of our community who made a difference in ways that helped shape our history and created positive change.
Their voices were not always loud, but what they said or did had a significant impact on our community.
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (1941-Present) is a civil rights activist, educator, and founder of the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation. She is best known for her role as a white freedom rider, risking her personal safety in pursuit of equality and social justice while defying racist attitudes and prejudices towards Blacks during the Jim Crow era.
Born in the District of Columbia and raised in Arlington County, Mulholland was deeply troubled at an early age by what she perceived as unfair treatment of minorities when a school friend dared her to walk through a predominantly Black section of town. Despite being only 10 years old, she felt the discomfort and alienation of the people she observed and thus vowed to play a role in changing attitudes and contributing to the elimination of racism in American society.
Following what she felt was an unfulfilling year spent attending Duke University, Mulholland spent the next year working on Capitol Hill which led to her involvement with the Nonviolent Action Group from Howard University. 1960 found her participating in sit-ins which often led to her being arrested and labeled as mentally ill owing to her unique status as a white, southern woman. One of these sit-ins took place on June 10, 1960, at the Drug Fair drugstore in Cherrydale in an attempt to integrate the lunch counter. Mulholland documented these experiences in a diary, which detailed conditions of her confinement which included segregated cells, what she was given to eat, and how she forged bonds with her Black counterparts.
1961 saw Mulholland joining the Freedom Riders, an integrated group of Black and white activists who defied the southern practice of segregated busing by refusing to travel separately. That summer, Mulholland, accompanied by activists Stokely Carmichael, Hank Thomas, and others, traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, with members of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Mugshot of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, June 8, 1961.
After refusing to leave a bus station area there, Mulholland was arrested and taken to Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi, a notoriously harsh prison. Mulholland, who was only 19 at the time, refused to post bail. Since there was no women’s wing of the prison then, she was housed on death row for two months and kept in a cramped, segregated cell with 17 other women.
Mulholland served her two-month sentence plus additional time to work off the $200 fine she owed, before attending school at Tougaloo College in Jackson where she had enrolled during her incarceration. While a junior at Tougaloo, she participated in a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, which resulted in considerable violence and great risk to her safety. In August of 1963, she helped organize the March on Washington before graduating from Tougaloo in 1964.
After returning to Arlington later that same year, Mulholland married, had five sons, worked at Patrick Henry Elementary School as a teacher’s aide and in 2014 founded the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation, dedicated to involving new generations in activism and social justice. “I want to show the younger folks that you can do something that will have an effect,” she said in 2015. “It’s just a matter of starting.”
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