In March 1957, a Methodist minister's daughter defied Nebraska, her college, law enforcement and the judgments of everyone in her life who told her what she was doing was wrong.
No one, Margaret Sabin decided, was going to tell her who she could be friends with, who she could date, who she could love.
Nebraska legally banned interracial marriage for more than 100 years, beginning in 1855 and continuing through the years the country was struggling with civil rights and equal treatment of all people. The state restricted the rights of people with one-eighth or more of “negro, Japanese or Chinese blood,” forbidding them to marry white people.
But the social ban went further, and Margaret Sabin experienced that -- and rejected it -- the night she met the man she would marry.
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In 1956, Margaret thought her encounter with Bill Thrasher was a chance meeting.
"I don't think it is now," she said in a StoryCorps oral history project recording a few years before she died in 2007.
Margaret had graduated from Lincoln High School in 1955, a good student who played first-chair violin in the school orchestra, was elected to National Honor Society and earned a National Merit Scholarship.
In the fall, she entered Nebraska Wesleyan University with her identical twin, Marilyn. They moved into a student co-op.
During that same time, Bill Thrasher was assigned to military police duty at Lincoln Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command base in northwest Lincoln from 1952 to 1966, during the height of the Cold War.
One night he drove a friend to the co-op to see a woman the friend was dating. They were in the living room talking when Margaret walked by and the woman waved her over to meet Bill. They chatted for a minute, and as they were talking, the housemother’s son, visiting from Florida, walked in.
“And he got very, very angry to see a white woman talking to a black man,” Margaret said.
The housemother told Margaret and the others to leave and not to come back until her son had returned to Florida. Later, Margaret called Bill and asked him to come back and talk to her so she could convince him that not everyone in Nebraska was like that rude guy.
They got together a couple of times and talked on the phone. They had a first date, which ended badly when Margaret was arrested and taken to the Lincoln police station, accused of prostitution because, she surmised, why else would a white woman be with a black man?
“I guess I still get a little angry about that,” she said.
The arrest caused her to be late for her 9 p.m. curfew at the co-op, for which she was punished, she said, and humiliated. Shortly after, she got a call to report to the dean’s office.
“First, they told me that I shouldn’t be seeing Bill anymore,” she said.
They made him out to be an unsavory character. She questioned that. She liked him, thought he was nice.
“Finally, I said, ‘You keep acting like he has a police record. Does he?'” The answer was no. “Well, then, you can’t tell me that I can’t talk to him.”
She said they told her she could continue to be his friend, but if she did, there wouldn't be a place for her at Wesleyan. She could try to register for classes, but there would be no university-approved place for her to live and she had to have one to attend the college.
“They evidently had called everybody around that rented to students and let them know that they were not to rent to me,” she said. “I told them that I thought it was ridiculous, that this was a Christian college. And I had no intention of giving up Bill’s friendship.”
So the young student who wanted to be a musician and an artist enrolled in the Lincoln School of Commerce the next year and took classes in business machines, typing and accounting.
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In March 1957, her sophomore year, Margaret Sabin and Bill Thrasher traveled from Lincoln to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and married in a church basement.
Shortly after that they moved to New York and started a family. In 1965, they settled with their children in Oxnard, Calif., a place they felt would be more diverse and more accepting of an interracial marriage. When Bill retired from the military, he became a high school history teacher and later a school administrator.
During their life together, Margaret and Bill faced challenges of discrimination in housing, medical care, banking and other circumstances, said their daughter Sharron Thrasher, a clinical psychologist in Ithaca, N.Y. They got through it, but Margaret always regretted not being able to finish college.
“Both my parents were extremely pro-education,” Sharron Thrasher said. “She talked about it later in her life, about it being something that she really lamented, the fact that she hadn’t finished school. I think it was really important to her.”
She never lost her love of art. As her children were growing up, she took classes at the local community college, and their house was filled with her paintings.
"I feel like it was a real injustice to my mother and to my father," Sharron Thrasher said. "And I think everybody holds that story as a point of pride that my mother behaved in the way that she did."
Through their lives, she said, “our parents were always speaking out on things and doing things risky and hard and painful at times, because it was the right thing to do."
"I just thought that’s what everybody did until I realized no, not necessarily.”
Although they had a lot of experiences in which they were victimized, she said, her parents didn’t go through the world as victims.
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Current Nebraska Wesleyan University officials first heard Margaret's story in 2007 when an alum wrote to the university's Archways magazine to say he had read about it in her obituary and asked whether it was true.
Editor Eric Wendt did extensive research to determine what had happened, then wrote an editor's note for the magazine.
“Although Margaret wasn’t allowed the opportunity to graduate, the integrity she showed in refusing to turn away from a friend befitted everything NWU stands for -- as did her capacity to forgive.”
The pride in Wesleyan’s history can be strengthened, Wendt said, “when we remain willing to examine the parts of that history that spark pride’s opposite.”
Wesleyan President Fred Ohles said this week he was disappointed to hear about the racism Margaret experienced years ago. The university has changed a great deal in 55 years, as has the country, he said.
“I’m encouraged personally, being in an interracial marriage myself, at how responsibly the Nebraska Wesleyan community has reflected upon and reconciled itself with an unfortunate episode that occurred here more than a half a century ago,” Ohles said.
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Fifty years ago, a North Platte senator introduced a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would remove the restriction on interracial marriage. The law, said Sen. Cecil Craft, was of little value because people simply were traveling across the state’s borders to marry.
Nebraska did recognize the marriages after couples married elsewhere.
Ministers and others from six religious denominations, including the Methodist church, supported the bill, as did the YWCA, the Urban League and the NAACP.
Opponents included a Pentecostal preacher, who urged keeping the white race pure, and a Baptist minister, who asked the Judiciary Committee to “think of the social consequences of the children.”
The bill passed on final reading 29-12.
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia struck down all state bans on interracial marriage.
According to the 2010 census, 14 percent of marriages in Nebraska -- 41,377 -- were between couples of different races. The largest percentage of 9.8 percent were couples who were white and Hispanic. The smallest, 0.2 percent, were couples who were white and African American. Census numbers are self-reported.
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Patrick Jones and Andrea Wilson Jones were married in 2009 at First United Methodist Church in Omaha. He is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; she is a second-year family medicine resident at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
He is a historian. She is a scientist.
He is white. She is bi-racial, African American and white.
Fifty years has changed the experience and context for interracial couples in Nebraska. They do not confront the same overt challenges as previous generations, Jones said, although stereotypes and opposition continue to exist.
“We have our own peculiar journey through these issues,” he said. “Race and ethnicity is an important dynamic of who we are, how we understand the world and how the world does or does not reach back to us.”
But it is not at the forefront of their social experience, he said, let alone an obstacle to them as a couple with a 2-year-old daughter.
There are important parallels, Jones said, between the struggle it took to get full marriage equality across color lines and the ongoing struggle for marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
In a note from the bride and groom to those gathered on their wedding day, the couple paid tribute to Mildred and Richard Loving for their courageous actions that led to the 1967 Supreme Court decision.
They wrote: “We stand in solidarity with the idea that the basis of marriage is the love, fidelity and commitment shared between two people, regardless of race, gender or sexuality.”