MAXWELL:  When black children rode the bus for segregation

9/25/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A few days ago, I, along with my colleagues on the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, listened for more than an hour to Pinellas County school administrators and their attorneys explain the county’s new school desegregation plan. Like all other deseg formulas nationwide, the Pinellas effort is driven mostly by an awareness of people’s distaste for forced busing and by concerns about “white flight.”

Fully aware of the county’s racially and economically segregated housing patterns, I left the session doubting that anyone could solve the inherent inequities in the school system. I must admit, though, that these officials did a creditable job in a no-win situation.

All that I’ve said above, however, is mere background to the busing ordeal I’m going to share. Please don’t think that I’m making light of parents’ concerns about busing because I know that most parents care deeply about the issue. Still, each time I see a bus tooling down a highway, I’m amused. In fact, I become smug. When I was a pupil during the separate-but-equal era, everyone I knew, parents, kids, administrators and preachers of both races, believed that the Almighty had created busing to keep “the coloreds,” as black kids were called, away from white children.

My junior high years in Putnam County during the late 1950s were arduous. Most of us woke between 5 and 5:30 a.m., because we had to walk more than two miles to our stops. I was picked up between 6:00 and 6:15. The direct route by way of U.S. Highway 17 from Crescent City to Palatka, where our school was located, was about 30 miles. But we couldn’t take the direct route. Too many kids lived back in the piney woods and citrus groves of our part of the county. Our driver picked up the first kids in the southern part of Crescent City called Long Station. Then she drove north to the other local black sections _ Denver, Rossville, Whitesville, Babylon (where I lived) and Union Avenue.

Leaving Crescent City, we, about 30-strong, went southwest to Georgetown and Fruitland; then northwest to Welaka. From there, we plunged northeast through the fog to Pomona Park and then due north on Highway 17 to Satsuma, San Mateo and East Palatka. We arrived at Central Academy between 8:15 and 8:30, barring mechanical trouble or a boat stalling us on the drawbridge over the St. John’s River.

Each school day, we traveled about 125 miles round trip. Most of us arrived home between 5:45 and 6 p.m. During the shortest days of winter, we left home in the dark and returned in the dark. But we did so happily because we thoroughly enjoyed school. For this reason, our bus rides were adventures, with something new happening every day. Many of our romances began on the bus. We told one another our deepest secrets there. In our innocence, we didn’t fully understand that we were victims of Jim Crow’s intentional cruelty.

I didn’t comprehend the real hardships of busing until I moved back to Fort Lauderdale in the early 1960s to play varsity football at all-black Dillard High. To play 10 games against teams of our caliber, we had to schedule schools such as Campbell Street in Daytona Beach, Jones in Orlando and Middleton and Blake in Tampa. One year, we even went to Jacksonville, nine hours away by bus, to play Gilbert High, where Bob Hayes ran for four touchdowns against us.

I often think of those days, when we had, say, a Friday night game in Orlando. We would board the school bus about 10 a.m. and arrive in Orlando about 4 p.m., depending on how often we had to use the bathroom. At the school, we would be taken to the cafeteria for lunch. Then, we went to a classroom, where we tried to relax and where we dressed for the game, which usually started at 7:30. By game time, we were exhausted. After the game, we would nurse our wounds, cry if we’d lost and again eat in the school cafeteria. Black schools didn’t have showers in those days, so the trip home would be aromatic indeed. We would leave town about midnight and arrive in Fort Lauderdale between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. We would drive straight through; no motels would let us in.

The real tragedy was that our county had several white schools the size of Dillard, schools we couldn’t play because white and black kids were kept apart by law. We couldn’t even attend a white football game if we wanted to. Blacks weren’t allowed on most white campuses, not even as janitors and cooks.

Now when I visit Fort Lauderdale, I’m awed that Dillard, now integrated, plays an 11-game schedule within a 15-mile radius _ without leaving the county. I’m impressed that black and white boys play together on the same teams, ride on the same buses, eat at the same tables. I’m glad that cheerleading squads and bands are integrated. As a parent and a former teacher, I’m thrilled that white instructors teach black kids, that black instructors teach white students.

So, because of my personal experiences and historical perspective, I’m amused by today’s paroxysms over busing. Sorry, but I can’t get worked up over the issue. I’ve seen the racism of busing. I was born into it. I’ve lived with it. Like unwanted livestock, I and my generation of black pupils were transported thousands and thousands of miles _ not to be with white children, but to be kept away from them.

I would be dishonest, however, to leave the impression that everything about those long football trips was bad. On the contrary, we had fun. I remember most fondly the delicious meals our mothers, aunts and grandmothers packed for us. To this day, I believe that those loving women competed to see who could fry the brownest, tastiest chicken. Every player had fried chicken. We ate so much of it that we named each bus we rode “The Fried Chicken Express.” When we weren’t stuffing ourselves with chicken, we were “playing the dozens.” Only the coaches’ mothers were safe from attack.

I’ll never forget those days, when forced busing for black children was a natural part of life _ a mere experience in a routine school day.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.

PREVIOUS                    NEXT