Seat on the Bus

My little sister, Janice, tells a touching story of busing and school desegregation in Wilmington, North Carolina in the early ‘70s. It was a scary time in the small coastal city where we grew up. With the announcement of bomb scares, I remember, on more than one occasion, running across the school yard, heart pounding, to get to my school bus. Because of frequent fights sparked by racial tensions, Daddy would not even allow my 2 sisters and me to go to ball games. Despite the unsettling times, however, there were also acts of kindness that, 40 some years later, are still treasured memories.

Janice’s bus story took place during the 1970-71 school year. It was in February, 1971 that Wilmington’s racial conflict resulted in 2 deaths, 6 injuries, more than $500,000 in damage, and the firebombing of a white-owned store. The North Carolina National Guard was sent in to de-escalate the conflict.

To write this story, I had to google to understand the facts surrounding the violence and unrest. What I learned is that the African American community in Wilmington strongly opposed the closing of the black high school, Williston High School, at the end of the 1967-68 school year. As was the case for all schools in the South, a federal court had ordered New Hanover County Schools and all schools in North Carolina to desegregate. So, I guess that’s why, in 1968-69, I was bussed to Tileston Junior High School in downtown Wilmington. Janice attended the neighborhood elementary school within sight of our house. She recalls feeling appalled with hearing a white boy from her school talking about attending meetings of ROWP (Rights of White People) with his father. If her memory serves her correctly, the meetings were held at Hugh MacRae Park, a popular park with large picnic shelters and tall, towering pine trees.

When busing began in 1968-69, my sister, Cindy, and I came to know some of the children who lived in the neighborhood behind us and rode the bus with us. We joked and laughed with each other and found new bus friends. There was an African American subdivision (with sandy, dirt roads) behind the subdivision where we lived (with paved roads). We were hardly aware of this subdivision except for our backdoor neighbor, Mrs. Davis and her family. The Davis’ house was at the edge of our backyard. Mrs. Davis and her family members never came to visit in our home, but she and we were friendly.

Janice’s school experience, outside of our immediate neighborhood, began when she transitioned to junior high school. In the afternoon, Janice’s classroom was a long trek from where the buses loaded. My sister was very shy, but she had become acquainted with one of the African American girls from our backdoor neighborhood. Janice and the African American girl had discovered that they had something in common. They, both, were named Janice. Every afternoon, the dark-skinned Janice saved a seat on the bus for the light-skinned Janice. The seat was already occupied by two, but the light-skinned Janice was extremely grateful that the dark-skinned Janice was kind enough to share the edge of an already full seat. Believe it or not, in those days, not every student was fortunate enough to have a seat on the bus. Boarding the bus, after all the seats were taken, meant standing in the aisle of the bus, packed in tightly with the other standing students. We were a part of the baby boom. There were a lot of kids during this time period in the United States.

During this time of racial conflict in Wilmington, NC, * “the city’s traditional and established African American leaders were hat-in-hand gradualists. Their recipes for change amounted to acting with rectitude, being patient, and waiting for change to occur. Students who wanted to force change received no help from them.”  Change was forged because of young African American student activists who dared to protest and participate in a new black nationalist movement. It is with great respect and gratitude that I reflect on their courage and vision during this turbulent time in the history of my hometown. And it is also with great respect and gratitude that I reflect on quiet acts of kindness and compassion during this time in history, those little-known moments that did not garner headlines in newspaper or on television. Thanks be to God there was a dark-skinned girl who saw no boundaries of race and extended compassion, to a light-skinned girl, by sharing her seat on the bus!

My primary source, for the historical facts of this story, came from a blog post that appeared on the internet just 3 days before I was inspired to write my and my sister’s stories!
http://uncpressblog.com/2016/02/10/excerpt-the-wilmington-ten-by-kenneth-robert-janken/

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