A bus trip awakening
By the Rev. DeVere Williams
Editor’s note: The following is the 13th narrative accepted for publication in the Advocate’s South Carolina Stories of Racial Awakening Project. Submit your own narrative and receive $50. See guidelines, here.
He was as black as the coal he shoveled into the basement furnace of the old school.
Lanky and strong, he was polite but quiet as he went about his duties at a deliberate pace. In his late 50s or early 60s, he was the maintenance man at Randleman (North Carolina) Elementary School. We may have nodded at each other, but we never spoke. I knew hardly anything about him, yet he was the black person I knew best during my formative years in the foothills of central North Carolina.
My home county of Randolph and the neighboring county of Guilford, once heavily populated by Quakers who conducted the Underground Railroad, were nevertheless stereotypical of the South of the 1940s and 1950s. No African Americans (a term unheard-of then) lived in the town limits of Randleman, a blue-collar, agriculture town of about 2,000. I grew up Methodist, but my family had deep roots in the Society of Friends, and I never heard my folks or, indeed, many townspeople talk much about racial issues one way or another.
I don’t recall even seeing blacks shopping in town, and the prevailing attitude was “they have their place and we have ours.” Blacks were mostly called “colored,” but occasionally I heard the “N” word.
Larger neighboring cities of Greensboro and Asheboro had bigger black populations. Several times as a teenager, I rode with my buddies through black neighborhoods in these cities and yelled racial slurs. I had no hatred or even dislike for black people, but I was an ignorant kid going along with senseless group racism. I deeply regret and am ashamed of those despicable acts.
I graduated from high school on a Friday night in June 1960 and left the following Monday morning for Air Force basic training near San Antonio, after which I was assigned to a base near Amarillo for technical training. Although the Air Force was integrated, my fellow trainees were overwhelmingly white.
However, one of my two basic training instructors was black, and my squadron commander in Amarillo was black. These two superiors represented my first close encounters with persons of another race, but my focus was on their rank and authority and not on their color. I don’t recall any feelings of racism and, at least subconsciously, I began to realize the wrongness of racial prejudice and the horrendous atmosphere prevalent in the South and in other parts of America.
My technical school class consisted of 10 white airmen and three African Americans. We studied together, lived in the same barracks, ate together and drilled together, but when we were awarded a few hours of free time, we segregated ourselves by color.
But I learned that Neil, a black classmate, was from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and I got to know him fairly well. When we finished tech school and were granted 30-day leaves before reporting to our duty stations, I asked Neil how he was going to travel home. By bus, he said, and so was I, so I suggested we ride together.
Neil reluctantly agreed. I think he liked me as a buddy, but he understood things about America that I didn’t. He knew what it was like to be black.
As our three-day trip progressed through mostly small-town America, Neil was obviously uneasy sitting beside a white boy. We both wore our new Air Force dress uniforms and were proud of the single stripes on our sleeves, but what mattered to many fellow passengers was not our service, but that Neil was black and I was white, and we flouted convention by sitting side-by-side.
Anyone familiar with the abominable history of those times, especially before the Civil Rights Movement shifted into high gear and before federal civil rights legislation was passed, understands why Neil had serious reservations when I proposed we travel together. For most of the trip, we sat about halfway down the aisle, and while Neil’s nervousness was obvious, we didn’t talk about it. We got a lot of nasty looks and heard people mumbling about us, but no one actually threatened us.
The most tense and critical part of the journey occurred when the bus pulled into the station in Montgomery, a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activities and inhumane attacks by ignorant racists who used night sticks, water cannons and vicious dogs against black people who sought only what was due them as citizens. It’s been more than a half-century, but I vividly recall my own anguish and apprehension at that bus station in Montgomery. Neil sat in the window seat and, as the bus slowed to a stop, he slid way down so as not to be visible from the outside. Neither of us got out of our seats for the 20 minutes or so we were there. The tension was palpable, and I was afraid some of the bigots would drag us off the bus and beat us.
Never before in my young life had I experienced such sympathy for someone nor felt such outrage. Oh, God, it was so very, very wrong that we feared for our lives simply because his skin was black and mine was white and we dared sit side-by-side. We were proud to be serving our country and were both destined for long overseas assignments. But the racists didn’t see military men but rather two smart-alecky kids defying their way of life.
It was also apparent that some black people didn’t approve of our friendship.
Except for mean stares, negative shaking of heads and a few pejorative comments about us, the ride from Montgomery onto Greensboro was uneventful. Neil went from there onto his home on the coast, and my family picked me up for my leave at home in Randleman.
That long-ago bus trip with my buddy Neil was my stark awakening to the injustices, the inhumanity and the raw cruelty of racial prejudice. My attitude on race was forever changed, and I pray that the way I have lived my life since that cross-country bus trip in the fall of 1960 has reflected that awakening.
Williams, 75, is a white male retired associate member of the South Carolina Annual Conference now serving Fines Creek UMC in the Western North Carolina Conference as retired supply.