The Power Of 2857

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We can only imagine what James F. Blake must have been thinking when he pulled his bus into the yard of the Montgomery Bus Lines at the end of his run on December 1, 1955. For the most part, it had been a routine day’s work, but that one incident where the black woman had refused to move to the back of the bus had to have been infuriating. Still, Blake had done what he thought he was supposed to do, and the police had come and taken her off to jail.

The seat—unrestored—from which James Blake told Parks to go to the back of the bus.
 
the henry ford, dearborn, mich.2005_6_60We can only imagine what James F. Blake must have been thinking when he pulled his bus into the yard of the Montgomery Bus Lines at the end of his run on December 1, 1955. For the most part, it had been a routine day’s work, but that one incident where the black woman had refused to move to the back of the bus had to have been infuriating. Still, Blake had done what he thought he was supposed to do, and the police had come and taken her off to jail.

Maybe the incident would pass without much effect, as similar events had. Blacks were talking about changing things, but Blake and most other whites couldn’t imagine that much would change in Montgomery, Alabama, the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” Certainly Blake knew the sturdy seven-year-old GM bus with the 2857 painted over his seat would be there the next day and the next, unchanged, mundane, and reliable. Blake surely had every reason to think his passengers, mostly black but a few whites as well, would continue to rely on him and that bus. Bus service was at the core of African-American city life; it was how blacks got to work, to school, to church, to shop, to visit.

Indeed, 2857 was there on December 2, and it was another routine day. But on Monday, December 5, Blake had to testify at the trial of Rosa Parks, and the attention it drew seemed extraordinary to him. About half of the city’s 44,000 blacks regularly rode the bus, and that day they failed to show up, depriving the company of about 70 percent of its patrons. The morning paper reported that a one-day boycott had been called. Then black riders stayed off the bus for 380 days more. By December 1956 much had changed for James Blake and the rest of Montgomery, the South, and indeed the nation. Still, for the next 15 years, whenever he was assigned the Cleveland Avenue route, James Blake drove that unremarkable bus.

By the time the bus was retired and sold as surplus in 1971, the world was a very different place, and that bus was no longer mundane. Memories of conflicts over civil rights were still fresh and raw in many places. White Montgomerians were eager to put all that behind them and would have been content to let the spotlight of memory shine on other Southern cities, like Little Rock, Birmingham, Jackson, or Selma. However, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery Bus Boycott had already been assigned places among the legends of the movement.

And so the bus itself (at least in people’s minds) had already become markedly different, so remarkable in fact that officials of the National City Lines in Chicago, the parent company of the Montgomery Bus Lines, are said to have directed the Montgomery managers to destroy it, dump it in the river, and never let anyone know what became of it. They also suggested that the office records covering those days in Montgomery should be misplaced before someone got hold of them and used the information in some unflattering way. The Montgomery bus franchise was sold to the city in 1972, and the company records from 1955 on are indeed gone: lost, destroyed, or taken as souvenirs by former employees.

As for the now fabled bus, it sat ignominiously in a field outside Montgomery.

How did it get there?

Roy H. Summerford was a maintenance supervisor for the Alabama State Patrol, freethinker, stock-car-racing enthusiast, mechanical genius, and inveterate tinkerer. Hubert, as he was called, was in the market for extra storage space for his machine shop/garage out in Wetumka, several miles northeast of downtown Montgomery. An old bus, stripped of its seats, would do nicely.

Hubert knew the men who worked at the bus company. Charles Friday and Charles H. Cummings remembered that bus number 2857 was the one Jimmy Blake had been driving that pivotal day. Rather than scuttle the bus in a river, they agreed to sell it.

In 1971 Hubert bought two old buses, one of them 2857, for $500 apiece from his friends at Montgomery City Lines and moved them to his property near the Coosa River. He tore out the seats and threw them into a ravine near his home in nearby Red Land. A couple of years later he sold the engines and transmissions. He stored lumber, tools, and car parts in the stripped-down buses. There 2857 stayed for 30 years.

Hubert told friends and relatives, visitors, city leaders, and even the Alabama Film Commission about the bus. Until his death in 1985 he never tired of bringing attention to the old bus sitting in the field.