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Freedom Rider

March 2024
2min read

THE BOY ON THE BUS

My parents were poor; my grandmother was not. Mother Jenney, as we grandchildren called her, was the richest person in the world. One year she drove a Cadillac from Florida to Massachusetts just to be fitted for whalebone corsets. Three wedding rings and three engagement rings sparkled on her fingers (all her husbands had died), and on her left wrist she wore a Bulova watch enhanced by a zillion diamonds. She proudly oversaw these possessions through funny glasses pinched to the bridge of her nose. And she was about to oversee my sister and me; she had invited us to spend the summer of 1949 at her house in Orlando.

We traveled by train from Massachusetts, my sister and I in a day coach, Mother Jenney in her own roomette. As the world flew by, we dined on white tablecloths, with napkins that we removed from rings. I noticed that just about all the people serving the passengers—even 14-year-olds like me—were black. Back then they were called Negroes. That summer I learned that they were called other things too.

When we got off the train at the railroad station in Orlando, “The City Beautiful,” I spotted two water fountains, one labeled Colored and the other White . I assumed the Colored fountain dispensed some sort of Kool-Aid, so I drank from that one, until I heard Mother Jenney say, “You should be pitied, not censured.” I had failed to recognize my first encounter with discrimination.

My second came a few days later. There was a small pond near my grandmother’s house where I could go fishing. She drove me there in her Cadillac and gave me bus fare for the trip home. When I got on the bus (fishless), I walked to the back and sat by a window on the right side. We started to move forward but then abruptly stopped. The driver turned around, looked at me, and called, “Get to the front of the bus!”

I hadn’t noticed that all the passengers sitting around me were black, and for an instant I didn’t react. The driver got out of his seat and said it again: “Get to the front of the bus.”

I was confused and scared. I had no idea why he was treating me this way. In Massachusetts I traveled everywhere on city buses—my family had no car—and I sat wherever I wanted. After the driver repeated his order a third time, it dawned on me that this was about color. This man was directing me where to sit because blacks were somehow inferior to a white boy. I knew nothing of race relations in 1949 America, but I knew that something was wrong here.

I ASSUMED THE “COLORED” FOUNTAIN DISPENSED SOME SORT OF KOOL-AID, SO I DRANK FROM THAT ONE.

The fourth time he demanded that I move, I asked, “Why? What did I do?” The driver glowered at me, his face reddening. My parents had always taught me to “be a man,” but now tears came. My show of bravado—a mixture of fear, arrogance, and resolve—evaporated. An adult was ordering me to do something, and although I understood he had no right to do so, I couldn’t hold out any longer. 1 changed my seat.

As the bus continued on its route, I stared out the window. I had no idea what impression, if any, I had made on my fellow passengers. I knew only that I’d failed.

It was not until Rosa Parks heroically refused to go where I had innocently gone that I began to accept the way events had played out that day. I had been young, unworldly, and outmatched. But perhaps each righteous act for a noble cause contributes something to its success—even a small gesture from a 14-year-old.

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