A white boy's black history

By JL Strickland
Special to The  Star

Back in the 1940s, African-Americans weren't  the only  citizens who had problems with public  transportation.  Even though I was the most redneck little eight-year-old  urchin in Alabama, I was kicked off a bus because I wanted to sit on the back seat.
Let me explain:
During, and for a decade after World War II, there was a local bus line that served the cotton mill villages in the Chattahoochee Valley. Many people rode the buses to work; wives would ride the bus across the state  line to West Point, Ga., to shop and buy groceries.
Normally crowded, when my  mother and I boarded with our groceries on that fateful morning for the trip back to  Fairfax, there were no other riders on the bus. This was  fine by me. I loved to sit on the wide rear seat and always sat there if it was empty. I relished looking down the long aisle to where the driver sat. (OK -- so I was a weird kid.)
I had done this many times, but this day would be different. This particular driver -- all were white -- was new to us. Through his rearview mirror, he spied me sitting in the back and immediately stopped the bus. “Get out from back there,” he yelled at me angrily.
My dainty red-haired mother, seated near the front, said, “Oh, he sits back there all the time.”
“Not today, he ain't!” the driver barked.
Pouting, with my lips pooched out, I moved up beside my mother.
When the bus reached the next stop, Lena Gibson, a familiar face, stepped on board.
Lena worked as a maid for a family whose  children were my playmates. She was a large, middle-age,  good-natured black woman whose skin was so light she had freckles.  She had an infectious laugh and a motherly magnetism that drew children to her. Everyone in Fairfax knew Lena Gibson and every child in Fairfax loved her. In short, Lena was a treasured friend.
Lena sat on the rear seat. I got up, moved back there again, and plopped down next to her. She immediately began laughing and picking at me. We were glad to see each other.
Again, the driver saw me and slammed on the  brakes. “What did I just tell you?”he demanded. “ Get back up here with your mother!”
“Naw, I ain't,” I said .”I'm sitting with Lena.”
The driver was furious now, spit was flying when he shouted. He told my mother if she didn't make me move, he'd move me himself.  When I didn't jump, the driver got up and stomped back to where Lena and I were sitting. I can remember his big potbelly coming at us like a huge cannonball.
“Aw, mister,” Lena pleaded. “He's just a baby -- he ain't hurting nothing”
I won't repeat what he called Lena. It goes without saying. He told her to shut her mouth.
My mother could be stubborn, but she knew better than to argue with a fool who was totally out of control. She made me get up.
There was a cord running the length of the bus that passengers could pull if they wanted to get off  between stops. I had pulled this cord often, to hear the bell and, mainly, to annoy the drivers who would get red-faced after nobody got off when they stopped the bus. With a full bus, the driver had no idea who had pulled the cord. It was fun.
On this landmark day, sitting on the seat behind my mother,  I pulled the cord in anger, for payback. Too late I realized that I had put my head on the chopping clock. There was no one on the bus but my mother, Lena and me. It was obvious who rang the bell, even to that moron driving the bus.
Stopping the bus again for the last time, the driver turned and glared. He looked mad enough to run through a brick wall. It didn't help when my mother giggled. (A nervous habit of hers.)
The driver kicked us off the bus, including Lena. He left us five miles from home with three large sacks of groceries. Luckily, a family friend lived across  the road from where we were jettisoned. Lena and I sat on the steps while Mother went inside and called my daddy to come and get us. He was at work and had our old jalopy with him.
My daddy, a small, twitchy man, could be as comical as Barney Fife when he got worked up. He was really exercised by the driver's actions, and made all kinds of vile threats and fist shakings as we rode home.
Lena produced a small bag of roasted peanuts from her pocket. She and I sat in the back seat, rolling  down Highway 29 eating the goobers and tossing the  hulls out of the window. She made no comment. If she was angry, she didn't show it.
I always left my red Radio-Flyer coaster wagon at the village service station that served as a bus stop. The owner, Mr. Pledger, who happened to be our  neighbor, would pull the wagon inside for safe keeping.  Usually, when Mother and I returned on the bus with our groceries, we used the wagon to haul the grub home.
Because our plans had been disrupted, Daddy stopped at the gas station to put my wagon in the car. It was readily obvious that there was not enough room  in the two-door car for us, the groceries, the wagon and Lena. Without being asked, she quickly got out, saying  she would walk the rest of the way. 
Turning to leave, she reached over, smiling,  and pinched me. “You little devil!”  She whispered hoarsely.
High praise, indeed, coming from Lena. I took it as a mighty compliment.
We are all familiar with the great names who led America to a better place in race relations. However,   the famous African-American leaders being lauded this month are not the only heroes.
There is much to be said for the contribution made by nameless people like Lena Gibson. The countless forgotten congregation who endured, and never lost hope; and most of all, learned to roll with the punches. The never-ending punches.
God bless you, Lena, wherever you are.  I’m sorry I ruined your bus ride.
JL Strickland, Linthead Emeritus, lives in = Valley.=20 E-mail: jayell@charter.net.
                                                         --roger lovette/ rogerlovette.blogspot.com