(The following is a chapter from Born Colored: Life Before Bloody Sunday)
During the late 1940s and early 1950s Selma had a public transportation system with a weekday route that left Wilby Theatre downtown on the hour. It went through the colored neighborhoods on the north side of town, and then to the white neighborhoods in East Selma. Over the years Grandma had taken me downtown many times. When we left home early in the day, before the sun was hot, we made the walk to town in twenty minutes and rode the bus back if we had heavy packages.
In June of 1948, when I turned thirteen, Grandma gave me fifteen dollars for my birthday and suggested that I buy two dresses for myself. That was a special treat because most of my clothes were homemade. She decided that I was old enough to go downtown alone to do my shopping. I dressed carefully, all excited about my personal shopping spree. I wore white sandals and my crisply starched light blue, dotted-swiss dress that I had made. I brushed my hair up in a pony-tail and tied it with a blue satin ribbon. Grandma watched me as I left the house and called out, “Be careful,” as she always did whenever anyone left her house. I walked a half block to the corner bus stop in front of Mr. Roy Rhodes’s Café.
I boarded the bus, gave my fare to the driver, and made my way to a seat. The front two-thirds of the bus was empty. The back one-third was filled with colored people. I didn’t see a “white only” marker so I sat on the right side of the bus, four seats behind the white driver. He immediately turned around and said, “Git out of that seat, girl, you can’t sit there.”
“Why not?” I said. “The seats are empty.”
He shook his finger at me. “Git up and move to the back! Niggers can’t sit up front. Move to duh back. Them seats are for white folks that’s gonna git on in East Selma.
After I said, “Why not?”, and before he finished his second comment, a chorus of responses came from the back of the bus. “Come on, baby, come on back here with us, come on and sit here.” A tall, stout, pecan-colored lady patted a seat indicating that I should sit with her. When I sat down, I felt her soft, warm body touching me. The bus was perfectly quiet for the remainder of the trip. We crossed the railroad tracks and soon we were at Jeff Davis Avenue. Two blocks later the neighborhood became white. By the time the bus driver completed his route and got back downtown to the Wilby Theatre, only two white people had boarded the bus and were sitting up front.
I got ff the bus and went shopping for my dresses. Grandma suggested that I shop at Three Sisters or Lerners because she knew that I had enough money to buy two dresses at those stores. I looked at both stores but didn’t see anything I wanted to purchase. I wore a junior size five dress and Three Sisters and Lerners only had floral prints in my size. I thought they looked too “babyish” for me. I walked further west to Rothchild’s Department Store, Selma’s most exclusive department store. I looked in the windows but didn’t go in because I knew that all of their clothes were much too expensive. I left Broad Street and went around the corner to the Boston Bargain Store. A white man in the shoe department said hello and asked me wasn’t I Frank’s granddaughter. When I said, “Yes, Sir,” he went over to another man and told him, “That’s Frank’s granddaughter.” I didn’t find a dress there either, so I crossed the street and went to Eagles’ Department Store. After looking through all the dresses in the girls and junior departments, I finally found the perfect one for my birthday. It was a pink cotton two-piece Jonathan Logan dress with an A-line skirt, three-fourths quilted, and a plain flounce at the bottom. The short-sleeved top curved into a round low cut neckline from its quilted collar. I smiled as I tried it on. Unfortunately, this one dress would take all of the money that Grandma had given me. I was afraid she’d be upset if I spent all of the money on one dress. I kept looking in the mirror and finally decided to buy to dress I truly loved, hoping that Grandma would understand and approve. When I showed the dress to her, she was happy that it was a perfect fit, and that I liked it so much.
I told grandma about the man in the Boston Bargain store telling another clerk that I was Frank’s granddaughter. I asked her how he knew me. She answered rather matter-of-factly, “He’s your Granddaddy’s cousin. He was a lot of white cousins in Selma. Some of his half-brothers are doctors. They’re all Chisoms.”
The part of the trip that I didn’t tell Grandma about was the incident on the bus. By the time I crossed the railroad tracks and was back on Lapsley Street, I had regained my good common sense. I knew better than to sit near the front of the bus even though no “colored” sign was posted. I also knew better than to have any confrontation with a white bus driver. Either one of these acts could have put my family and community in jeopardy. This was Klan country and I knew it. If I had told Grandma about the incident on the bus she would not have let me out of her sight for the remainder of the summer. She also would have told Mama and I would have gotten the worst tongue lashing ever. I never rode the Selma bus again. After that day, I always left home about nine o’clock in order to return before the sun was blazing hot on my head and back. I never told my parents or grandparents about my private Selma Bus Boycott.
My never riding buses again had advantages. On the way to town I took a short cut to Jeff Davis Avenue by walking along the side of the railroad tracks until Mabry Street and passed Don Bosco Boys’ Club. When I passed there I smiled and spoke to the cute boys who were playing outside. After passing Don Bosco I was soon at Jeff Davis Avenue, where I walked up to Church Street into the white neighborhood. There were large trees and concrete sidewalks on both sides of the street so the remaining walk downtown was pleasant. On my way home I treated myself to a pistachio double-dip ice cream cone from Lloyd’s Dairy Store with the money I saved by not riding the bus. I also smiled each time I wore my beautiful birthday dress. I continued to wear it until it was faded and thread-bare.
All of my life, I had been taught to have no more conversations with white folks than were absolutely necessary. When the bus driver told me to move to the back of the bus I got up and went to the back, even though I thought it was a stupid request.
I was teaching in Groton, Connecticut on December 1, 1955 when Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of courage sparked a nonviolent protest that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus segregation illegal. Whenever I see a picture of Mrs. Parks or read about her, I feel a sense or gratitude for the sacrifices she and the people of Montgomery made. I also feel a secret bond with her for my private bus boycott.
Erin Goseer Mitchell was born in Selma, Alabama. She grew up there and in Fitzgerald, Georgia one generation before the Civil Rights Movement began. Her two books, Born Colored: Life Before Bloody Sunday and From Colored to Black: A Bittersweet Journey reveal the insights of a child and the hard-won wisdom of a segregated Deep South survivor. Ms. Mitchell is a graduate of Spellman College, Atlanta, and earned a Master of Music degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She taught for 38 years ad began a writing career after retiring from the Chicago Public Schools. Visit her at: http://www.eringoseermitchell.com
Both volumes are available on Amazon.