JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The little white girl bounded up the steps of the Murray Hill bus, hopping from one foot to the other with excitement. She beamed a gap-toothed smile up at bus driver Amos Ealey and cheerily greeted him: “Good morning, Mr. N——Bus Driver!”
The girl’s mother, behind her, flushed red with embarrassment and quickly took a seat. At her stop, she took her daughter out the back bus door, rather than go by the driver again. In 1960, Ealey was one of eight men hired to be Jacksonville’s first black bus drivers, and that kind of stuff came with the job. Ealey, 54 years later, laughs telling that story. That was mild, compared to some of the rude things he encountered. He wants to make this clear: Many white passengers, and most of the white bus drivers, were supportive, encouraging.
Still, in those days, some white passengers refused to get on his bus. Some black passengers, meanwhile, were skittish, fearing there would be trouble, and said they’d just as rather wait for the next bus.
Some white drivers quit, he said, rather than work with black drivers. And some blacks questioned why Ealey and the others were trying to take those white men’s jobs. And though it never came about, there were whispers and rumors of planned violence against them. Danger was in the air.
So was change: A black man, moving from the back of the bus to its steering wheel, the man in charge — that was a powerful symbol in 1960 Jacksonville.
Not just any man could be chosen for that role. The privately owned company that then operated the bus system decided to integrate its drivers quietly after the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
They went to the black churches, looking for applicants, seeking men of “great character and resilience.” So says Faye Cummings, the widow of Thomas Cummings, one of the eight original black drivers, a Korean War veteran who died in October.
Ealey, Cummings, Rodney Christopher, Vander Lee James, Charles Jones, Charlie McRoy, Algernon Roundtree and Otis Lee Williams were chosen.
Ealey is now 79. He and his wife, Shirley, met in church and have been married 53 years. He said he wasn’t the type of man to march for civil rights, to demonstrate or sit in. Those people — the real heroes, he says — were too controversial to be hired.
“The ones who really did the fighting didn’t get in,” he said. Ealey was non-confrontational, deferential. He cast his eyes down when speaking to white people. He stepped off the sidewalk into the street if a white woman was coming the other way. Some, he says, probably called him an “Uncle Tom.”
It’s just the way it was, he said. Still, he knew the importance of being one of the first black drivers. “You’re representing the company,” he said, “and your race.”
Ealey had just been laid off from Sears when his pastor told him about the bus job. He had to get references, go through interviews, then pass a 90-day probationary period. He made it, and ended up making a life of it, driving for 36 years.
The buses then were manual shift, with no power steering, no air-conditioning. He got to know all corners of the city, got to know many of the regulars, which suited him fine — he’s always been a people person.
There were difficulties, some of the most mundane kind: What was a black driver supposed to do if he was in a white part of town and had to go to the bathroom?
Answer: You just had to hold it in. “But when you consider the average black guy laid bricks and pushed a wheelbarrow and was outside, this was a really good job.
“Really good,” Ealey said. His father had been a sharecropper in Georgia; Ealey and his six siblings were orphaned after their parents died, two years apart, in the early 1940s. The children were separated, and he came to Jacksonville a few years later, brought there by a relative.
He had leg problems and had to wear braces on his legs as a child. Other kids called him “Clickety Click,” after the sound they made when he walked.
By 1950, he was healed, though decades later the problems came back and he had both hips replaced. Looking back over his life, he’s not sure when the turning point was, but eventually people started giving the first black drivers awards, praising them as heroes, putting them in parades.
“I told my wife: An insignificant job like a bus driver?” Still, he figures he made a difference over the years.
Consider his story about the gap-toothed girl who called him a name. He wasn’t really offended: She was just parroting what she heard, as children do, and he figures her mother had probably just used that word as she saw him pulling up to the curb.
“Hate is not inherent,” Ealey said. “Hate is just taught.” The girl’s mother, he said, later called the bus company to apologize to him. And on his bus, he saw her numerous times over the years; early on, she apologized in person as well. She told him: It’s just the way I was raised. He accepted the apology. They had no problems after that.