A Quiet Inspiration

In the spring of 1962, I was 15. My mother, my younger sister, my sister’s friend, Wendy, and I were traveling on a Greyhound bus from New York to Florida.

In Baltimore, I saw the first signs of segregation: separate bathrooms and water fountains. I had never been to the South before and my mother explained this to me.

In North Carolina, the bus stopped on the road and a bunch of people, white and black got on. They all found seats except a young, black soldier in uniform. The bus started to move again, and the soldier was standing in the aisle.

My mother looked around the bus, and then she whispered to me, “Don’t make a fuss.” She leaned over and whispered to something to my sister and Wendy also. Then she stood up and walked a short distance up the aisle to an older white man traveling alone. He was sitting on the aisle. The seat next to this man had a big birdcage on it, like a parrot cage.

My mother spoke in a strong, firm voice, not loud, but just loud enough to stop all the conversation on the bus.
“Sir,” she said, “If you will put this birdcage on the overhead rack, this girl (pointing to Wendy), will be able to sit next to you, and this soldier will be able to sit next to my own daughter, who is eleven.”

No one on the bus said a word. The man with the birdcage stood up to move the birdcage and another man stood up to help him.

Then Wendy sat down where the birdcage had been, the men retook their seats, and the soldier sat next to my sister. The entire bus let out a collective breath.

That was my mother — a woman of courage, grace and quiet inspiration.

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