History rolled in on a yellow school bus
And when rocks and jeers greeted some of the children, Boston’s image was scarred forever. It wasn’t the whole story of day one of school desegregation, 40 years ago, or fair to the many not motivated by race. But it was real and terrifying and indelible.
Phyllis Ellison jumped out of bed at 6:30 and raced to the bathroom. It was Sept. 12, 1974, her first day of high school. She was jittery with excitement and didn’t want to chance any of her five brothers or sisters beating her to the shower.
She’d been looking forward to this day for months. She’d saved money over the summer from a part-time job to buy new school clothes at Lerner. The night before, her mother stood over the stove with a hot comb and ran it through Phyllis’s hair, which now bounced on her shoulders.
Today, a bus would take her across town, from Roxbury to South Boston High. She had never been to South Boston, never even thought much about it. During the summer she had moved from Mattapan to Roxbury and paid little attention to news crackling on the TV about the new federal school desegregation court order. It wouldn’t have mattered much to her, anyway. She was 14, about to turn 15. She was more excited about leaving junior high school behind and meeting new friends.
She hurriedly got ready, ate breakfast, and, after goodbyes from her mother, disappeared out the door with her brother Harvey, who was bound for the same school.
Their mother, Queen, watched them go. Unlike Phyllis, Queen had risen that morning with a tinge of dread. She spent her early life in the deep South, in Mississippi, and was raised in Roxbury, where she learned quickly that black people did not often venture into South Boston.
She believed in the court order’s purpose, that it would ultimately improve education, that the long history of racial inequities in the city’s schools had to end. But she also knew that black children, her children, were the ones taking the risk. Harvey would be OK, she thought. He was a boy and able enough to defend himself. But Phyllis was quiet and vulnerable, and Queen worried.
She went to the back porch, where she could see the bus stop. She watched as the yellow bus appeared and the children boarded. She raised her hand and waved but couldn’t tell if they saw her.
She glanced at her 15-year-old, Billy. She was afraid for him and could tell he was anxious, too. Because of the desegregation order, issued just three months before, this morning for the first time he would get on a bus and leave the neighborhood where he’d always gone to school, where his parents had gone to school.
The other children — Ricky, a 16-year-old senior at South Boston High School, and Cindy, 14, a freshman at the nearby L Street annex — would be safe just blocks away. Her three youngest children weren’t swept up by the busing order. But Billy was starting his junior year, and like the whole South Boston High junior class, he was now required to get on a bus and go to Roxbury.
She felt like her family was caught in a nightmare. What right did the government have to force her son to leave the safety of his own neighborhood? Billy had complained he would be the only one going while his friends honored a school-wide boycott called by local anti-busing activists. But she would not join in any boycott. She and her husband, Richie, both Southie natives, opposed busing, but they wanted to see their kids through high school. They also respected the law, even if they didn’t like it. They wanted to pass those values to their children.
“Oh you’re going,” Peggy had told her son. “Whatever you do, you are going to be educated.”
Still, she worried. She didn’t know the neighborhood or the school where Billy was going. And she didn’t know what tensions he might find there. The tall, lanky, blond boy was friendly and easy-going and had never been in a fight. But could something so slight as an unintentional bump in a school hallway between black and white students escalate into a fight?
Breakfast over, it was time to go. Richie offered to drop Billy at the bus stop on his way to work. It was just a short walk, but he sensed Peggy did not want their son to be alone.
Ricky, their oldest son, left the house and started walking toward South Boston High a few blocks away. He felt bad for his brother but thought about how happy he was that he got to stay at Southie High. Then he rounded the corner at G Street toward the school and stopped, awestruck. An angry mob jammed the sidewalks, straining against police who struggled to hold the crowd back.
The Boston busing crisis: 40 years later
The administration had been preparing for this day since US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s decision in June to end public school segregation and bypass an intransigent elected School Committee that had long resisted doing anything about it. Garrity’s ruling had been hailed by many as a long-overdue civil rights victory. Black residents had fought for better education and schools, and thought of this as one way to achieve that goal. But many parents vehemently rebelled, especially in South Boston, one of several neighborhoods picked for the first phase of the desegregation process. These were the poorest sections of the city, where few could afford to escape by moving out or choosing private schools, and they would bear the brunt of the disruption.
Many in South Boston feared sending their children to Roxbury, where they believed crime rates were higher and schools were deemed inferior. It seemed incredible and galling to them that a judge could so abruptly, and, it seemed, heedlessly, upend a way of life, shattering connections between the neighborhood and its schools. The mayor spent the summer trying to assuage fears, holding coffee hours and sunset teas in neighborhood living rooms and backyards. Just a few days before school, he appeared on television, saying he had heard the anguished voices of mothers and appealing to all Bostonians to help “minimize the hardship imposed on these children.”
The appeal appeared to have made little impact. And with rumors circulating of violent attacks on the buses soon to head into Southie, the administration had prepared for the worst. Police hired more than 100 crossing guards to help protect children. Hundreds of extra police were stationed at schools. Riot police, members of a special tactical force, were on standby at White Stadium. At City Hall, in a basement room they called the “bunker,’’ walls were covered with maps and workers manned phones, ready to take reports of trouble.
Jackson checked the time. Buses were starting to arrive. He knew the mayor would be tensely waiting for news. Everything was at stake. He called City Hall to check in, though little could be done at this late hour, other than wait and hope.
He emerged from the rotary and turned right onto Dorchester Street. As soon as he made the turn, he saw the crowd in the street. At least 100 people blocked the way, yelling and gesturing in anger. Before he could react, he heard a thud, the sound of something heavy striking the side of the bus. A second later, glass shattered behind him. And he heard the children on his bus start screaming.
What the hell is happening? he thought. Richardson had grown up in schools that were mostly white. At the elementary school he’d attended in East Boston, he’d been one of only three black students in the building. He had never had a problem because of his race; for most of his life, most of his friends had been white. He’d spent lazy afternoons on the beach in Southie and could not recall hearing a harsh word there. Now, it seemed he was entering some other, uglier world. The kind of hate he’d seen on TV, in the South but never in his city – it was here now, right in front of him. But there wasn’t time to dwell on his shock. He had to get the children out of harm’s way, as fast as he could.
He kept rolling up the street, more bricks slamming into the sides of the bus. They’re tearing us up, he thought. People on the street were at the back door of the bus now, trying to pull it open. “Hold the door!” Richardson hollered at the kids in the back of the bus. “Hold on, don’t let them open it!”
He could hear people outside yelling racial slurs. He could hear the children on the bus, crying harder. He took a left, trying to find a way out. He drove to the end of West Eighth Street and ran into D Street. There, at the corner, he realized his mistake. They were surrounded by another crowd, bigger and more furious than the first. Bricks were flying, with few windows left to stop them. Richardson told the kids to lie down on the floor, but the kids were lying down already.
He turned left on D Street, left again onto Dorchester Avenue. At Andrew Station, the MBTA train stop, he saw other school buses gathered. He wasn’t the only driver who had been forced to turn back. The police were there, and ambulances, medics pulling shards of glass out of children’s heads. Richardson steered the ravaged bus to the curb and parked it.
“Niggers go home!” “Here we go Southie!”
“Why are they yelling at us?” someone on the bus said.
The bus stopped in front the school, blocking the protesters, and headmaster William Reid tried to shoo away the crowd, which included many teenagers.
“Go home,’’ Reid said to the crowd, “or go into school now.”
The petrified students walked in single file or rows of two through a gauntlet of police, news cameras, and photographers, and finally passed through the front doors.
Phyllis did not hear the teachers saying “good morning” as she entered the building. She clung to the other black students. In a single bus ride they had been forever linked. They were in this together now.
As she walked to her classroom, she was consumed by the idea that this public battle would be very personal. She was not thinking about Judge Garrity or his orders. And she knew the answer to the question someone raised on the bus:
Why are they yelling at us?
They don’t want us here because we are black, she thought.
Father John Dooher, 31, was new to South Boston; he’d been assigned to St. Augustine parish here in June. He’d spent hours walking the neighborhood over the summer, carrying his guitar, getting to know families and singing songs with children. It was not a typical summer in Southie, with the building opposition to busing, and some of the frustration was directed at the church. Cardinal Humberto Medeiros had made his orders clear: the Catholic schools in South Boston would not increase enrollments to help families evade the busing order. The strong stance had angered some opponents — there were those who asked why the church did not stand with them — but most of the bitterness was directed at Dooher’s superiors. “We don’t blame you, Father,” the mothers and fathers assured him.
Some of the anti-busing sentiment was ugly, but the pleas the clergy heard the most were gentler: parents wanted to keep their children close. They wanted them nearby, for comfort and convenience, to make them easy to retrieve if they got sick at school. They wanted their kids in a place they knew, the same place they had gone to school themselves.
The clergy had tried for weeks to ease the unrest. They had met to prepare for the first day, to strategize about what their role should be this morning. Some of them decided to fan out to the bus stops, to offer reassurance, though they had no idea how many students might appear. Dooher studied the worried faces all around him, knowing how their decision weighed on them, to send their children off to school somewhere unfamiliar, despite friends and neighbors urging them to boycott. They were all aware of the seconds ticking by, bringing them closer to that looming juncture when the school bus would pull up and the doors would open.
They heard the sound before they knew what it was, a roaring in the distance, getting louder. They turned their heads and stared at the three big city buses speeding toward them. The buses charged into their neighborhood, closer and closer, until the parents at the bus stop could see what they carried: three full loads of police officers, heading in the direction of the high school. Father Dooher’s posture stiffened when he saw what it was; before he even looked back at the mothers, he could feel the tension ratchet upward. The fear that had been lurking underneath the surface spilled over them all. The mothers reached down, grabbed their children’s hands, and all at once, in one swift motion, they scattered for home.
Dooher thinks he attempted one final appeal — “You’ve come this far; we’re so close now,” or, “You know they have to send police; it’s only a precaution!” Maybe an apology was tossed his way, a hurried “Sorry, Father!” dropped over a shoulder. But soon the priest was standing there alone.
But Ray was undeterred. He had to be. And he had been talking with Reid at South Boston High, trying to make sure they were a united front.
He knew resistance to the court order would be strong in Southie. Roxbury seemed largely compliant, albeit uneasy.
Ray was from South Boston, still lived there, knew attitudes and allegiances would break hard. Some of the Southie parents he called in the days leading up to school had vowed to never, under any circumstances, send their children to Roxbury. Others said they would consider it, but only if other parents sent their children to the school. Many white families were already fleeing the city for suburban school systems outside Garrity’s sway.
So there Ray was on opening day, dressed in slacks and tie, and smiling at the neighborhood kids — mostly black, some white — who entered the school building.
After 8 a.m., the buses from South Boston started arriving, stopping near the empty sidewalk and the district police officers out front to guard against trouble that never got started.
The first bus was empty.
The second bus was empty, too.
Finally, one of the buses pulled up with a young white boy on board. Ray recognized him instantly as 15-year-old Billy Cosetta from South Boston. He knew Cosetta’s father from their days at a Catholic grammar school in Southie.
“Good morning, young man,’’ Ray said.
She grew up in an integrated neighborhood and felt no trepidation as she dressed for school and carefully applied her blue mascara. She and her friend took a bus to Dudley Square, then walked to the high school. There were no protesters, no bitter confrontations, and no heavy police presence. Nobody bothered her and her friend until they walked into the school yard and were bombarded by a horde of reporters and photographers. The media scrutiny continued inside the school. Dunner, one of only a handful of white students to show up, was annoyed as a Globe photographer took a picture of her, seated between two black students, which would appear in the next day’s newspaper.
She was pleasantly surprised to discover that some of her favorite teachers from South Boston High had been transferred to Roxbury. She felt no racial tension and slipped into the bathroom to hang out and smoke cigarettes with some of her new black classmates.
Over at Gavin Middle School in South Boston, 15-year-old Bonnie Reynolds slouched in her chair and released another long and frustrated sigh. She was a victim not of the tensions of the day but of the inevitable confusion attending such abrupt change. The yellow bus that picked her up at the Roxbury YMCA around 7 that morning had dropped her off at the wrong school. Bonnie was supposed to start the 10th grade at South Boston High School. Instead, she was sitting in a hallway near the principal’s office at a middle school, and she wanted no part of it. She had been trying to get someone to get her out of there.
She was never one to be shy, a trait she learned from her father, a small, yet strong man who taught her to stand up for what was right. And this was wrong.
“I’m at the wrong school,’’ said Bonnie again, rolling her eyes.
It seemed like a victory. As far as the mayor was concerned, the worst was over. In less than three hours, he would realize how wrong he was.
Four of the five students in Elaine Miller’s home economics classes that day were black, and the fifth student was a thin white girl who had arrived in Roxbury from her home in a South Boston housing development. With so few students in attendance, the girl had an entire classroom to herself. She sat alone during the 45-minute period in the front of the room.
Miller was determined to teach cooking and basic nutrition.
“Put on your apron and wash your hands,’’ Miller told the young girl.
Erle Garrett, the new gym teacher, was beginning his first day at the school. A towering figure of 6 feet and 200 pounds, his job was to keep the students focused on what was going on in the building, and not what was happening outside.
He spent the day playing floor hockey with his students and giving them the basics: In gym, he said, wear sweats, sneakers, and no jeans.
Raised in “The Point,” Dorchester’s Columbia Point housing project, Garrett, a Boston State football star, had made it to the NFL and was drafted as a defensive end by the Minnesota Vikings. He didn’t make the team. But he was here now, a married 24-year-old embarking on a fresh career. He knew what it was like to be called “nigger.” And he wasn’t going to let that stop him or the kids. They were there to learn.
She turned on the TV, and heard about the protests and the white boycott. She wondered if she should have allowed Phyllis and Harvey to get on that bus to Southie.
It just didn’t seem right that black children were riding the bus when many white children weren’t, going to a place where they weren’t welcome.
She checked the clock. In a few hours, Phyllis and Harvey would be home. But Queen was worried.
What had she done?
Prefontaine liked his job. Tactical officers got the most exciting police work — man shot; suspect fleeing; burglary in progress. This day, though, was becoming something else, like nothing else he’d seen.
He, like most of the other guys, did not agree with the busing order, and did not like the fact that they would have to stand down and face off with their neighbors. At roll call that morning in their North End station, their captain had warned them that he knew some were ambivalent but he didn’t care how they felt.
“Our job is protect the children,’’ he told them. “If you don’t want to protect the children, then there is a stack of resignation forms on my desk. You can take one.”
No one had moved. Now, they boarded buses and headed for South Boston.
“Hurry up outside and get in the bus,’’ one of the teachers said.
“Which bus?”’ she asked.
“Any one,’’ the teacher responded.
Bonnie hustled out of the building and into the wrath of a waiting crowd. She ran onto a bus and sat down.
Protesters hurled insults — more profane this time, and louder. Some of the students on the bus, who had been frightened in the morning, were giving the protesters the finger now.
“Yeah! We are in your school now,’’ some of the black kids yelled.
The buses left together, just as they had come. Outside the high school’s L Street annex, a group of white people confronted some black ninth-graders. One of the bus drivers took off, then made a U-turn and headed back in the direction of the mass of protesters throwing rocks.
“Duck down,’’ a monitor on the bus yelled.
Around the same time, another bus with 20 students leaving the annex came under attack. The driver, rolling down H Street, turned right at Marine Road, and about halfway down the first block another group of protesters began tossing bottles, golf balls, and sticks at the bus.
The driver tried to make a getaway but had to stop for a traffic light at G Street. People throwing objects continued their assault, smashing windows and denting the bus.
Cindy had encountered no trouble inside the South Boston Annex, a section of the L Street bathhouse overlooking Pleasure Bay that was converted to classrooms for the high school’s freshmen class. She loved school, despite being one of the only white kids in the building that day. But she was rattled when school let out for the day and angry bystanders hurled rocks at black students as they boarded buses to take them home.
The only thing remarkable about Billy’s day was the crush of media that bombarded him with questions outside Roxbury High after school as he and another white boy waited on an idling bus for a ride back to Southie.
“At first I didn’t want to come to school,’’ the 15-year-old told reporters at the time. “But my parents said I would eventually have to go. Besides, my father still has a few inches on me, so I decided that I had better come to school.”
Back at home in South Boston, Billy was greeted at the door by his mother with a huge hug. She had never been so happy to see him. “School wasn’t so bad,” he said. He told her how he’d been welcomed by his father’s childhood classmate, Charlie Ray, who vowed to watch out for him.
Sirignano struggled to his feet. If he had not guessed before how bad this was going to be, he could feel it now, as real as the pain in his ribs. At the hospital, X-rays showed bruised ribs. He might have trouble breathing deeply, cautioned the doctor. Sirignano heard him, but his thoughts were elsewhere. His team was still out there, he knew, out in the crush on the street.
Bonnie looked across the aisle and saw pieces of glass flying from a window. Screaming students used their hands to block their faces. And in the corner of her eye Bonnie caught a boy wailing as blood gushed from a slice in his arm.
Bonnie yelped and ducked, sliding her tiny body underneath the bus seat.
The mayor’s advisers, including Deputy Mayor Robert Kiley, Police Commissioner Robert di Grazia, and Jackson, huddled in his office.
What’s the diagnosis? the mayor asked.
They listed the trouble spots, told of the driver who took the wrong turn and of the rock throwers, some of them reportedly intoxicated.
Newscasts were carrying reports of the violence and the nasty racial undertones — and not, as the mayor had hoped, of the relative calm of the first day of busing throughout the rest of city.
White needed a way to very publicly show that the city still had control of the situation, but how?
Jackson turned to the mayor and told him that Southie was exploding.
“It’s going to get much worse,” Jackson said.
A 5 p.m. press conference was scheduled. The team continued to brainstorm the city’s response. Jackson got out his notepad and began scribbling themes for White’s televised speech. The mayor had to reassure black parents that their children would be safe. He could not show any signs of vulnerability. He would have to appear tough and crack down on the troublemakers.
Jackson raced to his office and typed the speech.
At 5 p.m., White, in dress shirt and tie, faced the TV cameras, saying he would enforce tighter, tougher security. He would stop anyone disrupting students, buses, or traffic. He would forbid groups of three or more to assemble near public schools. Police would escort all buses in and out of South Boston.
Then, the phone rang again. It was Peggy’s mother-in-law, frantically saying that the kids should not go to school. She had just received a chilling call at her South Boston home from an anonymous man who mistook her for Billy’s mother.
“If Billy shows up at the bus stop on M Street tomorrow there is going to be a rifle pointed at his head and they’re going to blow his head off,” she said the caller warned. They would be sending him home in a box.
Peggy Cosetta felt ill. She was opposed to busing herself, but didn’t understand the rock-throwing, the violence, and the hatred. She had never anticipated that her children would not feel safe in South Boston.
“You’re not going to school,” she told her children. She called their schools, reported the threat, and said they would not be in school, at least for a couple of weeks.
White thought that it was bad enough that many in South Boston had turned on him, calling him “Mayor Black’’ because of his support in the African-American community. But White’s closest black allies were now turning on him, too.
Three hundred people packed the auditorium to confront the mayor. His allies in the black community unleashed their sense of betrayal. He had promised to keep the children safe.
“I believed in you,’’ one woman shouted.
The NAACP leader, Thomas Atkins, urged parents not to send their children to South Boston, because the city would not be able to protect them. He vowed the NAACP would seek federal marshals to intervene.
“I don’t think the city can do it by itself,’’ Atkins told the crowd. “We said we hoped we could see the city do right by itself, and we have given them a chance, but we cannot sacrifice our children.”
Sweat dripped down the mayor’s back, clinging to his shirt. He pleaded with the parents to work with him.
“Give me one more day,’’ he said.
Across town, at the Tynan School in South Boston, another angry gathering was raging. The mayor had sent an aide, Peter Meade, to represent him, but the white crowd was outraged at his boss’s absence. “Where’s the mayor? We want the mayor!” they shouted when Meade tried to calm them.
After the meeting finally ended in Roxbury, White and his aides drove back in silence to City Hall, where they would meet up with Meade and others.
“I don’t want to talk,’’ the mayor mumbled, leaning into his seat.
He felt, he confided to Jackson, like he was going to have to see the city out of this by himself.
The mayor could not know that night — no one knew — that it would take years to see the city through it. No one knew then how the protests and stonings would persist across the city, into winter, spring, and then another school year; that both white and black people would be stabbed and beaten in escalating racial unrest that seemed to touch every neighborhood.
More than 400 court orders would be required to carry out the busing plan over the next decade. Thousands of students would flee the city schools. White enrollments would plummet. Education would continue to suffer. Many of those sent to distant schools dropped out and never graduated. Decades later, the violent start of busing would widely be seen as the worst moment in the city’s history.
The city’s schools — and maybe its psyche too — would never completely recover from the conflict. And no one who was there that September would ever forget it.
No, she would not send them back to school in Southie.
But when she told her daughter to stay home the next morning, Phyllis’s mind was already made up. In the course of that first day, the young, wiry girl consumed with fashion had changed. She was tougher and definitely not quiet. She had no real desire to go to school in South Boston, with its dusty hallways and rickety interior, but the protests that morning had only hardened her resolve to go back.
She could not allow the idea to take root that anyone had a right to keep her from attending her assigned school. This was the U S of A, she thought.
“Who do they think they are, telling me where to go school?’’ she fired back to her mother. “I’m going back.”
She did, and she would graduate from South Boston High in 1977.
Peggy Cosetta got her wish. Though her son Billy returned to Roxbury High that fall, he ultimately graduated, like Ricky and Cindy, from South Boston High.
He walked into the kitchen and picked up one of the tallest glasses he could find. He made himself a vodka martini, took a sip, and sat down. He would have to do it all again tomorrow.
There was something else that drove him, too. He wanted the person who had thrown the brick to see him. Sirignano would go back, and they would know it hadn’t stopped him.
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