For a new teacher, a life shaped by school busing in 1974 Boston
Beaten by a mob in South Boston, a young teacher learned to overcome humankind’s darkest impulse.
By Scot Helman | Globe Staff
A flash of humanity, a moment’s hesitation. That’s all it took. Orlando Bagwell had given his attackers an opening, and they’d pounced. Now he lay crumpled on a South Boston street, sure he was about to die.
He was an eager new teacher at South Boston High School, a week or two into the job. He’d been appointed that fall, in 1974, to teach history and political science. It was a heady assignment. Bagwell, not long out of Boston University, was black. South Boston was the epicenter of white resistance — sometimes violent, always fierce — to federally mandated school desegregation.
Bagwell wasn’t blind to the anger, or the risk. But he was young, just 23 years old. He was idealistic. He’d been raised to believe in a common bond. If everybody dropped the posturing, he thought, they would see how thin the distinctions were between black and white, between the strivers of South Boston and their Roxbury peers. See, I’m no different than you.
Besides, teaching was exhilarating: Wouldn’t it be something if, amid the hostility, he could motivate his students to learn? Not that it was an easy place to work. Tension permeated the faculty at South Boston High; most teachers barely acknowledged his existence. A few students wrote “nigger nigger nigger” on assignments.
Bagwell tried to look past all that. He figured the kids (and probably some of the teachers) were reading from a script handed down by their parents and community. So he dug in and focused on teaching. Preparing for classes consumed him. Often he took work home.
Which was why, on the fair afternoon of Monday, Nov. 4, 1974 — forty years ago this month — Orlando Bagwell walked out of South Boston High School with a stack of books under his arm, lost in thought about upcoming lessons. His only concern, as he walked along G Street, was staying a day ahead of his students.
Bagwell made it down the hill to East Broadway, where he would catch a bus to Andrew Station, and then a train home to Roxbury. At the intersection, he saw an older white woman. He said hello. She began backing away. “Oh, let her alone,” Bagwell thought at first. “She doesn’t want me here.”
He could see in her eyes, though, that she was looking over his shoulder, focused on something behind him. So he turned around. His heart dropped. A gang of white youths, 10 to 15 strong, was after him.
One threw a bottle; it missed, but Bagwell had nowhere to run. He knew enough, from studying Shotokan, a form of karate, to back against a nearby wall. That would at least prevent sucker punches from behind.
The group began throwing kids toward him to fight. Someone knocked his books to the pavement. Bagwell used his attackers’ momentum to push them aside. He knew he couldn’t win. He was trying to buy time until someone intervened.
Then the mob shoved one particular kid forward. “I could see it in his eyes — he didn’t want to be pushed in,” Bagwell said. “He was scared.” Bagwell moved him aside, too, but harder than he intended. The kid stumbled into the wall. Bagwell turned his body toward the boy with a gesture that said, Are you OK?
“That,” he said, “is when they got me.”
Family pushed against segregation
Christmastime, Baltimore, around 1960. Orlando was about 8 years old. His parents worked at the post office at night and took on other jobs during the day. His father, Donald, found a position delivering flowers, making runs in his gray and white Plymouth station wagon.
One day the car broke down, his full load of flowers ruined. Donald had to cover the losses. He gathered the children together — Orlando was the middle of five — and delivered the grim news through tears: They wouldn’t be getting much for Christmas.
“We say, ‘It’s no big thing, Dad. Just don’t cry!’ ” Bagwell told Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot for her 1994 book, “I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation,” a portrait of six middle-class African-Americans.
The family was close but had little money early on. Yet Bagwell’s parents were driven. Both returned to school after their five children were born. The example they set was clear. The Bagwell children were made to feel they could be anything.
Bagwell knew segregation growing up, but his parents pushed the boundaries. They moved into a largely white Baltimore neighborhood when he was in kindergarten. Then his mother, Barbara, transferred her children to a nearly all-white Catholic school.
Bigotry there was rampant: assumptions that black students had limited potential, openly racist classroom songs, taunts from classmates. Bagwell got in fights, enjoying them at times. At school, he felt like an outsider, fluent in the language of racial tension. In his neighborhood, which became largely black, he felt increasingly at home.
And then, when Bagwell was in ninth grade, his parents announced that they were moving to New Hampshire. His father, now holding a physics degree, had accepted a defense industry job in Nashua.
Bagwell was an outsider again. He adapted, but it was all pretty confusing. Was he a streetwise city kid, or was that just role-play? Should he be reading Ayn Rand or Richard Wright? Dating white girls was tricky. He forged a complex identity.
By the time he graduated from high school, he was eager to return to city life. So he chose Boston University. He learned quickly that BU circa 1970 would be no refuge for a broad-minded young black man. At an early meeting of the Black Student Union, upperclassmen challenged him: Why did he accept a white guy from upstate New York as a roommate?
One friendship he made was with Eric Jackson, a student from Camden, N.J., who years later would become Boston’s best-known jazz radio deejay. At the time, Jackson had largely cut ties with his family, had little money, and no home. Bagwell supported him, even offering to share his dorm room. “I’ve always said that Orlando probably saved my life,” Jackson said.
Bagwell flirted with a medical career, until a stint in a Boston hospital made him miserable. He took some time off from school. When he returned, he sought out the film program, rekindling an interest from high school. Film felt like a language he wanted to speak. He began producing videos on youths from an after-school program he ran at the Harriet Tubman House in the South End. He got a gig helping film live sets at the Jazz Workshop club for TV.
After he graduated from BU, the film world flickered in his imagination, but he needed money. He began substitute teaching around Boston. Just as busing hit, he got a call from the Boston School Department: Would he be interested in a full-time position at South Boston High School?
Eric Jackson was apprehensive, unsure whether his friend understood what he was getting into. To Bagwell the opportunity felt almost like a gift. He knew the kids he’d mentored at the Tubman House were being bused to South Boston. He was excited to join them.
Losing hope, but help arrived
He turned his back, to check on the kid who had hit the wall, and his attackers struck. Someone pushed him from behind. He was jolted by a powerful kick. “Like I’ve never been kicked before,” Bagwell said.
The force carried him into the street. He lay in East Broadway, in traffic, the mob pounding away. He was hurting but believed a reprieve was imminent. Cars were stopping. Surely someone would get out and help, halt the beating, call the police — something.
Nothing. People joined the fight. A man got out of his car and kicked him. “One to one!” a bystander said, as if challenging him to a playground duel.
Up to this point, Bagwell had figured he’d be OK. Not anymore. He thought he was about to die. “I felt profoundly lonely,” he said.
He’d always felt he could extricate himself from anything. He’d held his own in fights before. This time, he had no answer. “There’s a darkness that starts taking over,” he said. “You have almost accepted that you’re not going to get out.”
Just then, the beep of a horn, and then a man’s voice, cutting through the fog.
“Grab on!” the voice said. “Grab on!”
Bagwell looked up to see an MBTA bus pushing through the crowd. The door was open. Bagwell got one hand on a bar inside.
The driver hit the gas. Bagwell threw his other hand around the bar as the bus pulled away, his feet dragging along the street. His attackers tried to pull him down. He kicked them off.
The bus pulled Bagwell to the end of the block, the door still open.
“Get on!” the driver said.
Bagwell moved up the steps. The driver closed the door. The mob chased after the bus. Bagwell — dazed and bloodied, his clothes ripped, hot tears on his cheeks — struggled into a seat, alone among the white passengers. An older woman was crying. Another told him she was sorry. “I felt she didn’t need to say that,” he said. “Because she didn’t do anything to me.”
When he got off at Andrew Station, he was still in shock. On the train platform, a group of guys, seeing his condition, started hassling him. “I must have looked at them like I could have killed them,” Bagwell said.
He wanted desperately to be out of Southie. His back hurt like hell. He was bruised and scratched. He was embarrassed. He didn’t go to the hospital. All he wanted was to be back home in Roxbury.
Busing had gotten him into this mess. A bus had gotten him out.
Return to school brief, disillusioning
When he reached his apartment on Intervale Street, he wanted to cleanse himself, to wash the experience away. He craved a shower. He wanted to toss his tattered clothes into the trash.
Two FBI agents were at his door before he could do anything, he said. They started asking questions and then correcting his account, leading Bagwell to believe they’d seen the attack and done nothing.
Seething, he told them he couldn’t talk anymore.
The next day, a white substitute teacher at South Boston High who had evidently witnessed the beating drove the neighborhood to help police identify suspects, according to English teacher Ione Malloy’s 1986 book “Southie Won’t Go: A Teacher’s Diary of the Desegregation of South Boston High School.” At least one of Bagwell’s attackers was a known troublemaker at the school, according to Malloy’s account.
The police asked Bagwell to come to South Boston on a weekend to identify suspects, Bagwell said, but he refused, believing he wouldn’t be safe. Nine days after the attack, federal prosecutors filed civil rights charges in US District Court in Boston against one unnamed juvenile. The case would stretch at least into the following spring.
From the beginning, it had been clear the desegregation plan that Judge W. Arthur Garrity put in place — pairing students from Roxbury and South Boston — would be combustible. Throughout the 1974-1975 school year, vengeful racial violence, threats, and epithets — from black and white students alike — were commonplace.
Tensions at South Boston High would peak in December after an 18-year-old black senior stabbed a white classmate in a hallway. Black students and teachers had to be sneaked out of the building to dodge the white mob outside. “It was just awful,” Ruby Brooks, a black business teacher, said of the school environment in those days. “The worst experience of my teaching career.”
Bagwell was determined to go back. He couldn’t let his attackers win. After a few days off, he returned to South Boston High, a bit gingerly. But eager. Wendell English, a black music teacher, remembers greeting Bagwell on the bus to school. (Bagwell previously hadn’t known that teachers could ride special buses.) English, though he’d never had trouble himself, advised Bagwell not to venture outside the school alone. “Don’t forget where you are,” English said he told him.
Mostly, though, Bagwell was disappointed by his colleagues. Few displayed much sympathy or interest, he said. He felt especially failed by the headmaster, who treated him, he said, as if he’d brought this on himself. (The headmaster died in 2007).
“I was just scared, and I wanted him to say, ‘Are you OK?’ And he never said that,” Bagwell said. “He almost made me feel like I had created a problem for him.”
Worse, Bagwell said, he was assigned to door duty for the last period of the day, which meant he was supposed to guard the exit when students tried to skip out early. “Some of the people who beat me up — I could see them,” he said. “And I’m supposed to stop them from leaving school?”
Shaken and fearful, he left South Boston High for good after a week or two, feeling let down by a community that he had, just a few weeks earlier, been excited to join.
After the attack, a change in course
Busing was a turning point for thousands of Boston students and their families, each bearing a distinct story of what was lost, what was gained, or maybe some of both. For the city as a whole, it remains a defining chapter, 40 years removed but still fresh, living history.
For Bagwell, the trauma that capped his South Boston experience would catalyze an important shift in his life, one that took hold quite swiftly but would take years for him to fully understand.
Although he loved the classroom, he came to see that teaching wasn’t his calling. Film was. Film would let him explore the big questions of identity, humanity, and memory. In film, he could confront the wonders and dangers in racial diversity, both of which he’d now felt deeply.
“I realized I wanted to tell stories,” he told a 2012 filmmakers’ conference.
So the beating, terrifying as it was, became a kind of blessing. Without it, he may well have remained a teacher. Today, Orlando Bagwell is considered one of the leading documentarians of his generation.
“I’m not one who feels that you have to go through trauma in order to recognize the value of reflection, or to gain greater insight into human nature, or human brilliance, or human empathy, love — those kind of things,” he said. “But I do think this incident caused me to consider those things much more profoundly.”
As Bagwell left South Boston High, a cameraman he knew hired him to work on a public television program. The segment, as it happened, was about school desegregation in Boston. Just weeks after the attack, Bagwell found himself back in Southie, this time with a camera. A job was a job.
The crew went to interview a South Boston parent whose moderate views on busing had caused a stir. They set up in the basement of her house. Then her son walked downstairs. Bagwell recognized the boy as one of his attackers. They looked at each other, both knowing, neither saying a word. It was all Bagwell could do to keep himself together.
He went on to find work at WGBH and later at Henry Hampton’s Boston-based production company, Blackside. He threw himself into everything — shooting, editing, producing trailers and government contract films, often working on his own stuff at night. He returned to BU for a master’s degree in broadcast journalism, and relocated to Los Angeles with his family.
Then Hampton called with a career-making offer. He wanted Bagwell to help produce what would become “Eyes on the Prize,” the seminal multipart PBS documentary on the civil rights movement. “Eyes” showed Bagwell the true power of film.
In numerous documentaries for PBS and beyond, he would return to themes of diversity, race, and human interaction, always trying to get viewers to see themselves in the lives of others. His canon — from biopics on Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to explorations of slavery — reflects his interests, he said, but also the reality of being pigeonholed. He became the guy you called to make a film about people of color.
Bagwell, now 63, joined the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year. After a long stint at the Ford Foundation, starting in January he will direct the documentary program in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley. He plans to remain based in Brooklyn, where he lives with his partner, Lisa, and 10-year-old son; he has two adult children from his first marriage.
In person, Bagwell can be soft-spoken, even reserved. That shell, those who know him say, masks warmth, confidence, and fiery intensity. The stories of his films are inseparable from his own story and all the mixed, matched pieces within it — the streets of Baltimore and fields of New Hampshire, the search for identity, the joy of human connection, and the tragedy of unthinking hate he felt that day on East Broadway.
“These are the things that he was thinking about, the things he was dealing with, as he was growing up in America,” Eric Jackson said. “They made Orlando Orlando.”
Humanity triumphs over anger, doubts
Months after the attack, Bagwell’s mother flew into Boston to check on him. They were in the car. His mother was driving. She took a wrong turn. Suddenly they were in South Boston. Bagwell nearly broke down. He could barely talk.
His mother, trained as a child psychologist, urged him to seek therapy, but Bagwell doesn’t remember doing it. He tried to let the attack fade. “I thought it would just go away,” he said.
It hasn’t, not completely. “You never lose those moments,” he said. He rarely talks about it, though. Even many close to him don’t know the full story.
Bagwell never got the bus driver’s name that day. He’d like to know, he said. His rescuer may well have been a 47-year-old T employee and war veteran from Roslindale named John “Buddy” Foley. He died 30 years ago, but his two oldest children recall hearing the story, which they say was just like him. “He was a doer,” Foley’s son Mike said. “He’d jump right in.”
For a long time, as Bagwell began to interrogate history through film, he had to interrogate his own heart, too. He doubted himself at first — had he been too naive in thinking he could handle the Southie of 1974? — and he doubted humankind. The hardest thing to understand was the senselessness of the violence, especially from the bystanders. Attacking someone you didn’t know seemed so simplistic and unnatural.
“Your healing comes from how you begin to start questioning how this has affected who you are, what you’re about, and what you believe in,” he said.
Ultimately, reaffirming his faith in humanity — that original, unspoiled mind-set, the gift from his parents — became the only way forward. In life, as in film, he again found commonality far more compelling than division.
“I always thought of South Boston people as more like me than the people in Beacon Hill or something like that,” he said. “I came up the same way. It was no different. Our lives were about the same struggle.”
Scott Helman can be reached at scott.helman@globe or on Twitter @swhelman.