Less than a mile from where I live, in Durham, NC, a white bus driver shot this US soldier twice:
The soldier, Private Booker Spicely, apparently did not sit where he was supposed to sit on the bus, and words were exchanged between the bus driver, Herman Lee Council, and Private Spicely. When Private Spicely got off of the bus, Council followed him — he then shot Spicely twice. Spicely died on the street.
After the shooting, the bus driver got back on his bus and finished his route before turning himself in. “The Duke Power Company, which owned and operated the buses in Durham, bailed Council out a few hours later.”
(source for this quote: a website about Booker Spicely from the Northeastern School of Law)
This shooting happened in 1944, but I’m amazed — particularly as a history teacher — that I am just learning about it now. Why isn’t this incident more well-known?
I learned about Private Spicely’s death from reading The Secret Game, a wonderfully engaging book that gets its title from a secret inter-racial basketball game played in March of 1944 in Durham, NC.
The game took place between a white team from Duke and a black team from what would become North Carolina Central University. For context, this game happened ten years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended school segregation.
The book, as you can imagine, is about far more than basketball. Let me set the scene for you about the shooting I described to open this blog post, and then you can read a few pages from the book.
Booker Spicely, a Private in the US Army, was “on leave” in Durham on a Saturday night. He came from Camp Butner, an army camp with tens of thousands of soldiers that was set up just north of Durham During World War II.
I made this map showing roughly where Camp Butner was located, relative to the school where I teach, Research Triangle High School (RTHS).
Private Spicely did not comply with the segregation guidelines about where he was supposed to sit. Since I read about this incident in the book The Secret Game, I’ve done a a bit more research. As with most events in history, accounts vary about exactly where Private Spicely was sitting — he was likely in the second-to-last row.
Now that you know some of the basics, let’s pick up the story with a few pages from the book. It’s July 8, 1944 and it’s a Saturday night.
Start reading below where Private Spively says “I don’t see why I have to move back,” he told them [two white soldiers]. “In Pennsylvania, we pay our fare and sit where we please.”
I went to college at Duke, I have lived in Durham for much of my adult life, and before picking up “The Secret Game” I had never before heard anything about this shooting. The whites-only hospital was the old Watts Hospital — now the campus of the North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM). I wonder if students who attend NCSSM know anything about this shooting.
What I find most chilling is that the bus driver shot Booker Spicely, the police arrived, and they allowed the bus driver to get back on his bus and finish his route, before turning himself in to the authorities.
This is a bad story. I’m glad that I can’t picture these events happening quite the same way in 2015. I would like to think that a jury today would at least deliberate for more than 28 minutes. Council claimed self-defense. But given the facts I’ve found so far, I find that claim hard to believe.
I am having trouble envisioning how these events played out in 1944. Were there other people who stayed on the bus while the bus driver/shooter finished his route? Was there anyone on the jury who wanted to deliberate longer? We’ll probably never know…
At the trial, here’s what the judge told the jury — this is from a few pages later in “The Secret Game”:
This is compelling history.
This is a troubling moment in Durham’s history, and it seems like a good moment for students in my US History 2 class to consider. There are lots of questions we can ask.
I want to do two things with this story — first, I want us to try to piece together what actually happened in 1944 in Durham. Where was Private Spicely seated on the bus? What, exactly, did he say? (in an age before video cameras were prevalent, can we ever know?) And why was Herman Lee Council, the bus driver, found innocent so quickly?
Here’s one quality source we can consult to get started. I wonder if we can get our hands on the court records in Durham from the trial. Did local papers cover the story? I also wonder if anyone on the bus (or on the street who witnessed the events) is still alive today.
Second, I want to think about why is it likely that none of my students have heard this story before. By contrast, I’m betting that nearly all of them will know about Rosa Parks and the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that followed her arrest.
Who writes our history books? Why are certain people included in history and why are others excluded? Why is it so hard to empathize with life in 1944?
How are Rosa Parks and MLK typically portrayed in our history books? Do we talk about MLK as a crusder for economic justice and an anti-war advocate or just about his work in relation to civil rights? What is the typical account for Rosa Parks? Is this accurate? The book Lies My Teacher Told Me has an interesting chapter about this. It argues that Parks is typically portrayed as some woman who randomly decided she didn’t want to move, when in reality, she had been working for a while in the civil rights movement.
In 1954, when she was arrested, Rosa Parks was a secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. While her act of defiance was not planned for the particular day she got arrested, civil disobedience in Montgomery had been considered before. See the Wikipedia article about Rosa Parks for more details.
When you start to learn about the Civil Rights Era in some depth (rather than at a superficial level), you see that it’s far more complex and complicated than it appears. You also see tons of connections. For instance, when you look up Booker Spicely, you get this blurb on Wikipedia.
I’m assuming most of my students know about Emmett Till (if not, please look him up — but be prepared — that’s a truly awful story). But I’d never heard of Irene Morgan before I started this blog post. I certainly did not know her case went to the Supreme Court in 1946. That case never came up when I was in law school. We will talk about Irene Morgan in class this week.
And then we’re back to asking what history gets recorded (and who records it). If Wikipedia is right, and Booker Spicely’s murder “contributed to rising activism in the Civil Rights movement,” why isn’t he more well-known? If he’s not well-known nationally, that makes sense — but shouldn’t he be well-known here in the Triangle?
The Triangle has three local law schools — Duke and NCCU are in Durham, and UNC is in Chapel Hill. Why is the best collection of online resources I could find about Booker T. Spicely housed at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston? (If Duke or NCCU or UNC Law has looked into this case, their resources are not easily found online)
[to be fair, there was a piece on the NCCU website in 2011, and Scott Ellsworth, the author of The Secret Game, did write a piece for Duke’s Alumni Magazine before he wrote his recent book — but there’s far more information about the case at Northeastern’s web site]
I presume there’s some sort of record of this case in the Durham newspapers from 1944… it would be good to do some research on microfilm and find out how the local papers covered the event.
In 2013, there was a column in the Herald Sun that talked about Booker Spicely.
After reading that column, I learned about George Stinney, a 14-year old boy who, in 1944, was falsely accused and convicted and executed for two murders he did not commit. Stinney’s story happened in Alcolu, a segregated mill town in South Carolina. When I looked up George Stinney, I found an article in the Washington Post about how his conviction was vacated 70 years later.
The judge in the case that overturned the conviction from 1944 wrote that “I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case.”
We need to know about these cases of past injustice — about Booker Spicely and George Stinney — and we also need to know about cases in the news today, such as Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner — and we need to work to make sure these cases stop. It’s time that America lived up to its pledge — which we recite every morning — of providing “Liberty and Justice for all.”
By the way — I got the picture of Private Spicely from a local history website called Open Durham. It’s a pretty good starting source for historical research about Durham.
In an effort to picture how World War II changed Durham, I looked up Camp Butner.
I’m amazed that 3,500 buildings were constructed in six months! And it surprised me to learn that Axis prisoners of war were housed at the camp. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia artcile about Camp Butner:
The Camp site was chosen around early January 1942 to have a major training area built and in just 6 short months, over 3500 buildings were constructed. There were enough beds in the enlisted barracks alone to accommodate over 35,000 soldiers.