Booker Spicely — revisited

Note: I first blogged about Booker Spicely in 2015, but I am updating my blog post a bit so that it works better for teaching this material to students in 2016 — and now on 9-7-2018, I’m updating again for my students in 2018:

Less than a mile from where I live, in Durham, NC, a white bus driver shot this US soldier twice:

Spicely pic

The soldier, Private Booker Spicely, age 35, apparently did not sit where he was supposed to sit on the bus, and words were exchanged between Private Spicely and the bus driver, Herman Lee Council. When Private Spicely got off of the bus, Council followed him — he then shot Spicely twice. Spicely died soon thereafter at Duke Hospital. He could not be taken to Watts Hospital, which was across the street — because that was a hospital reserved for whites only. As you will read below, he was bleeding to death on the grass — but I’ve looked into this more and he was taken to Duke Hospital — though the doctors there were not able to save Private Spicely’s life.

After the shooting, the bus driver, Council, got back on his bus and finished his route before turning himself in. But he was not in jail for long. “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? It seems like it should be a big deal in the Triangle.

Secret Game Cover

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 of graduate students from Duke who drove over to play the black varsity team at 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.

Here’s a summary I found online:

On a Sunday morning in March 1944, most of Durham, North Carolina, was in church. That’s the way basketball coach John McLendon wanted it when his all-black college team from North Carolina Central University (then the North Carolina College for Negroes) faced off against an all-white team from Duke University’s medical school.

The game would be the first interracial college basketball game in the Jim Crow South, and it had to be kept a secret. McLendon even locked the doors behind the teams after they entered the gymnasium.

– Source

The book, as you can imagine, is about far more than a basketball game. It talks about life before 1944 in Durham, and traces the lives of many of the players involved in the game.

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 that describe it.

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.

So that you have some geographic context, I made this map showing roughly where Camp Butner was located, relative to the school where I teach, Research Triangle High School (my students in US2 — please click the link and zoom in and look around).

In 1944, World War II was at its height, and the famous D-Day invasion (which my students will learn about in 3rd quarter) had just happened on June 6, 1944. Up to that time (and when the “Secret Game happened in March of 1944), Hitler’s Germany controlled pretty much all of France.

With that context, let’s get into the story as it unfolded on July 8, 1944:

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 the details — so I am not sure exactly where Private Spicely was sitting — he was likely in the second-to-last row of the bus.

Now that you know some of the basics, let’s pick up the story with a few pages from the book. It’s a Saturday night in Durham, four days after the 4th of July.

Start reading below where Private Spicely 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.”

Secret Game p285



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 this sequence of events:  1) the bus driver shot Booker Spicely, 2) the police arrived, and 3) the police 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 2016 (though with all the shootings this summer, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it’s sadly easier for me to imagine). I would like to think that a jury today would at least deliberate for more than 28 minutes (see below) and might even find the bus driver guilty. Someone would probably capture the events on their smart phone as the conflict started to brew. Council, the driver, claimed he was acting in self-defense. But given the facts I’ve found so far, I find that claim hard to believe.

I wonder 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 as we start thinking about race in American history. There are lots of quality questions we can ask so that we can empathize with this moment.

As I have told my students this year, I care more about asking thoughtful questions than I do about the answers (though I do want us to develop strong research skills as well). Thoughtful questions show that you are making connections!

I am not sure it’s possible to piece together what actually happened in 1944 in Durham. But here are some questions I have:

Where, exactly, 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?

So let’s think about sources — if we wanted to do a deep dive on this topic, where could we get information?

I wonder if we could 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. That person would be a primary source, just as Anthony Timberlake, our guest speaker some time this year (assuming his schedule permits) will be a primary source for growing up in Durham in the 1960s and 1970s, and living in the US as a black man. Anthony was born in Durham in 1960.

I want my students to think about why they have never heard this story before. By contrast, I’m betting that nearly all of them will know something about Rosa Parks and the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that followed her arrest.

How are Rosa Parks and MLK typically portrayed in our history books? Do we talk about MLK as a crusader for economic justice and an anti-war advocate or do we just focus on his work in relation to civil rights? What is the typical account for Rosa Parks? Is that account 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. (Update for 2018 — Oprah Winfrey, in her Golden Globes acceptance speech, mentioned that a woman named Recy Taylor was raped by a group of men, and the investigator for the NAACP was a young woman named… Rosa Parks — click here to see the part of Oprah’s speech that describes what happened to Recy Taylor — it should start the video at 5:10, and Oprah mentions Rosa Parks at 5:50).

US2 students — please click that link and listen to Oprah for a minute

In December of 1954, when Rosa Parks was arrested, she was the 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 for quite some time. It was not a random event that happened because she was “tired.” See the Wikipedia article about Rosa Parks for more details.

When we start to learn about the Civil Rights Era in some depth during the third quarter, we will see that it’s far more complex and complicated than it appears. We will also see tons of connections. For instance, if you look up Booker Spicely, you get this blurb on Wikipedia.

Spicely Wiki

I’m assuming many 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.

And then we’re back to asking what history gets recorded (and who records it). Beware the Danger of the Single Story! 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? I understand that the U.S. is a big country and we can’t include everything in the history books — but shouldn’t Booker Spicely’s case 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 — why is that?]

I did some basic research, and learned that in 2013, there was a column in the Herald Sun that talked about Booker Spicely  (sadly, that link is broken now — the paper re-did its website)

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.”

George Stinney

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. In 2015, I asked my students to consider cases such as Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner (do students in 2018 know who those people are?) Sadly, that list has expanded to include many shootings during the summer of 2016, including Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (July 5 and 6).

Here’s a resource listing nine high-profile police shootings of African Americans.

Here’s some troubling context on police shootings nationally, compiled by the Washington Post.

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 was amazed that 3,500 buildings were constructed in six months! And it surprised me to learn that Axis prisoners of war were actually 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.

Camp Bunter


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s