OPINION: Thanks for nothing: The time a bus full of Black soldiers got busted

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

For decades, Robert Green, a retired mailman from Atlanta, carried a secret from a Thanksgiving Day long ago. It was an embarrassing and infuriating incident that he quickly brushed off. Still, it clung to him.

“Green,” as he’s known to his friends, is an 87-year-old grandfather who has become an ace bridge player through the decades, routinely matching wits, and funny stories, with a smart, competitive gaggle of friends. One day after a bridge session, he approached Henrie Monteith Treadwell. He heard Treadwell, a retired public health doctor, had a connection to Columbia. S.C. (She did. More on that later.)

Green had something he wanted to tell her. Please, sit down, he said.

His story began. It was Thanksgiving night, 1953, and Green was an 18-year-old Army recruit in basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia. The Alabama native and a friend were returning from a holiday dance at the local USO. It was getting late and the city bus was standing room only, mostly Black soldiers.

A soldier sat down next to a white woman. She told the bus driver, who told him to get up.

“He didn’t get up, so the bus driver stopped the bus and told the police,” Green said, recounting to me the story he told Treadwell in 2019. “When they came to get the guy, all the soldiers rushed to the back of the bus. Since they couldn’t find the guy, they put the whole bus in jail.”

According to the Nov. 28, 1953 edition of The State newspaper, “The soldier’s companions pulled him into the back of the bus” and crowded around him.

Credit: University of South Carolina Center for Civil Rights History & Research

Credit: University of South Carolina Center for Civil Rights History & Research

“The concept was if one guy went to jail, he’d have a hard time,” said Green. “Who knows? They might kill him. So the 50 guys shielded him. You see that movie? ‘Spartacus?’

“‘I’m Spartacus. I’m Spartacus. I’m Spartacus,” Green said, recounting the famous line from the 1960 movie where the entire rebel army refused to give up their leader to the Romans. All were crucified.

The 50 Black enlisted men (plus one lieutenant) had reason to act in solidarity in 1953 South Carolina: Survival.

Seven years earlier, in 1946, Sgt. Isaac Woodard, a Black World War II vet heading home, was pulled from a Greyhound bus and ferociously beaten by a small town South Carolina cop. The soldier had asked the driver to stop to use a restroom. He was permanently blinded by the attack.

National outrage led President Harry Truman to integrate the Army two years later.

Fort Jackson was integrated by 1953. But the surrounding Columbia, South Carolina’s capital city, was most certainly not.

The soldiers spent the night in jail. Later, they were hauled before the city magistrate and quickly learned to bite their tongues. If they said anything other than “Guilty,” they were hit with additional fines.

The lieutenant on the bus questioned police at the scene and later tried to talk to the judge. He was hit with escalating fines that totaled $200. The newspaper said he “instigated” the soldiers.

Green was fined $25.50, as were most of his comrades. The money was docked from his pay.

Credit: Museum of Fort Jackson

Credit: Museum of Fort Jackson

On the front page, along with the mass arrests, was coverage of a court case concerning segregation and South Carolina’s schools. The case, Briggs v. Elliott, was headed to the U.S. Supreme court and was combined with four other cases, becoming Brown v Board of Education. Six months later, in May 1954, that landmark case forbid segregation in public schools.

Green became a paratrooper. After his discharge, he tried life in the North, visiting siblings who were part of the Great Migration. But he returned South, took up reupholstering furniture as a trade and married his wife, Ella, a teacher, in 1965. They moved to Atlanta in 1967 and he got a steady job with the Postal Service.

Did the arrest anger him? No, he said. “I was too naive, I guess. I was used to segregated life. I was from Alabama, I was familiar with the dos and don’ts. My parents taught me not to hate.”

Treadwell, the bridge player to whom Green told this story, knows Columbia well. In 1963, 10 years after Green’s arrest, she and two young men were the first Black students admitted to the University of South Carolina. Treadwell, the child of family active in civil rights, was the plaintiff in that case.

The university is now casting a statue of Treadwell and the two men.

“Mr. Green said to me, ‘I want my money back,’ " Treadwell said, laughing. But, she added, it was no joke with him. “I think it still burned in him. It was so unjust.”

“You’re powerless,” she said. “You can endanger your life by saying something. It was a sad place for us to have been.”

Treadwell approached Bobby Donaldson, a professor who heads the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina.

Credit: University of South Carolina

Credit: University of South Carolina

Donaldson and researcher Christopher Frear dug up information about the arrests. “I knew about the incident but nothing about any of the soldiers,” Donaldson said.

“The NAACP at the time was mindful of the symbolism of this case; here it was the Cold War and Black soldiers were being arrested for being on a bus,” he said. “That bus became a theater for what was going on with segregation.”

However, with all the other events occurring at the time, the case “kind of disappeared and became a foot note,” he said. That is until Green mentioned if after a bridge game.

Two years ago, the city of Columbia learned of Green’s case and awarded him the key to the city.

And gave him his money back. He got $300, which is what $25.50 was in current dollars.