Our Greyhound bus came to a welcome halt at a rest stop in an arid, stark southern town.
“Everybody off; you’ll be getting on another bus here in 20 minutes,” the driver announced.
Vicki and I were headed back to Mexico City after a 10-day vacation with our sister Gloria, in Redington Beach, Florida. I was scheduled to appear on a TV interview in the capitol city and needed to return south of the border quickly.
It was a warm day in January 1961. We were glad to be missing another gelid January in Philadelphia. We were also looking forward to heading for Laredo, Texas, to meet a friend of a friend, Monsieur Paul Prevot, a French industrialist, who would fly us to Mexico City in his new jet plane. I had never been on a private aircraft and felt both anticipation and a little trepidation at the prospect.
The rest stop consisted of a small building with a soda fountain. It was a welcome sight. A gas station and a country store were directly across the street. There was nothing else in view but stray tumbleweed skittering under a saffron sun.
“It’s good to be off the bus. It was so hot in there. Let’s get a drink,” I motioned to Vicki.
My sister joined me while people started slowly to line up, awaiting the arrival of the second vehicle.
“All aboard,” the conductor announced over a speaker. Whites go on first.”
“C’mon, Gilda; hurry up.”
“No. I haven’t finished my coke yet.”
“Well, I’m going ahead of you.”
“All right; I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Vicki went outside where she waited for me. All the white passengers had entered the Greyhound and a long line of colored men had formed by a side door. I decided it was time for me to get on as well. But once outdoors, I stopped in amazement as the conductor addressed the men in an incredibly harsh tone.
“Line up and don’t talk. No one gets on until I tell you to. Is that clear?”
People can be rude in Philadelphia, but I never heard anyone speak like this driver.
A man stepped out of the middle of the line to look at someone he knew who was standing in the front. That movement was instantly noticed by the driver.
“Hey, boy! Didn’t I tell ya’ not to get out of line? Get back there if you know what’s good for ya; d’ya’ hear?”
The driver grabbed the man by the arm and forced him to resume his former position.
“Yes, sir,” the man uttered, lowering his eyes.
I always love being in the south for the palm trees, Spanish moss and grits, but I hate the way the colored are treated. Those men shouldn’t be yelled at as though they were children. It’s humiliating for them and for me witnessing it. The Indians in Mexico are mistreated too. It makes me so mad.
I turned to Vicki, who was visibly upset by the scenario.
“I’m going to sit in the back of the bus with these men.”
“Are you nuts? What are you trying to prove?” Vicki said, in an anxious voice.
“I don’t know. I just don’t like the way that man talked. He was so demeaning. I’m going to sit in the back and if he questions me, I will tell him so.”
Vicki knew that I would follow through on what I had said, and as usual, she followed me, albeit begrudgingly.
We climbed into the grey vehicle where a row of seats had been removed to delineate the white and colored sections. I sat in the first row, center of the colored sector. No one in the white area noticed that we had gone into the back of the bus. When the colored men entered, they saw us, but avoided looking directly in our direction or commenting in any way. In fact, there was an eerie stillness among them. No one spoke.
“When the man comes for our tickets, what do you plan to say?” Vicki queried nervously.
“I don’t know, but the words will come.”
“Oh, don’t get us into trouble. We could get thrown off and then how will we get to Laredo?”
There was no time to answer her. The driver had stamped the white passenger tickets and was coming toward us with determined strides. I felt uneasy. He was tall. As he approached, all I saw was the navy-blue wall of his uniform.
Look right into his eyes. Don’t look scared.
“Tickets! he grumbled.”
I looked at him squarely in the face as I handed mine over. The operator stood before us, stared back at me, and hesitated a moment. A confused look crossed his bold features.
“You girls belong back here?” he asked in a curt voice.
“Yes,” I said, defiantly.
At my sharp retort, he once again looked confused. The men with whom we sat remained silent, looking uncomfortably at the floor. The driver remained motionless before me.
He’s thinking of what to say now. He might try to force us to the front of the bus, or he might tell us to get off. What matters to me is that he realize we don’t like his conduct.
My heart began to pound.
Regaining his composure, he merely shrugged his shoulders.
“All right. Suit yourselves,” he exclaimed in a disapproving tone. Handing us our stubs, he moved to the front.
Wow! That was not as dramatic as I thought it might be.
Vicki and I sat back in our seats, as the Greyhound bound for Laredo.
“I’m glad that’s over and you didn’t get us into real trouble,” Vicki exclaimed, with a sigh of relief.
I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed there had been no verbal confrontation. No one said a word to us in the back. I only hoped the driver and the colored travelers understood why we were there.
Cav. Gilda Battaglia Rorro Baldassari, Ed.D. was Knighted by the President of Italy in 2008, for her service to the Republic of Italy. Her academic background includes: B.A. from Beaver College (now Arcadia University), the University of Mexico, M. Ed., Trenton State College (the College of New Jersey), and Ed.D., Rutgers University. She was the Director of the New Jersey Department of Education’s (DOE) Civil Rights Division, and Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in the Trenton Board of Education. Her memoir: Gilda, Promise Me, is published by Idea Press. She resides in Hamilton Township, New Jersey.