I look back on my days in the back of an express bus to high school and remember the Black worker who stood up for me. Now it’s my turn to stand up for Black people.
By Geoffrey McLennan, Special to CalMatters
Geoffrey McLennan, retired from state service in 2015, is a mental health advocate and member of the Placer County Mental Health Advisory Board, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many years ago I rode an express bus 35 miles from downtown Oakland to high school in Hayward – a long way to go for school. I was raised in a Catholic family and my parents insisted we attend a Catholic high school. I chose Moreau High School in Hayward because it was brand new and seeking students. I liked the idea of perhaps beginning a legacy.
My daily bus ride took me through many East Bay neighborhoods in Oakland, San Leandro, San Lorenzo and Hayward. These middle-class communities all had plentiful housing built after World War II. I sat in the back of the bus because I could study, and I liked the high bench seat over the engine compartment where it was warm and cozy.
Along the 45-minute ride I met many good people, mostly workers going to and from jobs and a few students. But it was the changing ethnicities along the route that made my back-of-the-bus ride notable. Black, Portuguese, Mexican, white, Pacific Islander, Japanese and more made this truly a bus of many colors. Many spoke in mixed native and English tongues.
On the morning ride, most folks were quiet and used the bus to catch up on small talk and read the newspaper. For me, the best part was around the Hunt’s tomato cannery in Hayward, where the aroma of cooked tomatoes filled the air for miles and made me think of spaghetti and pizza.
The men and women who got on and off the bus at the cannery were mostly people of color. I thought they were cool and greeted them each morning with a smile and a quick glance, then I returned to my studies. I carried my books, paper, pens and slide rule in a dark green briefcase I got by saving Blue Chip Stamps.
After school and tennis practice, I would catch the bus a block south of school. Since my stop was near the end of the line, I always had the back seat to myself. The 31 Express bus traveled back through Hayward, stopped at the cannery, briefly took the freeway, exited in San Lorenzo, then ran along East 14th Street through San Leandro into East Oakland. Back then white folks would warn me, “be careful about East Oakland, lots of crime.” In high school I worried more about grades and getting into a decent college, and to me the folks on the bus were family.
One of the notable stops in East Oakland was in front of the Black Panther headquarters. Led by Huey Newton, the Panthers were famous for “policing the police.” Wearing dark slacks, black leather coats and berets, they took the bus to Black neighborhoods to keep Black folks safe. Oakland was racially divided in the ’60s, and people were nervous and untrusting. I just stuck my nose in my history book and kept to myself while the Panthers and I traded glances and made small talk.
On Saturday mornings I rode the Number 51 bus from our Oakland neighborhood to Alameda for organ lessons from a Baptist church organist. Marie Stingle was a white woman, kind and firm in her lessons. If I missed a note, God might forgive once but not twice. During one lesson, she excused herself, mentioning her husband. I could see a male figure through light curtains on the windowed doors dividing the living room and her kitchen. She returned and told me her husband worked hard, and she always fixed him breakfast.
One day after the bus stop at the Black Panther’s headquarters, one of the Black Panthers asked me what I was reading. I said, ”World history,” and he asked to see the book. I passed it over the seat to him. After a few minutes he told his companions the book was “BS” and said I should let him throw it away. I told him I had a test the next day and asked him to please return it. He laughed and tossed it to another guy who tossed it around some more. I panicked but kept my cool. Maybe these men had a point? Perhaps now we know “world history” was biased toward the conquering culture.
At that point, a large Black man a few seats toward the front stood up. In work clothes and a large coat, this guy was formidable. Most of the cannery workers smoked cigars and sipped beverages under their coats, and he had his. I did not judge. He walked up to the younger man, took the book away from him and gave it to me, warning the group not to take things from other passengers and not to make him come back. Then he took a puff from his cigar and went left. I sat frozen in fear, thinking for sure the Panthers would bust me; but they got off the bus at their usual stops, and I made it home to study more.
Imagine a Black man standing up for a white kid back in the day. I was so thankful for this man’s courage. And I wondered who was my Black guardian angel?
The next day on the way to school, the factory worker came to the back of the bus and sat next to me. He introduced himself as Mr. Stingle, my organ teacher’s husband. We talked all the way to the cannery stop. That evening he got on the bus and sat next to me all the way to Oakland. We talked about churches and playing the organ, and he added that history books were written in the eye of the beholder. I remember that.
Back then, interracial marriages were taboo, but I loved that couple and to me that represented love without limits.
Years have passed. I look back on my days in the back of the express bus. I recall the violence and racial unrest in Oakland while I attended UC Berkeley. I look at today’s demonstrations in communities caused by aggressive policing and a failure to accept Black culture. I remember the Black cannery worker who stood up for me, made his wife proud and impressed me to no end.
Now, I tell myself to stand up for Black people. It’s my turn. We all need to respect diverse communities and mixed cultures – and be accepting of the changing ethnicities along the route of this bus ride.
Geoffrey McLennan believes that community diversity improves shared governance.