Remembering segregation, changing history

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 2, 2005

My son, Mark, once asked which of the negative situations that took place during segregation affected me the most. While there were many, the racist signs that made blacks and whites sit in different areas were among the most memorable for me.

I thought about the sign on the city buses that my siblings and I encountered whenever we didn’t feel like walking the mile from Lee Street to Booker T. Washington High School. The sign posted high in the front of the bus read: &uot;White in Front, Colored in Rear.&uot; At that time, there were only white bus drivers.

If all the seats were taken in the back of the bus but some remained empty in the front, we could sit in those. However, we immediately had to give them up to whites when they boarded the bus.

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The black community supported the bus service, frequently relying on bus transportation to get to and from work, church, shopping or visits to family and friends. But through it all, blacks desired to have the same seating privileges as the white community.

Black citizens began to get fed up with the discrimination signs and not having any black drivers. Eventually, they started a Civil Rights movement that produced results. After several meeting, blacks in Suffolk decided to boycott the buses until black drivers were hired.

In the 1960s, the late William Earl Russell, who owned and operated Suffolk City Transit Company, met with black leaders and citizens. He eventually hired two black drivers, Luther White and Willie E. Wiggins Jr.

This made blacks very happy.

In July 1964, White was hired and was assigned a route that included East Suffolk Gardens and the Hollywood section of Suffolk. About a year later, Wiggins was hired.

The racist signs were removed a short time later, largely thanks to the employment of White and Wiggins.

White worked as a Suffolk bus driver about four years and in 1968, joined the Franklin Police Department. He retired recently and now lives in Franklin with his wife, Mildred.

Wiggins was employed with the bus service for about six years and in 1971, joined Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. Now retired, he and his wife, Dorothy, live in Portsmouth.

Both said they enjoyed working for Russell and are proud to have played such an important part in changing the history of transportation in Suffolk.

Evelyn Wall is a regular columnist for the Suffolk News-Herald