Black riders don’t experience public transit the same.
A saddening fact that has remained true since the birth of public transportation in America. Figuring out a way to get from point A to point B could often be a matter of life and death, and, for one town in the mid-1920s, lack of safe transportation got so out of hand something drastic had to be done. The creation of a new bus system.
Winston-Salem, a city in North Carolina, had a public transportation system like most other places had at that time.
It was segregated.
White residents had an organized streetcar system run by Duke Power Co. that offered them a reliable, safe way to ride. For Black riders, it was a different story. There was no transit system in place in Black neighborhoods, which meant residents had to make unsafe walks for miles to get where they needed to go. These walks often took hours and made everyday life arduous and dangerous.
This precarious situation lead to the creation of a second jitney system where 35 jitney owners provided transportation to the town. However, these jitneys did not solve the issue as they were inadequately regulated, extremely overcrowded and hazardous to operate.
The timetables were inaccurate and, in general, the system was chaotic. Plus, since each jitney ran independently, jitney drivers often competed over bus stops, leading to unsafe confrontations.
A better state of transit was desperately needed for Black residents, so, in 1926, Clarence T. Woodland, a jitney owner, hosted a meeting to finally bring an end to the transit chaos. Out of the 35 jitney drivers, 21 of them came to this meeting to discuss a solution. The men seen in the picture below were the first to band together. Pooling their life savings and founding their own, organized transit system called the Safe Bus Co. Inc.
Safe Bus finally gave Black riders of Winston-Salem a reliable transportation option. Bus stops were assigned, timetables were accurate, and jitney owners weren’t fighting over passengers. Plus, bus stops were strategically located by Black businesses, schools and churches in town, giving access to places that were vital to Black residents’ way of life.
As word of this company made its way across the country, and particularly the South, more drivers came to work.
Harvey F. Morgan, Safe Bus’s first president, presided over the company. He oversaw the transition of 21 jitney drivers, that originally came to the meeting, to a fleet of 35 city buses.
Safe Bus prospered during this time and survived the Depression that followed. By 1935, more than 80 people were employed, 8,000 passengers were transported daily, and drivers had an annual payroll of $65,000.
Safe Bus had become the largest black-owned transportation company in the world.
That same year, Safe Bus published a pamphlet about its successes.
Charlie Peebles, the president at that time, wrote “… established upon the principle of service above profits and managed with a view to permanency and a justification of the ability of Nergros when allowed to handle affairs of merit and responsibility, the Safe Bus Co. has increased in strength, stature, and ability from year to year.”
Safe Bus had become a trailblazing company, even outshining the whites-only streetcar system.
Tina Carson-Wilkins, head of marketing for the Winston-Salem Transit Authority (WSTA), said “Safe Bus was consistently more successful than Duke Power, which provided public transportation in white neighborhoods, or City Coach Lines, which took over those routes from Duke in 1955.” More importantly, it also outshined as “It meant our folks didn’t have to sit in the back of the bus.”
However, Safe Bus did not last forever. When the company began taking on other routes within the city after integration, that began the journey to the end. Safe Bus would run until 1972.
Cassandra Greene Miller, daughter of Safe Bus President Buster Greene, said “Many people say that segregation gave birth to Safe Bus and integration ended it.”
However, the city did keep all the Safe Bus staff, so no one was out of a job.
To this day, the legacy and successes of Safe Bus are still remembered in Black and transportation history. A documentary was made about the company in 2013 at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem called “The Legitimate Child”. And, last month, a program called Artistic Bus Shelter Program saw an artist recognize the first female driver for Safe Bus, Priscilla Stephens.
One original Safe Bus can still be found parked outside of Winston-Salem Transit Authority.