Something to Cool You Off
by Dean Smith
Saturday afternoon, summer of ’44, heat rising
from the Durham tar, Private Booker T. Spicely
boarded a bus, cradling a watermelon for a mother and her son,
strode proudly in uniform into the second to last row.
The driver, Lee Council, watched him from the mirror,
never said a word until two white soldiers got on, then pointed
to the State Law sign requiring negroes to “sit from the rear,”
and told the black soldier to move all the way back.
Spicely stood up, smiled, and said, “If I can take a bullet
and die for democracy, I can sit anywhere I damn well please.”
The white soldiers nodded, in solidarity, and boldly landed
in the negro section, defying the law. Spicely joined the white soldiers
and Council cursed them all for crossing the line and Booker shot back,
“If you weren’t a goddamn 4-F”—meaning unfit to serve—
“you wouldn’t be driving this bus.” The driver glared
at the black soldier and said, “I’ve got something to cool you off.”
Spicely apologized, “I’m sorry, driver, if something I said
may have offended you. I beg your pardon, I didn’t mean any harm.”
Then he sat on the farthest-back bench for the duration
of his ride, exiting at Fourth and Club Boulevard.
Council watched him disembark and snatched a .38 from
underneath his seat, headed down the steps, waiting for Spicely
to approach the front of the bus and shot the soldier in the chest, piercing
his dog tags, and then shot him again, leaving him there to bleed to death.
Military police drove him to Watts Hospital but it was for whites only
and yet they still tested him for alcohol, and the result was negative.
Born in Blackstone, Virginia, son of Lazarus and Alberta, tall and strong
as if cut from timber, stationed at Camp Butner on a weekend pass—
Booker T. Spicely died upon arrival at Duke Hospital, gunpowder
burns on his uniform, one on the chest and one near the liver,
thirty-four years old, and in a crooked scrawl his death certificate
stated “homicide” from a “pistol shot wound through heart.”
Council finished his route, then turned himself in, bailed out
that night by Duke Power which operated the city bus concession,
and he appeared cool and collected as he lied on the witness stand,
saying his life was in danger: that the black soldier had reached
into his pocket for an imaginary gun; that the black
soldier had threatened to cut his throat on previous rides.
An all-white jury took twenty-eight minutes to set
the driver free and he went back to work the next week.
Saturday afternoon, summer of ’24, heat rising
from the Durham tar, Booker will be eighty years gone—
how much longer will these killings go on? There is no marker
or monument for the fallen black soldier, just the voices of witnesses
who said he was “shot down like a dog and left on the ground,”
and “if a black man had killed a bus driver, he would’ve been lynched
by sundown,” in a city once hailed for the taste of its tobacco—Private Spicely
served our country against the Nazis only to be murdered by Jim Crow.
Dean Smith is a poet, author, and freelance journalist whose poems have appeared in Open City, Poetry East, Gulf Stream, and upstreet, among others. His new book of poems, Baltimore Sons, will be published in 2021 by Stillhouse Press. His first book of poems, American Boy, was published in 2000 by Washington Writer’s Publishing House and is available here on the Internet Archive. He published a nonfiction work, Never Easy, Never Pretty (Temple University Press, 2013) about the Baltimore Ravens. He is the director of Duke University Press.