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The Black Bus Stop is a landmark only a minority knew about

Collage of photos on the rock wall at what has been known as the Black Bus Stop

Photos courtesy Donna Hamilton and Kevin Suber; photo illustration by Steve Hedberg

Lauren Davis was well aware of the University of Virginia’s complicated racial legacy when she accepted a full scholarship in 1997.

“I did not revere Jefferson,” says Davis (Col ’02).

Still, she wasn’t prepared for what she saw during her walk to her first classes. She stopped by a stone marker near her dorm and read the text: “This area contains unmarked graves believed to be those of slaves.”

The idea that enslaved African Americans literally built the facilities—only to have more buildings cover their bones—angered Davis then, and still does.  

“That set the tone for the time I was there at UVA,” Davis says. 

When she felt isolated at the University, though, she found refuge in an unlikely place: a bus stop.

On the University map, the two signs are marked as the Monroe and Garrett Hall UTS stops on McCormick Road. But since the late 1970s, the area surrounding those signs has been known as the “Black Bus Stop.” 

On any given day you might see dozens of people there, but only a few were waiting for the shuttle. 

For many African American students, the Black Bus Stop was the place to find the familiar after a day of being perhaps the only minority in class. Alumni have described it as “our front porch stoop,” “the black Red Carpet,” the “outdoor student union,” the “family gathering spot,” the “place where we could be ourselves.”

Depending on the generation, the BBS (or BB to more recent graduates) could be on either side of McCormick. It often became both when hundreds of students filled the cobblestone wall and the flights of nearby stairs, or leaned on trees and soaked up time with one another.

The Advisory Committee on the Future of the Historic Landscape at the University is working on commemorating historically significant people and places. The Black Bus Stop has been proposed as one of those. The Kappa Rho Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta paid its own homage to the spot in 2013: Delta was the college’s first African American sorority when it formed in 1973, and the sorors—sisters—placed a bench near the cobblestone wall for the chapter’s 40th anniversary. 

No one is exactly sure when or why this patch of land in the University’s 1,682 acres became this harbor. Black alumni say they know only that it was necessary. 

Donna Johnson (Col ’84) bubbles as soon as she starts to reminisce about her days at the BBS.

“Oh, it was a big social scene—a lot of fun, a lot of cutting up. It was like a big parade,” Johnson says. “It was a parade of fun, smart black folks. For me, I found my tribe.”

The world now knows about the iconic space thanks to UVA art professor Kevin Jerome Everson and History Department chair Claudrena N. Harold, who created the nine-minute film Black Bus Stop to honor it. The film debuted in January at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands. In June, the film received the jury award at the Vienna International Short Film Festival, and it was screened at the New York Film Festival in October.

Harold says she could not pinpoint through research when the Black Bus Stop came to be, or how it got its name, but it seems to have appeared by the late 1970s and peaked in the 1990s, at the height of African American enrollment at the University. Harold says she sees the spot as a natural evolution of the black experience at UVA.

Gregory Swanson (Law ’53), who enrolled in 1950, was UVA’s first African American student, followed by a trickle of other African American students until around 1970.  Courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

The University’s first African American student, Gregory Swanson (Law ’53), enrolled in 1950, and Harold considers the trickle of African American students to follow him until around 1970 as the “trailblazer” generation.

She says the next generation, from 1970 to the ’80s, were the “institution builders,” who laid the foundation for the Black Studies program and the Office of African-American Affairs, and established the first black fraternal organizations.

By 1977, the University for the first time enrolled more than 500 black undergraduate students, though they were still less than 5 percent of the undergrad student body.

Not quite a critical mass, Harold says, but enough students “who are building institutions, maintaining institutions.” 

“But once you get these institutions you want to add the social dimension. There are always these informal spaces where people hang out and have a good time, and they aren’t connected to an official institution. The Black Bus Stop, in many ways, becomes that institution.”

When Michael J. Dudley (Col ’81) came to the university in 1977, the spot was called the “Black People’s Bus Stop.” 

It was convenient because it was on a main drag for people going to Newcomb Hall to eat or the new and old Cabell Halls for classes.

Dudley made friends of all races and ethnicities, but it did not take long to see that “there were really two UVAs—a white one and a black one.”

While he lived in the New Dorms, “the soul of black UVA” was in the Old Dorms, he says. 

For him, the BBS was the place to find out where parties were for the upcoming weekend and who was meeting at the Tree House snack bar later. It’s where he passed out event flyers for his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. It’s where students rejoiced when the college finally booked soul and funk band Ohio Players to perform at University Hall.

It was where they exchanged information on what professors seemed bent on flunking the black students and planned to take classes together so they could support one another. 

As the students were firming their footing at the University, the Black People’s Bus Stop became that place to rally and discuss social issues, including the growing global movement against South Africa’s segregationist apartheid government. 

Johnson came to the University two years after Dudley and uses terms like “family” and “community” to describe her time at the stop. By 1979, she says, students were calling it the “Black Bus Stop.”

She grew up in Ashland, about an hour east of Charlottesville, and had visited during yearly band camps at the University. 

Johnson fell in love with Grounds way before she arrived, and the camaraderie at the bus stop only solidified it.

Students didn’t have cellphones, so “Meet me at the BBS” was all that was said, and they knew they would connect at some point during the day at the stop. 

“If you were going to see General Hospital at 3 o’clock in the TV room, you met at the bus stop,” Johnson says.

A week before the beginning of her fourth year, Johnson was in a serious car accident and missed the first semester. She returned for spring semester still wearing a neck brace.

“When I walked up to the Black Bus Stop for the first time, people were so welcoming,” Johnson says. “A couple of guys ran up and got my backpack. It was so welcoming and warm, but that’s just the way everyone was.”

Johnson, who now lives in Atlanta, says she gathers with many of those friends now and that they plan annual road trips to UVA football games.

“It’s so special, the relationships that we have and how they lasted all these years,” she says. “And we still talk about BBS stuff.”

The BBS was also an information hub. “If you wanted to get the most eyes on the event, you were going to have a flyer at the BBS,” says Kevin Suber (Engr ’86), shown with Janice Winstead (Com ’87, ’88). Courtesy Kevin Suber

The BBS stayed relevant as the times changed.

Conversations at the stop had gone from catching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in 1989 to the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas sexual harassment hearings to Dwayne and Whitley’s wedding on A Different World in the early 1990s.

Then came the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

Throughout the ’90s, the Black Student Alliance continued to raise its concerns that the Honor System disproportionately charged and punished African American students. The new millennium saw blackface at Halloween frat parties on Grounds. And in 2002, 400 African American students protested the Cavalier Daily for what they felt were racist opinion pieces.  

By the early 2000s, the familiar “Meet me at the BBS” had given way to “See you at the BB.” 

The spot had not become any less important in those years.

The University had seen its black undergraduate numbers hit 12 percent in the early 1990s before starting to fall. 

For Davis, the bus stop was her place to decompress. Sometimes the racial offenses weren’t overt. Davis said she remembers being in a women’s studies class and listening to the professor and students discuss the challenges white women faced when they joined the work force en masse in the mid-20th century. Davis says she stopped the discussion with: “You do realize that black women have always been working, right?”

The bus stop was where she could commiserate with other students.

“The atmosphere was like, ‘We have to find a way to support ourselves,’ ” she says. “The bus stop was the same as it was in middle school when all the black kids were sitting together in the cafeteria. They were trying to stay sane. … It was being able to have a conversation where I didn’t have to explain or justify myself.”

Tracy Clemons Jr. (Col ’07), a government and African-American Studies graduate, can relate.

Clemons grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia, and came from a family where everyone went to a historically black college.

He had his eye on Morehouse College in Atlanta or Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, but had attended UVA’s summer enrichment programs, and his parents liked Grounds.

Clemons learned about the BB before enrolling, and he says it became one of his most memorable college experiences.

Clemons says he was never intimidated about being in a white-dominated space, but he was concerned about not having “enough black students to feel like I was at home.”

His first day at the BB changed that.

“You get close to the BB and you hear your family before you see them,” he says. “And the closer you got, the blacker it got. That was a safe place for us. Having a bad day? Get to the BB and surely you’d run into a group of friends, or you’d run into members of the choir randomly singing a song from the top of their lungs.”

Even during his time at UVA, during the age of phones and Facebook, students still met at the BB and then walked together to BET—Black Eating Time at Newcomb Hall.

Later, they might all meet up at Club Clemons, the Clemons library.

Then, the next day, they’d catch up again at the BB.

“If you were uncomfortable around large groups of black students, that central Grounds bus stop was not the place to be,” Clemons says. “It was ours.”

UVA art professor Kevin Jerome Everson and History Department chair Claudrena N. Harold’s nine-minute film Black Bus Stop (shown) debuted at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands and received the jury award at the Vienna International Short Film Festival. Courtesy Claudrena Harold

Crowds at the BB started to taper during the next 15 years, alumni recall. Maybe it was because social media and texting made it easier for students to commune virtually. At the same time, the University saw the proportion of students who identify as African American slide.

The BBS, however, will always be a favorite spot for Donna Hamilton (Col ’86).

She was a 16-year-old pre-med student from New Jersey who originally wanted to study at Cornell University or Pennsylvania State University. But then she attended UVA’s Spring Fling, an event for newly admitted African American students, and decided to give Virginia a try.

She loved her time on Grounds—the friendships made, the hours of pledging Delta—and so many of those memories took place at the BBS. 

After she graduated and moved back to practice in New Jersey, Hamilton returned for alumni events and always stopped by the BBS. She always rose early to beat traffic to be able to perch on the cobblestone wall by noon—and she wasn’t the only one. 

“It had that spirit to it,” she says.

Hamilton now lives in Pennsylvania, but for the past two summers, she has returned to Charlottesville with Hoos Against Hate, when students, parents and alumni get together to help incoming students move in for the fall semester. The group, committed to standing up against hate groups, formed after the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rallies on Grounds and in Charlottesville erupted into violence.

She notes that the BBS is still a place to catch the bus and seems like more of a spot for the occasional rally, to get petitions signed and to sell event tickets.  

In the summer of 2018, she and several friends livestreamed on Facebook from the BBS. As Hamilton talked into the camera, a female voice yelled in the background: “Oh, snap! Is that Michael Mason?”

It was. Mason (Educ ’06), associate dean in the Office of African-American Affairs, was strolling across McCormick.

Hamilton laughed; it was such a BBS thing to be hanging at the stop and see a friend walk by.

“You are getting the experience,” Hamilton said to those who were watching. 

She turned the camera to Mason, who said hello to the viewers before shaking hands with the others under the trees.

Before heading off to help the students move in, Hamilton and the crew started to sign off. She smiled into the camera one last time.

She sounded as she might have more than 30 years ago, waving to friends as she was walking off to class. 

“Take care!” she said. “Love y’all!”

Denise Watson is a features writer based in Norfolk, Virginia.