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1920s Black-owned Safe Bus: 'We didn't have to ride in the back'

Safe Bus
Winston Salem Transit Authority
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A Safe Bus is shown.

During segregation, bus routes in Winston-Salem that brought workers to the city’s major employers did not extend into Black neighborhoods. That often meant long walks to the main routes or trolley lines, until Safe Bus. The state’s first African American-owned transportation company was formed in the mid-1920s to service the East Winston community, and it continued operating until 1972 when it became part of the Winston Salem Transit Authority.

On a sunny day in downtown Winston-Salem, the morning rush at the city’s main bus terminal is over — passengers form short lines; drivers meander in and out with partially filled cabins; the rhythm of the place, like a slow shuffle. Winston-Salem Transit Authority Marketing Manager Tina Carson-Wilkins says there is a lot of history here at the Clark Campbell Transportation Center — beginning with the facility’s namesake.

“People put Mr. Campbell on a pedestal because he was literally someone that everybody knew who drove or worked in public transportation in Winston-Salem for 63 years,” says Carson-Wilkins.

Winston-Salem Safe Bus
DAVID FORD/WFDD
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WSTA GM Donna Woodson (left) and Marketing Manager Tina Carson-Wilkins stand in front of WSTA glass history wall.

Many of those years were spent behind the wheel of a Safe Bus. The Black-owned transportation company was formed in 1926 to serve the African American community, getting people to and from work, at a time when trolleys ruled the roads extending into white neighborhoods only.

“So, people in East Winston needed to either walk to where the trolleys were, get on the trolleys and go to the back of those vehicles, or they would have to get a ride to where they could pick up a trolley,” says Carson-Wilkins.

For years those rides were provided by jitneys — small buses and other passenger cars. Some two dozen independent jitney drivers fiercely competed for nickel fares in vehicles that were often dangerous to operate. Rivalries, altercations, and complaints to city hall officials eventually led to an ultimatum: work together or don’t work at all.

In April of 1926, 21 of them met, agreed to merge services, and form a company that would meet the needs of the underserved East Winston community. Safe Bus Company stocks were sold, $100,000 dollars was raised, fares were set at five cents a ride, and the service began one month later.

Ninety-seven-year-old Jamie Morrison was born and raised in Winston-Salem. She remembers those early years well. Her older siblings — like many African Americans in the community then — worked for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

“A lot of people back then as I was growing up was walking,” says Morrison. “And then when the weather were bad, like during the wintertime and the cold weather and everything, they relied on the buses for transportation.”

Morrison says Safe Bus was embraced by the community for other reasons as well: the drivers were friendly, wore nice uniforms, and the riders knew one another. Another contributing factor rose to the top.

“We didn’t have to sit in the back of the bus riding Safe Bus because it was owned by Blacks,” she says.

By the time Rosa Parks helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement, Safe Bus had been in operation for nearly 30 years. Demand for the service was strong, the short-haul routes to densely populated East Winston — roughly 20% of the city — were highly profitable, and Safe Bus was hiring.

Priscilla Estelle Stephens (left photo) became Safe Bus’s first female driver in 1966. She was trained by Clark Campbell (far right) joined in this photo by his brother Theodore Campbell. Safe Bus
Winston-Salem Transit Authority
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Priscilla Estelle Stephens (left photo) became Safe Bus’s first female driver in 1966. She was trained by Clark Campbell (far right) joined in this photo by his brother Theodore Campbell.

At 21 years old, Priscilla Stephens became the company’s first female driver, instructed by none other than Clark Campbell himself.

“And he trained me one day, like on a Friday, and I had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles,” says Stephens. “That Sunday I had a route of my own. I worked from 5:15 that morning to 11:40 that night — two shifts [laughs]!”

Stephens says she enjoyed the work, always loved to drive — 32 years accident-free — but she says being with Safe Bus was more than just a job.

Priscilla Stephens
DAVID FORD/WFDD
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Priscilla Stephens today at 77.

“You become family once you get to know everybody,” says Stephens. “So, I was with them in the morning when they’d get on the bus and go to work. In the afternoon they’d look for me when they got ready to go home. So, they got to the point where they would bring me gifts during Christmas and this kind of stuff. So, we got along just fine.”

Safe Bus continued to grow its fleet, acquired Camel City Cab, and the Black community took pride in the company’s success.

In 1968, after Winston-Salem’s contracted bus carrier left town, Safe Bus was told by the city to fill that void and provide transportation to all residents. This made it the largest African American-owned and operated transportation business in the country.

Its history is preserved at the Winston-Salem African American Archive — boxes and boxes of articles, documents, and photos dating back to the 19th century. Vice President Chenita Johnson was born and raised in this city. She says at that particular time in history there was not one other company like Safe Bus anywhere, and yet, she says, its history, like many other contributions made by the Black community here is rarely taught in schools and entirely under-represented.

“We have deep roots in Winston-Salem — African Americans have deep roots here,” says Johnson. “And it’s not just from the factories. It’s from the people who helped create these businesses. It’s people who helped create schools. So, to me it just feels as if they believe that there’s just nothing that we have that’s attached here. And because of that I think this archive is important.”

Safe Bus formed out of the practice of segregation, and eventually ended due to integration. Forced to cover the entire city — including non-productive routes — lack of equipment, competition from rising automobile ownership, and a majority population not as willing to ride Black-operated buses, meant the end of Safe Bus. In 1972 the city purchased the company’s assets, retained its staff, and it became — what it remains today, fifty years later — part of the Winston Salem Transit Authority.

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