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A Durham historical marker will honor a Black soldier killed after challenging Jim Crow laws

Scholar and performer Sonny Kelly recounts the story of Private Booker T. Spicely during a performance at North Carolina Central University of “The Ongoing Fight for Freedom: Stories of NC Black Veterans.”
Jay Price
Scholar and performer Sonny Kelly recounts the story of Private Booker T. Spicely during a performance at North Carolina Central University of “The Ongoing Fight for Freedom: Stories of NC Black Veterans.”

In 1944, Durham was riveted by the killing of a Black Army private — and the trial of the white bus driver who shot him.

In the decades since, the case of Booker T. Spicely was nearly forgotten.

This week though, the state will unveil a roadside historical marker near where Spicely was shot, after a group of activists revived Spicely’s story and the history lessons it offers.

Spicely, a 34-year-old cook from Philadelphia, was stationed at Camp Butner, not far from Durham. It was a Saturday in July, and he had come into the city on a weekend pass to spend time in Hayti — the thriving community that had become known as “the Black Wall Street.”

But when some white soldiers boarded a city bus he was riding, Spicely fell afoul of one of the most notorious Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the South. Not for breaking it, but merely complaining about it.

The driver of the bus, a white man named Herman Council, told Spicely to give up his seat and move to the back. Witnesses said Spicely gestured at Council and spoke to the white soldiers.

Private Booker T. Spicely in an undated Army photo.
Private Booker T. Spicely in an undated Army photo.

According to newspaper accounts and a 1944 U.S. War Department report, Spicely said he was wearing the same uniform as the white soldiers and asked why he was being treated differently. He asked them, "Aren't I just as good to stop a bullet as you are?"

He did move to the back of the bus, but kept complaining and mocked Council for not being fit to serve in the military himself.

Spicely was almost certainly aware of the dangers of pushing back against segregation in the South. But being from the North, he hadn’t been raised amid the daily humiliations of Jim Crow. He wasn’t the only Black soldier stationed at Camp Butner who felt that way.

So many of them had challenged the law on Durham city busses that drivers had begun complaining that it was hard to enforce.

As the bus rolled along, Spicely and Council squabbled, and the driver made a vague threat about having something that would “cool off” Spicely.

The soldier may have realized he had gone too far. He apologized to Council, according to other bus riders.

But when Spicely got off the bus through the rear door, Council got out from the front.
Council raised a .38-caliber pistol and shot twice, so close that the shots scorched Spicely’s uniform.

One bullet entered Spicely's chest, hitting his dog tag. The other passed through his liver.

Council climbed back into the driver’s seat and went on to complete his route.

Police took Spicely to nearby Watts Hospital, but he was refused treatment because he was Black. By the time they got him to Duke Hospital, he was dead.

Council later surrendered to police. He was eventually tried on second degree murder charges.

It took 28 minutes for the all-white jury to acquit him.

“The more that I learn about this story, the more I think it's important for more people to know about what happened here in 1944,” said Stephen Valentine, the director of the Veterans Law Clinic at North Carolina Central University.

Valentine says Spicely’s story includes an array of important historical topics, like how Jim Crow laws worked, how some white Southerners feared that military service empowered Black troops too much, and how those fears sometimes led to killing.

“There's a lot of stories similar to Spicely’s that have gone throughout the years unknown to many people," Valentine said. “Which for me, is a story that absolutely, positively needs to be told."

And now it will be told more widely.

Valentine has been working with a group of more than half a dozen activists, including James Williams, the retired public defender for Chatham and Orange counties, Gretchen Engel, who leads the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, and historian Tim Tyson.

One of their first acts was to apply for the state marker. North Carolina has erected more than 1,600 such markers over the past nine decades, but this will be the first to directly mention Jim Crow laws.

The activists also approached Duke Energy. A forerunner of the company — Duke Power – operated Durham's city buses for decades, including the one Spicely rode in. Duke Power paid the driver’s $2,500 bond and let him keep his job after the trial.

“None of us had heard the story before, so it was certainly interesting to us, but also tragic to learn of the nature of the story as well," said Indira Everett, Duke Energy's regional director for Government and Community Relations. “Our Duke Energy team decided it was important to collaborate and to be a partner in acknowledging this story, and to make sure the Private Spicely legacy continued to live on.”

Duke Energy gave North Carolina Central’s law school $100,000 for an endowed scholarship fund in Spicely’s name. It benefits students working with the Veterans Law Clinic that Valentine leads. The company also funded a seminar at the school built around the Spicely case, and it's paying to commission a one-act play about Spicely by playwright and actor Mike Wiley.

The activists and Duke Energy officials hope that play is ready next summer, in time for the 80th anniversary of his death.

Booker Spicely's 1944 death certificate lists the cause of death as a "pistol shot wound through head." The bus driver who fired the shot was acquitted.
Scholar and performer Sonny Kelly recounts the story of Private Booker T. Spicely during a performance at North Carolina Central University of “The Ongoing Fight for Freedom: Stories of NC Black Veterans.”

Everett said the story is too important to let fade away again.

“I think the company hopes certainly healing is a part of it, but also awareness,” she said. “That people are aware that the Jim Crow era did exist. And out of that, we hope that people will appreciate and value each other, the diversity that we present in the community."

A UNC-Chapel Hill program called Carolina K-12 — which aims to leverage the resources of the UNC system to help educators — also has developed a lesson plan for teachers based on Spicely’s case. The lesson teaches students how to study history using original source documents, said Christie Norris, director of Carolina K-12.

It digs deeply into topics like Jim Crow laws and the so-called “Double V” campaign promoted by influential Black newspapers during World War II, which linked fighting fascism overseas with civil rights struggles at home.

Carolina K-12 also worked with scholar and performer Sonny Kelly to develop a one-man show that complements the lesson plan. It focuses on the contributions of Black service members throughout the nation’s history. Teachers can request a performance at their schools, Norris said.

In an interview, Kelly said he’d like to do more on stage with Spicely’s story because it’s such a powerful tool for teaching.

“There's so many dynamics that vectored into his demise, that it's not just as simple as racism and death," Kelly said. "He's from the North, he's a soldier. What does it mean to be a soldier in World War II for him and for his family at that time?”

The historical marker for Spicely will be unveiled near the spot where he was shot, a few hundred feet from the former Watts Hospital, where the dying soldier was denied treatment.

The hospital building now houses the North Carolina School of Science and Math. Students will participate in the dedication.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.
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