I’ve told the story before. I may have even written it, but that’s the downside of being old. You forget.
It was 2014. My youngest was in college on the East Coast. For spring break, she proposed that her older brother and I fly across the country to meet her in DC for ten days.
I had never been to Washington, DC. It was high time for me to go. The year before we had gone to New York City for spring break, where every attraction had cost money. I found out that in DC almost everything is free:
The Smithsonian museums (there are 11), the tour of the Capitol building, the Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery, the Holocaust Museum. Only the day it snowed did I have to shell out money for the private spy museum because all federal buildings were closed due to weather.
For some reason, maybe because I had just read Twelve Years a Slave, I wanted to visit the house of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave turned famous orator. It was in Virginia, but you could take the subway, transfer to a city bus, and get there. My son was in charge of navigating.
We took the subway and got off at the appropriate stop. Many buses were in the parking lot. I found the one with the correct number on it. I walked up the steps and peered inside, asking the driver if it was the bus to the Fredrick Douglass house.
The bus was filled with black people.
I am from a Midwest suburb. I did not grow up with black people. My kids grew up in an affluent suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area. Very few blacks went to school with them. I did moonlight as a waitress in an integrated bar in Omaha for several years, but that was the extent of my exposure to interacting with blacks.
I stepped off the bus, then decided that we were going to press on. I rolled my eyes and said to my adult children, “This is going to be an experience.”
The kids followed me onto the bus. I was first, so I don’t know what expressions their faces revealed. A woman patted her seat and said to me, “Sit down right here.”
My two kids sat in the seat ahead of me.
“Is that your handsome son?” the woman behind me asked.
“Yes,” I said, knowing that his ears were turning red from the compliment.
“And is that your lovely daughter?” another woman asked.
“Yes,” I said, turning toward her.
“Where are you headed, honey?” another woman asked.
“The Frederick Douglass house,” I said.
“Oh, he was a fine man. That’s a fine place to visit,” a third woman said. “You just sit back and enjoy the ride, and we’ll tell you when you’re close to it.”
“Great,” I said. “Thank you.”
My kids said nothing. They sat there, listening to all the people talking to me.
The women beside and behind me kept up the conversation. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember most everyone on the bus joining in at one point or another.
And then it happened. The bus driver failed to stop at our stop.
You would’ve thought he ran over somebody the way they yelled at him.
“You missed their stop!”
“Pull over right now!”
“Yeah, don’t make them walk any further than they have to.”
“STOP THE BUS!”
When the bus driver pulled over, I turned to the crowd and said, “Thanks, everyone!”
I herded the kids out the front door while people waved good-bye to us.
It was snowing, and we had to backtrack half a block to get to the front door of the mansion museum. Now it was my children’s turn to roll their eyes at me. We didn’t discuss the bus ride.
I was glad that I had carried through with our plan. Yes, It was intimidating at first to be the only three whites in a crowd of black people, tourists intersecting with everyday lives.
Those people went out of their way to make us feel welcome. I learned more that day on the bus than I did at the museum. People are people. There was no animosity, especially because of where we were going.
Frederick Douglass, born a slave, escaped to become a free man and a great orator for the abolition of slavery. A picture of Susan B. Anthony hung in his living room. They were friends. They helped each other to free the slaves, to get the women’s vote.
The museum was great, the bus ride had been better.
The kids decided we would walk back to the subway stop. It was a couple of miles, but it had stopped snowing, and there was no way a second bus ride would be as joyful as the first, so I agreed.