In the early 1950s, when all South Carolina schools were segregated by race, black kids who grew up “out in the country” had no school buses. Kids who had no way to get to school just did not go.
Willie Chisolm changed all that in Rock Hill.
And on Sunday, many of those now-older people who rode those buses to school will honor Chisolm.
Chisolm, a black businessman who owned property at the southern end of Saluda Street near where Heckle Boulevard now intersects S.C. 72, was able to raise enough money to buy two used buses to transport rural children. He drove the buses, and students drove the buses, too.
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Students were delivered to Emmett Scott High School, West End school and other black schools. The cost was whatever a child’s family could afford. If there was no money, the ride was free.
“I rode Mr. Chisolm’s buses when I went to Emmett Scott High School,” said the Rev. Osbey Roddey, who last year retired after two decades on the Rock Hill City Council. “In those days, the rural black children had no school buses. Parents had to really worry about being able to get children to school.”
The buses ran through the 1950s, said Bill Cathcart of Rock Hill, who helped organize Sunday’s tribute to Chisolm. They were crucial for children who came from rural areas, where parents might have been farmers or sharecroppers – or just plain poor. They gave those children a chance to get to school and a chance at better opportunities later in life.
“There was no other way for children to get to school, and Mr. Chisolm took it upon himself to do what the state would not do – get black students to school,” Cathcart said. “Anyone who ever rode those buses is eternally grateful that Mr. Chisolm cared enough about the futures of black students that he would spend his own money and his own time for others.”
Chisolm died in 1962, before the schools integrated in 1966 and segregated schools finally closed in 1970.
But for those people old enough to know that a ride to school meant a ride to the future, Willie Chisolm will never be forgotten. The event Sunday during Black History Month is a chance to honor someone that history has never honored, Cathcart said.