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Black soldier killed during Jim Crow era now honored with historical marker in N.C.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 1944, the city of Durham, N.C., was riveted by the killing of a young Black soldier and the trial of the white bus driver accused of shooting him. Now a group of activists has revived that soldier's story, and the state has unveiled a historical marker on the place he was shot. WUNC's Jay Price reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Private Booker T. Spicely was a 34-year-old cook from Philadelphia. He was stationed at Camp Butner, not far from Durham. It was a July Saturday, 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 of the Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the South.

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SONNY KELLY: He was asked to move toward the back of the bus, and he complied, but he had something to say about it.

PRICE: As part of the reemergence of Spicely's story, scholar and performer Sonny Kelly has created a one-man show about the contributions of Black veterans to the nation's history.

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KELLY: When he got off that bus, that bus driver was so indignant he followed him off and shot him point-blank in the chest.

PRICE: Spicely hadn't even broken the law, just complained. It took 28 minutes for the all-white jury to acquit the driver. Retired public defender James Williams leads the committee that's reviving Spicely's story.

JAMES WILLIAMS: One reason that it was important was in seeking some semblance of retrospective justice for Booker Spicely and his family, because I think it was time for us as a community to begin to carry that ball, to carry that weight.

PRICE: He notes that Spicely’s story touches so many important parts of history, like how Jim Crow laws worked and how Black troops were fighting for victory against fascism overseas and racism at home in what the influential Black newspapers of the day called the Double V campaign.

WILLIAMS: While Herman Council, the white bus driver, pulled the trigger, it was Jim Crow and white supremacy that loaded that gun.

PRICE: Now, thanks to the committee Williams leads, Spicely's story, with all its lessons, will be told more widely. One of its first acts was to apply for the state marker. Williams also approached Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based power company, for funding to help tell Spicely's story. A forerunner of the company operated Durham's city buses for decades, including the one Spicely road in.

INDIRA EVERETT: None of us had heard the story before.

PRICE: Indira Everett is a spokesperson for the company.

EVERETT: And our Duke Energy team decided it was important to make sure the Private Spicely legacy continued to live on.

PRICE: Her company endowed a scholarship fund in Spicely's name at the law school of NC Central, a historically Black university. Meanwhile, UNC-Chapel Hill developed a lesson plan for elementary school teachers based on Spicely's case and worked with Kelly to develop his show. Sonny Kelly wants to do more with Spicely's story.

KELLY: There's so many dynamics that vectored into his demise that it's not just as simple as racism and death. It's a lot of things, right? 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?

PRICE: The historical marker for Spicely is a few hundred feet from the North Carolina School of Science and Math. Students participated in the dedication. Back in 1944, the school was a hospital for whites. As he was dying, police took Spicely there, but under Jim Crow he was refused treatment. One more lesson his death offers.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "FF4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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