The Route of Division

In Birmingham, Alabama, a public bus takes about a dozen housekeepers from their low-income, mostly black neighborhood to a wealthy white suburb.

These are the only stops the city bus makes; these are virtually the only people who ride it.

Irine V. McCord has several nicknames on the No. 50 Cherokee Bend bus. She's Running Irine because at 74 she still tries to sprint to catch the bus. Or she’s Talking Irine because she’s a chatterbox. And the women on the bus often joke, “Irine's asleep, wake her up!” when she nods off as the bus rolls through Birmingham.

McCord has been taking the buses in Birmingham since she was a girl. She remembers the segregated buses, how she was forced to stand as white passengers slid into seats and the driver moved the board designating “colored” farther and farther back.

“There might not be a seat back there, but you go back past that board. Just do it. You know, you don't cause no problem. If you had to stand, you wouldn't necessarily like it, but you just do it. Cause you wanna go on, you didn't want to be delayed.”

McCord dropped out of school in the 11th grade, believing she would never be able to graduate, and started working full time. At first, she cleaned houses for people her mother knew. Soon she was working five days a week. Often, when she was waiting at a bus stop, women from the suburbs would drive by and ask if she had a free day to work for them.

McCord says when the buses were segregated, service was wonderful. Buses ran frequently and on time. They didn't get bad, McCord explains, “till the white folks ran.”

A morning on the bus

Every morning, a dozen women watch carefully for the 50 Cherokee Bend, a city bus that will take them from downtown Birmingham, which is 70 percent black, to their jobs cleaning houses in the suburb of Mountain Brook, which is almost entirely white.

The bus makes only one trip a day. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon, Elnora Shearer, 70, explains. “It shows you what they’re doing for Mountain Brook. The bus go in the morning, and they come back and pick you up in the evening. 'Go to work over here and then get out of here.'

Many of the women who ride the 50 Cherokee Bend arrive at the central bus station hours before the bus’s 8:05 a.m. scheduled departure, because if they miss the morning bus, there won't be another.

Sometimes, Mildred Bryant, 73, jokes, there’s no time to put on earrings if you want to catch the bus.

It is a 10 minute drive by car from Birmingham to Mountain Brook; the bus can take an hour. Each day the women travel from the city’s blighted neighborhoods to the lush green suburb. (Click to enlarge images)

Birmingham and Mountain Brook have always been separate and never equal. Birmingham lies in a valley and was birthed from mountains of iron and coal that surround it. Heavy industry created and controlled the city. In the 1970s, the air in Birmingham was so dirty residents could taste the pollution, and the mountains around the city disappeared behind a screen of soot and smoke.

Birmingham's public schools are failing and abandoned homes blight once-thriving neighborhoods.

Over the mountain lies the suburb of Mountain Brook. As industries divided up the city, white residents bought parcels of land on the other side of the mountain to create a small sanctuary, where pollution vanished and geography and urban planning enforced segregation more efficiently and covertly. Mountain Brook’s schools rank among the highest in the nation, and the median income fills out six digits.

Every morning, the 50 Cherokee Bend bus maps the divide between the two cities.

A bus route that connects a divided city

The No. 50 Cherokee Bend travels from downtown Birmingham to Mountain Brook, a nearly all-white suburb. By car, Mountain Brook is 10 minutes from downtown; the Cherokee Bus takes up to an hour.

Hover or click on census tracts for more information.

Demographic data shows those reporting white only or black and African-American only according to 5-year data from the 2013 American Community Survey. Bus route from Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority.
Map by Alex Newman/Al Jazeera America.

The bus often runs behind schedule. The women call their bosses to explain they’ll be late. Some of the older women complain to the dispatcher, but most simply wait, saying there’s no use getting angry. “We just have to make do with what it is and see it for what it is, because it is what it is,” Ive Gresham, 66, explains her mantra. “And it’s not going to get no better.”

When it does arrive, the bus circles the station ambivalently, like a remote-controlled helicopter being landed by a child.

“Cherokee Bend! Where those ladies at? Cherokee Bend!” a dispatcher hollers.

A 62-year-old woman leans on a retractable cane and slowly walks toward the bus, chanting, “Don’t wanna go, but you gotta go ... don’t wanna go, but you gotta go.”

The women line up, ready their bus passes or pocket change, and take their self-assigned seats.

It takes 10 minutes to drive a car from the city to Mountain Brook. The Red Mountain Expressway was blasted through in the 1960s “solely for the purpose of bringing into the central city of Birmingham people from over the mountain.” When the highways were constructed through the center of American cities, it was originally thought they would allow residents to escape the city in the event of a nuclear attack. Nuclear war never happened, but the highways did allow wealthier residents to flee Birmingham rapidly and en masse in wake of the civil rights protests of the 1960s.

Irine McCord

On the bus, the same trip takes from 30 minutes to an hour.

At 81, Ellamae Carlisle considers herself the matriarch of the 50 Cherokee Bend. Every morning she conducts a chorus of “good morning” greetings as she steps on the bus.

Carlisle worked for the same family in Mountain Brook for 50 years and remembers them as “the best people I ever worked for.”

“However do you think I was there 50 years?” she said, adding, “and she been dead five.”

Carlisle continues to take the bus a few days a week, checks on the empty house, eats her breakfast, and stares out the window till one of her daughters picks her up.

I don’t mind ‘cause that give me a chance to get out of my house. Gah! ‘Cause you stay in your house, you get bored.

The bus is Carlisle's stage. Everyone knows her one-liners: “See y'all in the funny papers” or how she threatens to “throw a wet brick” at anyone with an attitude. For Carlisle, who has been making this same trip for 50 years, the constant pranks repel boredom. When a woman in the back jokes that Carlisle's hair looks like she picked it out of a trash can, Carlisle retorts, without turning around, “You just wish you had picked it up first,” and the whole bus, even her antagonist, laughs.

The women of the 50 Cherokee Bend worry if someone's missing. If they see a woman running to catch a bus, her purse slamming against her legs, they yell for the driver to stop.

A few women who take the 50 Cherokee Bend bus have cars, “Sure,” says Gresham, but why pay for the wear and tear? Why pay for gas? “You have to look at the dollar now, so if I can save, let me save that,” Gresham reasons.

Others never learned to drive. What would be the point, when you could never afford a car?

The bus makes a loop around the downtown business district. No one gets off, no one gets on; and it's always been this way. City officials never thought to change the route, and the women long ago grew accustomed to it.

Ellamae Carlisle

Buildings in Birmingham that have lain vacant for decades are slowly being repaired, rewired, as the city prepares for what some are calling its renaissance. After the 1960s, when Birmingham became infamous for its violent response to civil rights protests, only residents who couldn't afford to move stayed in the city. But now, McCord says with a laugh, “people seem to think they are going to reclaim downtown.”

Fifty years after the civil rights movement, the city heavily marketed its role in the protests, and the slogan “50 Years Forward” was pasted everywhere, including the back of city buses.

But for some women on the bus, like Elnora Shearer, 50 years haven't meant much progress.

“Nobody that is making a certain amount of money is going to ride the bus,” explains Shearer.

Shearer understands how some people see the buses — slow, unreliable, and some even think, dangerous. The stigma runs deep. Her children and grandchildren would rather walk. If you don't have a car, you haven't made it, and to wait on the side of the road for the bus is to publicly admit poverty.

Shearer's daughters beg their mother to let them give her a ride, but Shearer prefers to be independent.

In Mountain Brook, the 50 Cherokee Bend is commonly known as “the maids’ bus,” because the only people who ride it are “housekeepers and yardmen,” Shearer says. Shearer remembers what a woman’s boss once said: “‘OK, you wanted to ride at the front of the bus. We gave it to you.’ So, maybe this is their way of saying, ‘You're riding at the front of the bus, but it might show up and it might not.’

Elnora Shearer

One summer morning, Ruby O. Fox, 82, makes an announcement. “Rose momma died.” Fox yells it twice, so everyone can hear over the drone of the engine.

“Here’s my $5. I just brought enough [money] to get my prescription filled, but that's all right, I can get it tomorrow,” says Bryant, as her worn bill is passed from hand to hand.

Fox is the self-appointed accountant for the 50 Cherokee Bend. She collects the money in an envelope, then folds it into a card.

“We have someone [take up] for the sick and the dead. Throw something to the family,” Fox explains. Usually they collect about $100. Recently several of the women on the bus have gotten sick, and Fox's list has grown.

Fox says in the past, when more women took the bus, they had a birthday club and a Christmas club so every woman would have an extra $50 to pad her pocket, a small sign of solidarity. Their earnings as housekeepers are modest, and some women are paid better than others. So, Fox says, “We look out for each other.”

Some of the women have taken the bus for over 50 years. (Click to enlarge images)

As the bus crests the hill, known locally as Red Mountain for its iron-rich clay, and enters Mountain Brook, everything changes. The bus’s wheels roll onto slick, black asphalt. Winding driveways marked by small stone lions end in massive English Tudors and commanding brick mansions. Oak and magnolia branches canopy over the roads, and everything is bathed in a calm, deep green.

“Long time. Long time for us coming over here. Like half our life,” Fox says. Next to her, Carlisle looks out the window and points out all the things that have changed in the 50 years she has been riding the bus.

Carlisle giggles as she describes Mountain Brook, “It’s a little town of their own.”

The bus enters a small village with rows of shops and seasonal floral arrangements crowded into big concrete planters, coming to a stop at a children's playground, where a few women get off.

I can't these steps too steep, girl,” Bryant, 73, shouts to the rest of the women. The bus is too far from the curb and the curb is too low, because it's streamlined for strollers. Slowly the bus bows down, so Bryant can step off.

Ruby O. Fox (Click to enlarge images)

The bus used to stop in front of a spa on the corner, but, some of the women say, the spa complained and the bus had to move.

As she gets off the bus, Elaine King, 65, worries the afternoon bus isn't going to come. “It didn't yesterday or last Friday,” she recounts. “It's more than unfortunate.”

Since the bus only makes one trip back to Birmingham in the afternoon, many of the women arrange for family to pick them up or wait for their bosses to drive them home after work.

But King, who used a pseudonym, takes the bus home most days. She waits at a wooden picnic table in a spot of patchy grass and gravel next to a gas station.

The bus is supposed to come at 2:50 p.m. but King says there are times when it hasn't come until past seven.

“I have been riding the bus almost 10 years,” says King. “When I first started riding, I just didn't believe it. ‘How can these folks put up with it?’”

King was a child when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Birmingham. Back in 1963, she joined in the Children's Crusade, a march of thousands of local schoolkids protesting segregation, and was locked up in jail. But there's no sense in protesting the buses, Elaine King says. “I see you have to put up with it, if you don't have no other transportation.”

Many of the women have been taking the bus and walking through Mountain Brook to work for decades. (Click to enlarge images)

One Christmas Eve years ago, Alice Davidson, a teacher who lives in Mountain Brook, was driving with her children to deliver Christmas presents. Davidson passed a woman waiting next to one of the blue metal poles marking a bus stop. The woman had probably helped serve dinner on Christmas Eve, and now she was waiting, her arms loaded with bags, for the bus to take her home.

Davidson drove on, thinking the bus would come any minute. When she drove by again half an hour later, the woman was still standing in the same spot. Davidson picked her up and drove her home; “it was probably no more than 15 minutes.”

Decades later, that memory has stayed with Davidson.

“You know [the woman's bosses] had given her presents and a good bit of money, but that’s not what she needed, she needed a ride home. I think sometimes that people don’t understand the basic things that people need. You think that money and gifts can take care of things, but that's not what she needed, she just needed to go home.”

Left, a portrait of Irine V. McCord’s mother, who was also a housekeeper. Right, McCord in her home. (Click to enlarge images)

As some of the only black people in Mountain Brook, the women are conspicuous as they walk to the houses where they work or wait alone for the bus.

Two years ago, Carlisle was slowly making her way down the street where she has worked for decades, when out of nowhere a police car pulled up.

The officer asked her where she was going. When she said she was just going to work down the street, he asked for identification, and called it into the station.

"What you calling my identification in for? I ain’t wanted for nothing,” Carlisle said. The officer responded, “When you are picking up somebody, you have to call in.”

In her retelling, Carlisle interrupts the officer. “I didn’t ask you to pick me up. You called me, I didn’t call you. I was on my way to work.” Carlisle never saw the officer again but remembers, “I was so mad at that man, I didn't know what to do.”

'I just was walkin'...'

Last summer, Fox announced that Carlisle was retiring and would no longer be taking the 50 Cherokee Bend. For days, the bus was quiet. “I am going to miss that mouth,” Fox said, “and she’s going to miss mine too.”

“It used to be a time where you would say, ‘Well they are that old and still working?’” says Gresham, looking around at her fellow riders.

McCord says she continues to work so “her wheels won't rust out.” And, she adds quietly, because she needs to work, “I have a house note still, utilities.” In the evenings, when a city bus drops McCord at the bottom of her street, she prays a neighbor will drive by and give her a ride up the hill.

After getting off the bus, Mildred Bryant takes a shortcut to the house where she works. (Click to enlarge images)

This story was supported in part by the Magnum Foundation's Emergency Fund.

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