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Can 'Mr. Greyhound' add a little history to museum?

Greyhound Bus Museum founder and director Gene Nicolelli points out a bus similar to one used in the freedom rides of the 1960s. Nicolelli is supportive of adding a display depicting the bus company's role in America's civil rights history. (Robin Washington/rwashington@duluthnews.com)

HIBBING -- If for no other reason, it's worth visiting the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing just to meet Gene Nicolelli. Even those with little interest in how bus transportation began -- in 1914, when two Iron Rangers offered miners 15-cent rides to work in something called a Hupmo­bile -- would still be impressed by the octogenarian's persistence.

It started more than

35 years ago, when Nico­lelli's search for a missing plaque marking Grey­hound's birthplace led him to cajole Iron Range politicians from former Gov. Rudy Perpich on down.

The result is a museum of several buildings and a bus lot, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. It's a treasure trove of bus and Range history, with vehicles of every vintage and dioramas as quirky as that of an early heating system consisting of a blanket and two bricks, hot out of a stove, to warm the passenger's feet. There's also a workshop staffed by volunteers who can reconstruct a massive diesel or adapt a motorcycle motor into a working

quarter-scale model.

So what possibly could be missing?

The rest of the history, and arguably the most significant role the company ever played, in delivering its passengers from the evils of segregation.

Not that Greyhound, or any other transportation company, necessarily did so willingly. The Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision establishing the separate-but-equal doctrine was only 18 years old when Greyhound was founded. If it mattered little way up north in Minnesota, it was serious business down south. Greyhound and all bus companies enforced segregation laws, with some states even deputizing bus drivers as police in the event of any would-be Rosa Parks.

Or 11 years before Parks, when Irene Morgan, a black woman traveling from Virginia to Maryland, refused to give up her seat in the rear of a Greyhound bus. Accosted by the driver and later a sheriff, she was thrown off and jailed. Her case, taken by the NAACP, made it to the Supreme Court, which in June 1946 ruled that segregation in interstate transportation was unconstitutional, eight years before it overturned Plessy entirely in Brown v. Board of Education.

Greyhound may have gotten religion. Immediately after the Morgan decision, the company and others began removing "white" and "colored" signs from interstate buses -- until defiant southern politicians told them to stop. And in 1947, when a group of idealists inspired by the court decision embarked on the first freedom ride -- whites and blacks traveling together, sitting side-by-side -- they overheard a Trailways dispatcher in Durham, N.C., saying "Greyhound is letting them ride, but we're not." In 26 tests of buses and trains, 12 riders were arrested, none on Greyhound.

The more famous freedom ride of May 1961 saw far more tension when a bus was bombed near Anniston, Ala. When no drivers would continue the ride to Missis­sippi, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked a recalcitrant local Grey­hound superintendent if "Mr. Greyhound" was there.

"Can't Mr. Greyhound get out and drive one of 'em?" Kennedy said.

Eventually, an employee of somewhat lesser rank materialized and drove the riders into history.

Why am I bringing all this up? Because, as I said, it's a glaring omission -- except it isn't entirely. Look closely at the museum's memorabilia. Greyhound travel posters suddenly become integrated in the 1960s. A pictograph route map of a generation earlier also depicts African Ameri­cans -- and American Indians -- but as gross stereotypes. "Jess dinnah, das all," a black man holding a possum over the outline of Alabama says.

Nicolelli says his board has discussed the omission, and some members are uneasy about including it. But that's the point.

"It's history," he says simply, and Greyhound played a significant role in it. We don't get to choose just the parts we like.

Having spent years documenting that history, I'd be willing to help curate the exhibit. Nicolelli excitedly says it could be displayed in period buses already at the museum.

And I have a name for it: "Can Mr. Greyhound drive the bus?"

IF YOU GO

Greyhound Bus Museum

1201 Greyhound Blvd. (Third Avenue East)

Hibbing

(218) 263-5814

www.greyhoundbusmuseum.org

Admission: $5 adults

Hours: Monday - Saturday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sunday 1- 5 p.m.

Robin Washington is news director of the News Tribune and was executive producer of the PBS documentary about the Morgan decision and the 1947 freedom ride, "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!" He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com.

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