I traveled by bus to my service project. Speed wasn’t the goal.
Today I walked among the graves of several thousand Houstonians. They were doctors and lawyers, shopkeepers and seamstresses, babies and Buffalo soldiers. Olivewood Cemetery, incorporated in 1875, is a regular volunteer gig for me. I help mow the grass here.
It’s the perfect distance for a bike ride, just under three miles. Google Maps says it’s 9 minutes by car, 16 minutes by bicycle and 22 minutes by bus (including the walk to and from the bus stop). Even when we had a car, I rode my bike here. Mowing is sweaty work, and I didn’t want to stick to the car seat on the drive home.
Thanks to some recent construction that opened a new street near Olivewood, the bus isn’t a bad option. Anyhow, buses and MLK Day are linked. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus (pictured above), launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1961, buses took Freedom Riders to the South to insist that states enforce Supreme Court rulings that outlawed segregation on public buses.
On the No. 56 METRO bus, I’m sitting where I always do—anywhere I want. I’m not going to sit in the back and pretend to understand what it felt like to be told where to sit. I don’t want to insult the people buried at Olivewood, who experienced segregation every day of their lives, and not just on the bus and at water fountains. Even in death, they weren’t freed from discrimination. Blacks couldn’t be buried in the same cemetery with whites.
I’m not a big volunteer-er, but it would be difficult to walk away from Olivewood. For two years, it was baseball that kept me coming back. As a kid living in New Orleans, two friends and I would clear a vacant lot in the spring to have a place to play ball. We mowed lawns together to earn money for baseball cards. Mowing grass at Olivewood reminds me of those good times. On some days at Olivewood, I still fantasize that I’m tending to baseball fans who cheered on Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.
Now, it’s the living who keep me coming back: a stranger named Ray who thanked me for helping to care for his great grandmother’s grave; the friend who got me started here and who won’t let me quit; and Charles Cook, an Olivewood board member and volunteer of the century.
After mowing for a couple of hours, I caught the bus back home. The ride, which included a side trip to the grocery store, was short and uneventful. I thanked my bus driver—probably the sign of a newbie bus rider, which I am. I’ll be back at Olivewood on my bike later this week, but today the bus was the right choice.
Note: Olivewood is closed to the public most of the time. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a tour or want to volunteer. To learn more about the plight of African American cemeteries throughout the South, check out this recent article in the New York Times.