Durham’s first black bus driver
On this final day of Black History Month, we bring you details of a man who broke ground – and forged a route – in Durham.
Horace Calvin Hedgepeth was the first African American bus driver in the Bull City, back when the city’s transit system was run by Duke Power. He we also a quiet man who made a tasty 7UP cake and could cultivate a lovely rose.
Let’s back up a bit. Hedgepeth was born on Feb. 18, 1919, in Durham. He and his older brother, Thomas, left school when they were young. Their father worked at Liggett and Myers and their mother took in laundry from white families. Young Horace and Thomas Hedgepeth delivered that laundry all around town in a wagon. The source of this family history comes from Thomasine Hedgepeth, daughter of Thomas and niece of Horace. Both men have passed away.
Thomasine Hedgepeth, 61, grew up in Durham, too, and saw her uncle nearly every day.
“He was a gentle giant, real quiet, even walked slow,” she said. “When he talked, everyone listened. He was very caring to friends and neighbors.”
The Hedgepeth brothers remained close, but their career paths diverged. Thomas Hedgepeth went into military service and then was a chef and portrait painter. Horace Hedgepeth got a job as a mechanic at the “Bus Barn,” which is where his story takes a historic turn. He worked there for several years in his 20s.
“He was asked during segregation to take the job as bus driver, which he did until he retired at 62,” Thomasine Hedgepeth said. She doesn’t know the exact year, but it must have been in the early to mid-1950s, she said. As a little girl in the 1950s, she heard that her uncle was a bus driver. An inquisitive child, she said, she had to see for herself.
When she rode her uncle’s route, she listened to other passengers chat with him.
“He looked forward to going to work because he had so many friends,” Hedgepeth said. His first route – and the route he kept driving throughout his career – included Roxboro and Fayetteville streets, which were African American neighborhoods. Horace Hedgepeth lived there, too. He had two sons, Harold and Horace, and was divorced. He retired in 1981.
“He established himself with riders. He was a very good cook. He made 7UP cakes. They asked for them, and he’d make them and bring them [on the bus],” his niece said. “He also loved roses and had a lovely rose garden.”
It was a joy seeing her uncle come home from work, she said.
“He’d have stories to share. He was a happy go lucky person,” she said, and eager to lend a hand.
When his great-niece Deirdre Hedgepeth-Paulk was pregnant, Horace offered to help by cleaning her house. The last 7UP cake he made, before his death in 1996 at age 77, was for her. She remembers her great uncle as a quiet, giving man.
Thomasine Hedgepeth said her uncle passed down a family heirloom from his mother’s side, a mantel clock “from slavery time.”
“He told me to pass it on to my children and grandchildren,” she said.
At Horace Hedgepeth’s funeral, all the ladies were talking about those 7Up cakes, Thomasine Hedgepeth said. “It was really good. You could actually taste the 7Up.”
She has verified with the Durham Area Transit Authority that her uncle was the first African American bus driver, and is working on a proclamation from Durham Mayor Bill Bell. Her uncle never talked to her about what it was like being the first African American bus driver in Durham or working during segregation. After all, he was a quiet man.
“My father did all the talking. My uncle was a man of few words,” she said. But he did give her this advice: “To be the best that I could always be in life, and never give up.”