The Black Bus Stop as a Symbol of Black Expression at the University
Words by Liana Harris.
Imagine any typical space that one might see on a college campus. It could be a dormitory, a dining hall, a campus quad or even a bus stop. Next, imagine how as students, people might arbitrarily choose to hang out in any of these spaces. Perhaps the space is convenient and multi-purposeful, so it becomes a few students’ favorite place to meet up. Then, imagine if meeting up at this spot catches on among others. Sure, it might just be a popular location, or it could become some kind of tradition. Maybe this arbitrary place will develop meaning beyond the physical realm. An entire community might be built around this space. It might become so special that eventually, it has its own name. Now instead of imagining such a space, understand that it was real. It was called the Black Bus Stop.
Located outside of Monroe Hall, the BBS was the epicenter of the University’s black community from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. It was a space that had been gradually re-imagined by black students and eventually established itself as a quintessential part of the black experience at the University. It was where black people came to talk about their classes, form friendships, share gossip, listen to music, discuss politics, show off their clothes, search for relationships, and find out about parties. As a memory, this is a place that often brings joy to black alumni as they reflect upon their time at the University. To put it simply, the BBS was where many black students could be their most engaged, authentic selves.
I first learned about the Black Bus Stop through Black Fire, a history course taught by African-American Studies and History Prof. Claudrena Harold. This class explores the complexities of racial politics in the United States by examining the University’s own racial history. Focusing mainly on the 1990s, we have studied the Black Bus Stop not as an isolated social phenomenon but within the broader historical context of that time. It was interconnected with the era of hip-hop culture, growing afrocentricity and widespread conversations around what it means to be black in America.
My personal interest in the Black Bus Stop intersects with my own identity as a black University student, as I am fascinated by how such a space was conceived in a place that I now call home. However, the most effective way to envision the BBS, perhaps, is to observe the stories shared by the individuals who experienced it for themselves.
Jason Turner is a black alumnus from Washington, D.C. He attended the University from the fall of ‘87 to the spring of ‘91 — some years during which he says the Black Bus Stop was arguably at its peak. He graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in English and is a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.
“I was part of a generation in which the Black Bus Stop was the daily center of the black community at U.Va,” Turner said. “In the ‘80s the black culture at U.Va. was so strong, even as a minority. We would always say that we had an HBCU within a PWI. Imagine that.”
His description of the BBS as a microcosmic historically black college in a white university encompasses the spirit of the black community during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Unlike past generations, these students had a space where they could be unapologetically black within the intellectual sphere of the University. Furthermore, a key aspect of this tradition was its centrality on Grounds. Black students did not only establish this space for themselves, but they put their culture on display for the rest of the University community.
“It really felt like the heartbeat of the University, that intersection,” Turner said. “There were mainly people like myself in the College of Arts and Sciences, and then you had the Comm School right there. You had everything: the Bookstore, Newcomb, the historical Grounds right at the center of it all.”
This open expression of blackness in such a central part of Grounds had a revolutionary impact on the University’s social traditions. Before the BBS, black student culture was in many ways separated from the mainstream University. Although there were important institutions such as the Black Student Alliance, established in 1969, and the Office of African American Affairs, established in 1976, these entities were established for definitive purposes. In contrast, the BBS happened naturally. There is no founding date, no charter members, no scheduled events. It was not planned and exerted no agenda; it was just black people hanging out together. The simplicity of its development conveys a true sense of authenticity in the black community.
Another crucial aspect of the BBS was its connection to Black Greek Life. In her class, Professor Harold explains that key developments of black social life at the University took place in the 1970s, among them the establishment of black sororities and fraternities.
“If we think about the University of Virginia in architectural terms, then one can argue, rather convincingly, that the 1970s was the decade in which the black community’s institutional infrastructure solidified,” Harold said in one of her lectures.
The first Black Greek Letter organization at the University was Omega Psi Phi, established in 1973. That same year, the sorority Delta Sigma Theta also came to Grounds. As these and other black fraternities and sororities emerged, they became integral to the social and political life of black students. As the evolution of black social life continued in the 1980s and 1990s, the Black Bus Stop became a key part of this tradition as well.
As a Kappa, Turner’s experience at the BBS was directly linked to his fraternity.
“It’d be where black folks were just chilling on the steps, you know, and where I would meet up with other members of Kappa Alpha Psi,” Turner said. “And then there were the Ivies, or the AKAs, and the Pyramids, the Deltas. We would all be out there at the same time. It was just electric.”
“And of course it really came alive during the spring of every year, when all of the pledge classes would be on line,” Turner said. “We would line up and greet the Big Brothers as they were coming through on their way to lunch. There would be the guys from Alpha Phi Alpha up there, and they would all be greeting the Big Brothers. We would definitely want to make sure that we were the loudest, that we had the most interesting greetings.”
This custom, as well as stepping and learning the fraternity’s songs and chants, are all distinct Black Greek traditions. The BBS made these traditions visible and brought an almost magical energy to the middle of Grounds.
Another social phenomenon from the BBS era was what students called the BET.
“You know what that was?” Turner asked. “The Black Eating Time. That was the time between 6:00 and 7:00 when all the black folks would be at O-Hill or Newcomb Hall.”
Just like the Black Bus Stop, the Black Eating Time was exactly what it sounds like. Again, it was an unplanned tradition that developed as black people would commonly eat together. This tradition, along with the Black Bus Stop, continued for years after Turner had graduated. However, he felt that the specific era he was a part of was special in embracing these traditions.
Eight years after Jason Turner graduated, his younger brother, Gizachew Angargeh, enrolled at the University as a first-year. Andargeh attended the University from the Fall of ’99 to the Spring of ’03, majoring in Foreign Affairs and minoring in History. He was a member of the African Union Organization, sang for Black Voices and coincidentally worked as a bus driver.
In terms of the BBS’s role for him as a student, “it was basically a gathering place — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, generally, you could go there and you could find a friend. It was pretty much guaranteed that you could find someone to catch up with, whether that be about class, or what happened over the weekend, or what’s going to happen that upcoming weekend.”
Andargeh also had the unique perspective of a black University Transit Service bus driver while the BBS existed.
“As a bus driver, I enjoyed it thoroughly,” he said. “The routes have changed now, but I did what was called the Orange-Blue route and I also the Grounds Loop. Both of those routes ran through the BBS, the Orange-Blue route more regularly than the Grounds Loop. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when I was running through, I was always excited about picking up or dropping students off there. I always knew I was going to see somebody I knew and dap somebody up.”
The primary purpose as a comfortable social space for black students had not changed throughout the years. However, it was also a space where young, black intellectuals engaged in conversations about current social and political issues.
“The Cavalier Daily had a newspaper box there, and sometimes they would write some crazy stories,” Andargeh said. “Or The Boondocks was a comic in the newspaper, so sure, you would read that and be like ‘This is funny.’ Considering where we were, too, because it was about racial politics. So we would have those conversations as well.”
It is inevitable that while discussing the racial dynamics of the University, the notion of “self-segregation” comes up. This concept refers to a situation in which a particular group isolates itself from the rest of society and actively excludes all non-members. Since the University has a long, complex racial history — one in which plenty of actual racial discrimination has occurred — some students believe that the most progressive way to navigate race is to eliminate its conversation entirely. This color-blind approach towards integration vilifies institutions such as the Black Bus Stop and BET, for they are clearly tied to race.
However, it is a fundamental mistake to categorize these establishments as self-segregative. The proper description would be congregative. Congregation brings people together in a positive way. It unifies and supports people within a community, especially those who have been historically disenfranchised. It creates culture and traditions that are passed down through generations. This distinction is critical in understanding what the BBS was at its core: a place where black students could openly gather and express themselves among one another.
“It was this opportunity to create a space for congregation, and to feel comfortable in doing so,” Andargeh said. “It was never our intention to make others feel unwelcome whenever we were at the Bus Stop or BET. There was never the thought that we were doing this to make other people feel uncomfortable and far from it. We were just trying to create a space where we felt comfortable and to do so in a public space.”
Other students were not shy about their aversion to the BBS. Andargeh recalls seeing “recurring articles that someone would write every two or three years about the Black Bus Stop or BET.” This excerpt from “Taking color out of the equation,” an article from The Cavalier Daily in 2002 by Kimberly Liu, summarizes exactly what some non-black students thought about black congregation:
“It is impossible to go to the bus stop, eat in the dining hall or attend a party without noticing large groups of members of the same race together. Many minorities at the University embrace a racial solidarity that is one cause of this visible segregation. This kinship among members of the same race manifests itself in self-segregating groups and a general anti-diversity attitude.”
Liu’s article is not racist. It does not invoke any hatred against black people, nor does it intend to spark racial tension. In fact, she argues that adopting this perspective would resolve racial issues at the University. Nonetheless, her article shows that she did not understand that to black students, it was more than just a bus stop. She failed to acknowledge that this space allowed for these students to embrace their culture, even while attending a University that historically oppressed their ancestors. She could not appreciate the spirit it evoked, the joy it spread. She did not see the BBS beyond a surface level, and therefore overlooked its cultural value. In order to correct this misinterpretation, race and culture must be a part of the equation, not taken out.
“I would challenge those people to get it,” Andargeh said. “I mean what is it that U.Va. promotes anyway, if not taking ownership of your actions and wanting to create a space for yourself, however it may look?”
So where did it all go? Both of these alumni could not emphasize enough how meaningful the Black Bus Stop was to their college experiences. Their deep emotional attachment to this space made it hard for them to believe that it no longer exists, especially for Turner, who was there at its peak.
“How could it be that something so central to my entire college experience is gone?” he asked. “There was an era of African-American experience at U.Va. that was arguably at its zenith in the ‘80s, and we didn’t know it. And we know it now only in retrospect.”
One theory that Turner mentioned was the rise of the Digital Age and social media as the cause of the BBS’s decline. Although this has made way for immense progress in terms of accessing information and connecting with people from a distance, one social consequence of being attached to technology is that people do not need to interact as much in real life anymore.
“We used to go to the BBS because that was a major point of information exchange,” Turner said. “We would meet up there and talk about what was popping off in the afternoon and evening. No one had cell phones, no email or any of that. If you wanted to have a party, we would spend all night putting up flyers around campus the night before.”
Like his brother, Andargeh was completely disheartened to know that the BBS no longer exists.
“So they’re there for the function of waiting for the bus?” Andargeh said. “That is so disappointing.”
However, he recollects a specific moment that might have predicted its decline:
“There was another student who was there, he was maybe a year or two older than me, his name was Bokar Ture. And Bokar Ture, I remember, was holding it down. And this was kind of emblematic of the changing tide of what is the Black Bus Stop. I was either driving the bus or I was walking by, and it was him and probably a couple of other people out there. I remember I was like:
“What’s up Bokar man, you just hanging out here?”
“Yeah man, for tradition’s sake, you know, this the BBS.”
“I hear you bro, you hold it down man. Hold it down.”
“And that was it. That is what he was doing. He was just there. I don’t know if he had a class to go to, or if he didn’t have a class to go to, but he was like ‘I’m holding it down’ I was like “Bet.”
“For me at that time, I didn’t see the change in what the BBS would become, which is effectively non-existent,” he said. “But maybe he did. He had that foresight. Like I’m here for a very specific purpose. You might not see the value in this purpose, but I know what it is.”
Now that it has been years since the Black Bus Stop existed in its physical form, the most obvious question one might ask is if it could ever come back. Although it is impossible to answer that question, it should be noted that the black community of the University has not forgotten about this tradition. Many students know what the BBS was; however, they might not understand the value it held in the hearts of many black alumni. Andargeh hopes that during Black Alumni Weekend in the Spring of 2021, some sort of event to commemorate the BBS will occur.
“The Black Alumni Association should coordinate something for that Friday, for those who can come down early,” Andargeh said. “That Friday at noon or 1 o’clock, just meet us at the Black Bus Stop. We’ll be at the BBS, just as a way for rekindling that spirit, you know what I mean?”
As a current student who has never experienced the BBS, I am ambivalent towards the idea of its resurgence. On one hand, the concept of re-imagining a space to create a tradition is amazing to me. There is a part of me that wishes that I could have been there to experience the BBS myself. Out of pure curiosity, I cannot help but wonder what my experience as a black student would have been like if I was here during that era.
However, I reject the idea that some piece of my experience is missing due to the absence of the Black Bus Stop. Understanding that the BBS was an embodiment of black culture, I do not believe that this culture has been lost, but that it is now expressed differently. Every generation of black University students creates its own traditions within the social and cultural context that it exists in. Thus, we should embrace the traditions of our time and make them integral to our experience, like these alumni did with the BBS. Furthermore, a key aspect of the Black Bus Stop was its organic manifestation. Any sort of official reinstatement would take away from the essence of what it was at its core. As time passes, culture naturally evolves and so do its traditions. This is not to say that the BBS’s legacy should not be remembered, nor that black alumni do not have the right to feel disappointed by its absence; only that to assume that past times were better can undermine the value of the present.
As a tradition, it is difficult to truly understand the significance of the Black Bus Stop. The institution itself was quite simple — it was a popular space where black students congregated in the middle of Grounds. However, to truly grasp the depth of the BBS, one has to understand the incredible extent to which the black community has grown at the University. Black students could not always publicly embrace their culture. There was not always a large enough black population at the University to make its presence known. This tradition is a culmination of black social progress at the University, not just a bus stop where black students were commonly situated. It was a representation of joy and the freedom to express black culture. Even if it no longer exists in its exact physical space, its spirit and legacy will not be forgotten as the University continues to grow.
Correction made on 11/8: Bokar Ture’s name was previously published as “Bill Carr.” Jason Turner’s title of alumna was changed to alumnus.