Editor’s Note: This is the final part in a multi-part series looking at the 1959 bus accident that affected so many. For the first two parts, see our website, www.tiftongazette.com, or the Sunday, Mar. 3 edition and the Wednesday, Mar. 6 edition of The Tifton Gazette.
TIFTON — Tift County’s school bus accident near Brookfield on the morning of Mar. 3, 1959, drew as many as 1,000 people to the crash site. Besides medical personnel, law enforcement and school officials, there were many onlookers to the scene where Gloria Jean Davis, Rufus Harold Green, Bernice Henderson, Henry Edward Johnson, Bobby King, Artie Lee Simmons, brothers Billy Tabor and Leroy Tabor Jr., and Earlene Wilcox died.
News soon spread far and wide about the accident. The Tifton Gazette said it was mentioned on NBC and CBS news reports and on radio by Mutual Broadcasting. Photographs were picked up by the Associated Press. Combined with news stories by the AP and United Press International, newspapers from Florida to New York, to California, and to the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Even The Canberra Times in Australia ran a short front page article.
A mass funeral for the nine victims was scheduled for Friday, Mar. 6, three days after the accident at Wilson High and Elementary, but The Atlanta Daily World said it was postponed by heavy rain. The Tifton Gazette said nearly four inches of rain fell in 24 hours, flooding roads and causing school to be cancelled that Friday.
Individual funerals for several children were held over that weekend.
There were four investigations in the days after the accident by various agencies. None found driver Doyer Jones at fault.
The Georgia State Patrol announced no charges were filed against Jones. W.H. Rehberg, investigating for the State Department of Education told The Atlanta Constitution the accident was “unavoidable.” The Gazette said Rehberg had no recommendations as to how to prevent future accidents. The State Highway Department looked into the crash as well.
The final local investigation was a coroner’s jury. Rarely seen now in Georgia, this type of hearing is used for determining a cause of death.
The original document from the Mar. 10 hearing has not yet been found in Tift court files. The Gazette summarized the hearing Mar. 12, stating that 11 witnesses were called before the jury. These individuals included Dr. Charles Zimmerman, Sheriff T.C. Greer, coroner Fred Green and Tift school bus shop foreman Jay Flowers.
Flowers testified the bus had no mechanical issues. “However, the eye or the tip end of the main leaf of the left front spring was found to be freshly broken,” The Gazette stated. “The coroner’s jury was of the opinion that the spring leaf was broken due to strain while the bus was in the process of overturning.”
The jury, stated The Gazette, said the accident was “unavoidable,” too.
The wide-ranging numbers for the number of riders (given by various sources to be anywhere from 60-100 on board) is attributable to the lives of many of the students.
Passenger Joan Howard’s father farmed, as did those of fellow riders Oscar Holt’s, Grady King Jr.’s Louise Moore’s and Robert Knight’s. Like many children of that era, farm life sometimes supplanted school life.
Knight said he cropped tobacco and planted cotton.
“When the school year was out for the summer, I didn’t come back to school until maybe November,” he said. “We had to get up all the cotton. Other kids started in September. We didn’t start until November. That was just customary. The farm kids had to gather up the cotton.”
The school year, then as now, was 180 days for the students. Educators at Tift County Industrial and Wilson were well aware of their students’ responsibilities out of school.
Howard said, “If we had work to do, we could work that morning and daddy could bring us on to school later in the day and they would accept us in.”
When it was time for planting, student numbers varied wildly. Another black school bus, said The Gazette, could have between 14 to 92 riders. Recently, Jones’ bus had carried 93 riders, it said. If everyone on the route boarded, said Jones, he would be carrying 105 students.
“The bus was always overloaded,” said Knight. “You were hard-pressed to get seats depending on when they picked you up.”
Compounding the problem was the bus itself.
Jones’ bus held 54 passengers, but on Mar. 3, he was not driving his usual bus.
“The bus that we were on wasn’t his original bus,” said Holt. “That was a substitute bus. His original bus had broke down the day before and they gave him that bus as a substitute.” Articles from 1959 said the bus was undergoing routine maintenance.
The bus in use the morning of the accident was smaller. It held 48 passengers.
Howard said it was so packed that older students were holding younger children on their laps.
“The aisles from the back to the front and step down where you go out, it was full,” she said. There were two stops remaining on the route. “I don’t know where the other family members would have gotten on the bus, even if we had made it there, it was totally packed.”
Overcrowding was normal on Tift County buses, both white and black, but black school bus loads were markedly higher in statistics the school system reported by the state in Report on Georgia Schools.
The Georgia Department of Education published statistics in even years and in 1958, its 20 white school buses made 41 morning trips with an average of 61 children per load. In 1960, an average of 59 children rode 20 buses making 41 morning trips. There were seven black school buses reported in 1958 and 1960. For the nine morning trips made in 1958, an average of 85 children were on each busload. In 1960, the buses made eight trips per morning, carrying an average load of 83 children.
The Atlanta Constitution stated then-Governor Ernest Vandiver (1959-1963) sent his sympathies to the parents of the victims of the accident. He asked that local school systems examine the condition of their buses closely. The accident was the 52nd involving a school bus in Georgia during that school year.
On the other hand, newspapers in Atlanta and Marietta focused on overcrowding. State Department of Education financial analyst Joe DeFoor also proposed that buses must have a seat for everyone aboard, stated The Atlanta Journal. In the 1960 Report on Georgia Schools, DeFoor stated that effective July 1, 1959, school buses were not allowed to have more than 20 percent of its riders standing.
After the accident, a memorial marker was commissioned for the victims at Wilson High and Elementary. “In God’s care,” is etched on the marker and “In memory of the 9 Wilsonians[‘] deaths in route to school March 3, 1959,” followed by the names of the victims. Trees were planted in their honor on campus. Both are still standing.
Many of those on board the bus the day of the accident interviewed by The Gazette stayed in the Tift County area, though a few moved away.
After graduating from Wilson High, passenger James Alfred Denson went into the military. He then graduated from Newark State College (N.J., now Kean University), married and had three kids. After living more than 30 years in New Jersey, he is now retired and resides in Macon.
Knight, who nearly drowned, went into law enforcement after finishing school here. He spent many years with the Department of Corrections and now lives in Milledgeville.
Though missing so much school as a young man, Knight said he was well-prepared for his lessons; his mother homeschooled her children while they were out.
“Before I started school, I knew all of my alphabet,” he said. “I knew my numbers. I knew how to multiply, add, subtract and I knew my Roman numerals.”
Grady King Jr. worked with honeybees as an adult and continued to help his parents whenever possible. His mother is currently in a nursing home. He visits her every day.
Holt dropped out of school after the 11th grade.
“My daddy got sick,” he said, “and he was farming. My brother, he was in the Air Force. I dropped out of school and to finish up my daddy’s farm for that year.” Holt has survived cancer as an adult. He’s not married now, but has seven children. “I do my own cooking,” he said.
Moore moved to Atlanta after school and began working there. She and her husband have been married 46 years. Howard has been married 55 years. She and her husband own a mobile home park.
After The Gazette’s initial story last Sunday, we spoke with Addie Wilcox, mother of drowning victim Earlene Wilcox.
“She was an active schoolgirl,” said Wilcox. “She was just a regular girl going to school.”
“It took me a long time to get over that,” said Wilcox.
Jones was a veteran bus driver. Aged 40 and a ministerial student, The Gazette said he had been driving a bus for years.
Superintendent Henry Banks Allen described him as having “long service” to the schools and that he was a “good” driver. He continued working for the Tift County Board of Education after the accident. Jones died in 1994.