In the 1980s, Jenn Walters waited each morning at 6 a.m. for a bus to pick her up from her mostly white neighborhood in Northeast Seattle. She would then arrive — nearly an hour later — at her assigned elementary and middle schools in the city’s historically black Central District.
It was so early, the 48-year-old recalled recently, that she didn’t have time to dry her hair — so it often froze.
Last month, the headline-grabbing exchange between Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden over school segregation and student busing transported Walters back to a time when she and thousands of other Seattle students played a part in a national experiment in integration.
Unlike many cities, no federal court order forced the Seattle school district to adopt a desegregation program. Instead, it voluntarily started busing students across the city in the 1970s. But the policy — known as “The Seattle Plan” — ended quietly in 1999, after public opposition reached a tipping point.
Now, as Biden and Harris will face off again Wednesday in the next round of Democratic presidential candidate debates, the legacy of mandatory busing in Seattle remains on the minds of its former students, many with children of their own.
“I actually thought my neighborhood was the weird neighborhood. It was completely white,” said Walters.
For her, the bus ride was just a long commute — out of a place where she could easily walk to Bryant Elementary, to another where she happened to be one of the few white kids in class.
“I didn’t mind the bus ride or anything like that. I wasn’t afraid of going into a new neighborhood,” Walters said. “I just had a better sense of diversity and inclusion from that … I’m better off for it.”
Following the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the justices issued another ruling in 1971 that authorized federal courts to use busing as a way to racially integrate schools, and judges began ordering school districts to do so. Seattle, meanwhile, tentatively started its desegregation plan at just four middle schools before expanding it districtwide in 1977.
Almost immediately, white student enrollment plummeted in Seattle schools, as families left for the suburbs or private schools. And by the late 1980s, according to the nonprofit online encyclopedia HistoryLink.org, “the voices of dissent were coming from all sides, including some of the same white liberals and African Americans who had originally endorsed busing.”
During last month’s debate, Harris criticized Biden for once opposing mandatory busing of students to desegregate public schools. She described a young girl in the 1970s who boarded such buses before offering, “That little girl was me.”
Biden attempted to clarify his record, saying he didn’t oppose public school busing, he just opposed it being ordered by the U.S. Department of Education — decrying federal intervention on behalf of local entities and states.
“Harris was spot on when she said if the states didn’t act to put this in place, then it’s incumbent on the federal government to step in,” Walters said.
Derrick Kirkwood credited the busing program for introducing him to lifelong friends from Magnolia, Queen Anne and other neighborhoods he might not have explored on his own. “It actually turned out to be a positive force in my life,” said Kirkwood, who this fall will join a 30th reunion for Franklin High School graduates.
He laughed at the memory of Friday nights spent at Dick’s on Queen Anne after football games and white families inviting him to join their vacations.
But Kirkwood also remembered his early confusion about the need to leave his Beacon Hill home to attend a junior high school in North Seattle.
“I didn’t really get why I had to catch an hourlong city bus ride to this place where nobody really wanted me,” he said. “I repeated seventh grade because of that experience.”
Kirkwood later transferred to Franklin after his mother protested yet another bus ride, this time to West Seattle High. But his younger brother had to make that trip, one that their single mother couldn’t easily make without a car.
“That definitely made it harder,” Kirkwood said. “My brother assumed Mom would never get out there … he skipped school a lot.”
“He ended up getting his Good Enough Degree — his GED.”
Like Kirkwood’s friends, John Lok also rode the bus to Franklin.
He imitated the hissing of the brakes as the bus stopped in front of Yesler Terrace, where he lived. And Lok, a former Seattle Times photographer, recalled “walking through the gantlet” of his more-affluent classmates as they looked to see which student was getting off at the public-housing development.
“I never got teased about it, but it never got easier,” Lok said.
Still, he too cited a long-lasting legacy of the experience.
After immigrating from Hong Kong as a child, Lok said he appreciated learning among such a heterogenous student body at Franklin. And he wants that same diversity in his children’s lives.
“It’s important for them to meet and hear the stories of people who are not like them,” Lok said. “People come from all over the globe, and they bring with them different stories, different struggles, different opinions.”
Lok now lives with his wife and children in Renton, which nearly tied Kent as the most diverse city in the state.
Material from The Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press was included in this report.