A state highway historical marker will denote the 1944 killing of a Black soldier in Durham, North Carolina. The Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Project initially took this case on in 2013, and its research led, in part, to the placement of a public marker honoring the man. For the first time in the state, this marker uses the term “Jim Crow.”
On July 8, 1944, Booker T. Spicely was murdered after refusing to give up his seat on a bus. Seventy years later, in 2014, Shaneka Louise Davis, then a NUSL student, was assigned to investigate Spicely’s case on behalf of CRRJ.
Originally from Philadelphia, Spicely, then 34, was serving as an army private at Camp Butner near Durham. At the time, the military was segregated, and Black personnel faced pervasive official discrimination while serving. Jim Crow policies were enforced within bases and on buses like the one Spicely was on when he was murdered.
When Spicely boarded the bus, he sat in the second-to-last row, but when white soldiers boarded, the driver, Herbert Lee Council, ordered Spicely to move further back. Spicely argued with the driver, but then moved, and attempted to apologize to Council as he disembarked at his stop. Council grabbed a pistol from under his seat and shot Spicely twice; he then continued on his customary route.
Military police brought Spicely to Watts Hospital, where on account of his race he was refused care; he later died at Duke Hospital. Council turned himself in to police and was charged with first-degree murder, but an all-white jury found him not guilty after deliberating for about a half hour.
Davis’ essay on the case inspired others to take action. When James Williams Jr., a retired death penalty defense attorney, discovered Davis’ essay on the case, he decided to launch a committee to advocate for the marker and other restorative measures in the Spicely matter. The marker was approved earlier this month.
In addition, earlier this year North Carolina Central University Law School officials announced that the school was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation to create the Private Booker T. Spicely Endowed Scholarship Fund.
The case had a deep impact on the student whose essay first attracted Attorney Williams’ attention.
“CRRJ was one of the highlights of my law school experience,” said Shaneka Davis, a public health care attorney practicing in the Boston area. “I lived in Durham briefly as a child and was honored to work on Pvt. Spicely’s case specifically. It allowed me to use the law in the way in which I intended, to right the wrongs of historical injustices that far too many Black Americans experienced for no reason other than systems of racial bias and prejudice.”
Professor Margaret Burnham, CRRJ Director, delivered the keynote address at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) School of Law’s Private Booker T. Spicely Symposium on Friday, September 22, 2023. On July 8, 1944, Spicely was…