By Christine Foster
In 1961, when James Burrell joined the Belton School District as a special education teacher, he also launched a second career; that of being a BISD school bus driver. Still driving his bus today, Burrell can be found climbing aboard his vehicle at the bus depot at 7 a.m. on weekdays. Burrell spent 38 years as an educator but has been part of the transportation department for 52 years.
When Burrell first took the wheel of his 22 passenger bus, he only had one destination, the T. B. Harris School on Nolan Creek. These were the tumultuous days of integration and the Harris School (kindergarten through 12th grade) was home to the black children who lived in the area. At that time, there was a very successful black middle class living around South Pearl. To the African American students and the black faculty, this was their campus. Belton had been providing a good, basic education to the black population since 1892, but the Harris School (formerly known as the West Belton School) was the one facility for black students only.
In 1935, when they were deciding on a name for the school, two petitions were circulated. A small group of influential white Belton businessmen suggested that the school should be named after Professor T. B. Harris. The second petition, signed by numerous important blacks challenged that suggestion. They wanted to name their own school.
The white businessmen made the final decision and the school was named after Professor T. B. Harris who became its first principal. One interesting aspect of the petition signing was that the white dignitaries had less than 10 signatures on their request whereas the blacks had several pages in support of their choice.
When Burrell dropped his students off at school, much of the daily focus was on “trade” programs such as home economics, agriculture and carpentry. The basic skills, however, were so thoroughly addressed that many of the students went on to graduate from college and have very successful careers. Prairie View College was the destination for a great many of the students. It was from Prairie View that Burrell received his college education.
In 1963, one year before passage of the federal civil rights bill, BISD, being very proactive, advised the freshman class that the Harris School would be closing following their graduation in 1966. The students were given the opportunity to stay at the Harris School or to attend Belton High School. The first African American student graduated from BHS in 1965. Then in 1966, the T. B. Harris School was closed.
Burrell continued to drive his bus through the integration/segregation era that he describes as “morally wrong.” And he continues to drive today. Driving a larger bus, a longer itinerary and maintaining a great attitude that reflects his love of his job he plainly states, “This is very rewarding. I am enjoying it even more than before.”