Invisible Bus: On Board the Cherokee Bend 50 • Carolyn Drake • Magnum Photos

Magnum Pro

Editorial Cultural Commercial Search Image Archive

Welcome to the New Magnum Photos Site

Explore the award-winning storytelling work of Magnum photographers here, or head to Magnum Pro to search and license photos from Magnum’s acclaimed image archive.

CONTINUE TO NEW SITE
SEARCH PHOTO ARCHIVE IN MAGNUM PRO
Society

Invisible Bus: On Board the Cherokee Bend 50

Carolyn Drake rides the Birmingham ‘Maids’ Bus’ that has taken African-American women to work for over 50 years

Carolyn Drake

Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus Elnora Shearer (70, right) talks to a fellow passenger on the Cherokee Bend 50 bus from downtown Birmingham to Mountain Brook. Elnora says: 'Its kind of like there has been a shrinkage. Over the pa (...)

Every day the Cherokee Bend 50 – colloquially known as the Maids’ Bus – makes one trip from downtown Birmingham, Alabama, which is over 70% African American, to the municipality of Mountain Brook, a wealthy and predominantly white neighbourhood.

For over 50 years, the same people have boarded the bus daily. These passengers are the senior African-American women who work as the housekeepers to the wealthy.

 

Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus Elnora Shearer (70) walks down the steps of her home in Birmingham, Alabama. She works as a domestic help in the affluent Mountain Brook neighbourhood of Birmingham.'Its kind of like there has b (...)
Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus Elnora Shearer (70) stands by the side of the road near her home in Birmingham, Alabama. She works as a domestic help in the affluent Mountain Brook neighbourhood of Birmingham.'Its kind of like (...)
Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus Ellamae Carlisle (81) and Ive Gresham (66) walk to their respective jobs after getting off the Cherokee Bend 50 bus in Mountain Brook, Birmingham, Alabama, USA. 2014. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus A bus stop along the route of the Cherokee Bend 50 bus in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. 2014. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

One of the passengers, Ellamae Carlisle (81), describes how her life’s work began: “I started working when I was 9 years old. My aunt would carry me to work with her. That’s how I learned how to iron. She would show me how to do the clothes and things, so I come up working.”

One by one, the women are dropped off on the side of the road, and trek up the long driveways of Mountain Brook houses to their jobs as domestic help.

 

Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus Ruby O. Fox (81) riding on the Cherokee Bend 50 bus.

'It's been so long, I got too old now. We have been coming over this mountain a long time. Like half our life.' Birmingham, Alabama, USA. 2014. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus A view of downtown Birmingham through the window of the Cherokee Bend 50 bus en route to Mountain Brook.

USA. Birmingham, Alabama. 2014. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

Carolyn Drake was invited by a radio journalist friend, Ashley Cleek, who had been recording the voices of the women, to ride the bus with her: “There is a lot of talk among the women on the bus. It’s a place where information and stories are shared and spread. I was very much an outsider among insiders and some of the women did not like having a camera put in front of them so it took a lot of time to build a rapport with people.”

Now in their 70s and 80s, these women came of age during the Civil Rights movement. They have been riding the bus to clean the houses of wealth families ever since.

 

Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus The arm and hand of a passenger on the Cherokee Bend 50 bus in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. 2014. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus A woman talks on the phone aboard the Cherokee Bend 50 bus. Birmingham, Alabama, USA. 2014. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

Drake continues, “There is a lot that has not changed since the Civil Rights movement, but also a lot that has: bus service has declined drastically, for one, so it’s a lot harder and more time consuming for these women to get around, get to work. Some of their children and grandchildren have never set foot on a public bus.”

A fellow passenger, Elnora Shearer, says: “It’s kind of like there has been a shrinkage. Over the past couple of years, we’re becoming less and less. We’re retiring and younger people don’t want to do this. They don’t want to work in Mountain Brook.”

When making this series, Drake tried to “look straight at what [she] felt was important in this country.” Having lived and worked outside of the US for many years, this series felt like a starting point for a wider project about coming home. “I moved back wishing to see this place with fresh eyes, and with affection, but having a hard time doing it.”

 

Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus A woman gets off the bus along the Cherokee Bend 50 bus route. Mountain Brook, Birmingham, Alabama, USA. 2014. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus Mildred Bryant (73) enters the house where she works as a domestic help through the back entrance after riding the Cherokee Bend 50 bus from downtown Birmingham to Mountain Brook. Alabama, USA. 2014. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake | Invisible Bus Ruby O. Fox (81) walks up the long driveway to the house where she works as a domestic help after riding the Cherokee Bend 50 bus from downtown Birmingham to Mountain Brook. "It's been so long, I g (...)