Charles V. Bush dies at 72; first black Supreme Court page

November 29, 2012

Charles V. Bush, who became the first African American to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court page in 1954 — the same year the court desegregated public schools — and later was one of the first black graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy, died Nov. 5 at his home in Lolo, Mont. He was 72.

His death, from colon cancer, was confirmed by his wife, Bettina Bush.

Mr. Bush grew up in segregated Washington and spent part of his childhood living in a dormitory at Howard University, where his father was an educational director. The younger Mr. Bush was 14 and a student from Banneker Junior High School when he was named a Supreme Court page in July 1954.

His appointment drew national attention, and not only because Mr. Bush was the first black to hold that position.

In a way, the New York Times reported at the time, his admission to the old Capitol Page School represented the first implementation of Brown v. Board of Education. In that landmark ruling, handed down several months earlier, the Supreme Court declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. The page school was run by the D.C. school system.


Charles V. Bush, the first African American to serve as a Supreme Court page and one of the first black graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy, died Nov. 5 at his home in Lolo, Mont. He was 72. (Family photo)

Clad in knickers, as was the custom for pages at the time, Mr. Bush worked primarily in the anteroom of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had personally sought the appointment of an African American.

Along with three other pages, Mr. Bush sat behind the high court’s bench during oral arguments and delivered books and other supplies when the justices needed them. The pages earned $2,000 for nine months of work, the Times reported.

At the Air Force Academy, Mr. Bush joined the debate and rugby teams and served as a squadron commander before graduating in 1963. Despite his prominence on campus, he said he faced discrimination. He recalled in a 2011 speech at his alma mater that he and the two other African American cadets in his class were asked not to attend a dance at Fort Benning, Ga.

Mr. Bush spoke Russian and Vietnamese and served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, overseeing six intelligence teams during the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Khe Sanh.

He remained in the Air Force until 1970, attaining the rank of captain. He left the service in part because he believed he had been passed over for a promotion because of his race, said his son, Chip Bush.

Mr. Bush’s military decorations included the Bronze Star Medal, the Joint Service Commendation Medal and two awards of the Air Force Commendation Medal. In recent years, in addition to a career in the corporate sector, he was a diversity consultant to the Air Force and the Air Force Academy.

Charles Vernon Bush was born Dec. 17, 1939, in Tallahassee and moved to Washington as a child.

In his Air Force Academy speech, Mr. Bush underscored the influence of his homeroom teacher at Banneker.

She “indelibly imprinted on the minds of us boys that we could take advantage of the outstanding education we were to receive or we could spend a future digging ditches,” he said. “She also made it clear that in the world we were entering, in order to compete with a white boy, for the same position, we would have to be two to three times as capable.”

Mr. Bush graduated from the Capitol Page School in 1957. He received a master’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University in 1964 and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1972.

During his corporate career, he worked in executive-level positions for companies that included Max Factor and Hughes Electronics. He retired from full-time work about a decade ago.

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Bettina Wills Bush of Lolo; three children, Kyra Bush Sarem of Carlsbad, Calif., Bettina Bush Holzman of Calabasas, Calif., and Chip Bush of Lolo; his mother, Marie Bush of Salinas, Calif.; a sister; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In an interview with Washingtonian magazine, Mr. Bush reflected on the significance of his service as a page.

“I was thrust not only into a white school but also into a white power structure at the court,” he said. “Pages are next to the law clerks on the totem pole, so we were treated with a great deal of respect. . . . Suddenly folks who were accustomed to treating black people one way had to change. . . . It was very clear that no one wanted to cross the chief justice on that score.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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