Chronicling a Chapter in America’s History on the Road

“Without a doubt, the right of locomotion, the right to move from one place to another according to the inclination, is an attribute of personal freedom, and … a right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and by other provisions of the Constitution. “

Williams v. Fears, 1900

Green book—The Oscar-winning Hollywood film based on the life of African-American virtuoso pianist Don Shirley and his driver and white bodyguard, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga – introduced white moviegoers to The Green Book for Black Motorists, one of the many travel guides used by black families and business travelers during the Jim Crow era.

Many white audiences have been surprised by the idea that black Americans driving a car in the so-called civilized United States could face racial risks, ranging from the presence of gas station agents and hostesses. cruel restaurant to meet angry crowds and hostile officers.

To help black motorists overcome these potential dangers, The Green Book provided a state-by-state list of restaurants, tourist homes, hotels and motels, nightclubs, and other businesses and attractions that welcomed black patronage.

In fact, publisher Victor Hugo Green had long hoped that improved race relations would make his guides obsolete; with the adoption of the Civil Rights Law in 1964, many black Americans hoped that this would be the case. ((the Green book ceased to appear two years later.)

But in the 1990s, a new expression entered the American lexicon – “Driving While Black” – revealing that danger, harassment and even violence when driving a car on the road in the United States does not hadn’t fallen in memory. The legacy of this story, even today, means that driving a car remains a potentially fatal activity for African-Americans, especially when it comes to police stops.

We must see these dismal events not only as a legacy of slavery and racism, but also as the continuation of the mobility restrictions that African-Americans have faced from the start.

Throughout history, African Americans have had a complicated relationship with law enforcement and the American highway. Yet the experience of blacks is a journey from slavery to freedom on a highly contested road, both literal and symbolic. And the automobile plays an essential role in understanding the key place of freedom of mobility in a democracy and in race relations today.

The ability to travel freely without restrictions is a fundamental right of a free society which has special significance for African Americans. A legacy of involuntary travel since the days of slavery, evolving into legal prohibitions on daily movements, imprisonment in certain neighborhoods and the legal exclusion from traveling in particular communities until the 20th century, makes the right to ‘come and go as you please an essential component of civil rights. The automobile has enabled this mobility, which makes self-managed travel possible when travel by bus and train can lead to humiliating, even fatal, encounters.

On the buses Black travelers and commuters faced obnoxious (and often armed) bus drivers who made sure they were sitting in the back of the buses or standing up so that white passengers had comfortable places To sit on. Sometimes black drivers had to pay for the ride to the front and the driver told them to get on the bus through the back door – so that the bus would come off as they headed for the back door.

Trains also separated travelers by race. Less clean, less comfortable and more frequented accommodation almost always defined these separate wagons.

A 1939 coast line schedule for the New York-Miami route describes luxury comfortable reclining seats in major coaches. But the promotion warned African American passengers that the “Colored Coach” [is] no air conditioning. “Bathrooms were often cleaned less frequently in the” colorful “coach (if they were cleaned at all), and black travelers complained about dirty and worn seats. Passengers traveling south could get a regular seat or first class in Chicago, Detroit, New York or Newark, only to be invited to switch to the “colorful” car once the train has crossed this symbolic Mason-Dixon line.

The immediate availability of the automobile from the first half of the 20th century was of distinct importance and promise. The car put a finger in the eye of those who wanted to see the pursuit of separate and uneven public transport facilities. At least that’s how some black car owners saw their disregard for Jim Crow’s facilities.

The road to the middle class

The automobile represented the ability to take charge of one’s own destiny, to guarantee an aspect of life over which one apparently had total control. Cars also offer some safety to the driver and passengers. Parents traveling with children in a car may better protect their offspring from psychological and psychological harm and bodily harm that may accompany a ride on public transportation. It was “a racial shield”.

Owning a car has also demonstrated the success of black people in a nation where such aspirations were often thwarted. With a growing black middle class, more and more black Americans could buy cars, and they used their cars and their consumer dollars not only for their vacations – although they did – but also as weapons against segregation.

Even many of those who were not in the middle class found ways to buy better cars, as they were often prohibited by law and custom from securing mortgages and buying houses. . But even as black Americans moving upwards embraced the automobile, the fear of unpleasant or even violent encounters left many black drivers constantly on the alert.

This situation is not relegated to the Great South either. Dixie border states like Virginia and Indiana, as well as seemingly progressive states, including New Jersey, Connecticut, and Ohio, still harbored pockets of racism toward blacks. The states of the Rockies and the southwest were often sorry for black travelers looking for food and shelter.

To navigate safely, black families have devised many strategies, both individually and in groups. They carried detailed maps and routes. They carefully watched the faces of the people they met, looking for signs of hostility. They bypassed specific communities known to be “sunset cities” (communities that insisted that blacks leave before sunset) and places deemed particularly hostile.

African American Car Buying Strategies

The automobile supported travel for black Americans in private and comfortable circumstances. But it also required new thinking and habits, which included very specific criteria in choosing a car.

Choosing the perfect car is a challenge for every American family, but the math was very different for African Americans. The purchasing power of blacks, the selection of vehicles and even driving practices were all strongly influenced by discrimination. Black families had very specific needs that would never come to white Americans.

Power and size were important, not to show off but to give African-American drivers the chance to escape being arrested or harassed by white citizens who wanted to take the law into their own hands.

For example, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers chose the large and imposing Oldsmobile Rocket 88 for his excursions, not only for his ability to avoid ambushing and being pushed off the road, but also because its 6 foot 4 inch frame could span its entire width. seats for sleeping, if necessary. (He was certainly not welcome in most hotels.)

African-American families at the time had a penchant for large, spacious and reliable Buicks. A Buick was not cheap; at the time, in fact, it ranked among the most prestigious brands. In 1946, a Roadmaster, one of the most expensive Buick models, had a list price of $ 2,110. Of course, many black families drove Ford or Chevys, the more economical choices. “Compact cars are not as attractive to blacks as the general market,” commented an article in Chicago defender. However, the belief that blacks bought flashy cars was an infamous stereotype; African Americans bought Cadillacs in the same proportion as white Americans – 3%.

Black drivers also preferred large cars to carry supplies that white travelers might never consider carrying; road hazards have prompted drivers to generously store their cars with provisions to drive directly to a destination, stopping only when necessary for gasoline. Blankets and pillows may be required to sleep in the car. The sheets can be used as confidentiality partitions. Baskets overflowed with sandwiches and jugs of water and iced tea – because even restaurants that deigned to serve African-Americans often made them wait or served them dirty or spoiled food.

The drivers carried extra water for the radiator and sometimes a can of gasoline, in case they couldn’t find a gas station that would serve black travelers. Additional fan belts and a can or two of oil can also be carried. Many maps and guides describing routes through the countryside have avoided asking for directions. If you needed a bathroom along the road and petrol stations barred you from using the toilet because of the color of your skin, a large old coffee maker could be used as a makeshift toilet in an emergency. (Standard Oil’s Esso brand has been an outlier by allowing black customers to use the same restrooms as white people.)

Death on the road

Large cars were also perceived to be safer in car accidents, especially dangerous events for black Americans. Hospitals and health care were separate; during the 1940s and 1950s, only 200 African American hospitals nationwide served the entire black population of over 15 million people. Dozens of stories document the unnecessary injuries and deaths of African Americans in accidents resulting from neglect and hospital segregation under Jim Crow. Some colleges have even refused to send their students to sports competitions for fear that they would not come back alive if they were in an accident while traveling.

In 1947, when the coach and six members of the Clark College athletics team were seriously injured in a car accident, an ambulance transported them 14 miles from a hospital in Manchester, Tennessee. Refusing admission on the pretext that the hospital was at full capacity, the ambulance transported the two most seriously injured students 30 miles further to the South University hospital in Sewanee, Tennessee, which provided the first aid but then sent them on their way. Finally, Donelson, a private African American hospital in Nashville, 80 kilometers from the accident site, provided the necessary treatment.

Automobile accidents claimed the lives of many musicians and artists who generally traveled late at night after their performances; although they could entertain a white audience, they would not receive local accommodation. The great blues singer Bessie Smith, Tommy Gaither of the Orioles, jazz musician Leon “Chu” Berry and singer Trevor Bacon were among the black artists who died in the first half of the 20th century as a result of accidents in the road and the challenge of finding hospital care.

In addition, white hospital ambulances often refused to transport black patients, and some states did not allow on-site care for a black victim until the white wounds were treated. As a result, many black funeral homes used ambulances that could serve as dual-service hearses.

Cars and civil rights

Despite the dangers of car travel for black Americans, motor vehicles have had a particularly positive impact on civil rights. The automobile made the civil rights movement possible. “The key to the movement was the key to an automobile … the key to a fucking good automobile,” said the Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier.

The success of the boycott of Montgomery, Alabama buses, made famous by Rosa Parks, came largely from the purchase of a small fleet of cars that picked up and drove all those who needed a ride. to their destinations. Black taxi drivers picked up walkers and charged them only 10 cents, the same cost as a bus ride. These “private taxis”, as well as private cars and cars that did not charge passengers, starved the bus system until officials gave in and eliminated segregation on buses.

The extent to which the boycott paralyzed city bus lines was not known until 2018, when a cache of documents and account books surfaced in the attic of James H. Bagley, director of the Montgomery City Lines Company. The loss of black customers cost the bus company 69% of its revenues, demonstrating the power of black working and middle class consumers.

The automobile has proven indispensable for more than boycotts. Cars transported voter registration teams across the South to guarantee the right to vote for every citizen. Cars facilitate civil rights in a segregated world in which participants must be able to travel to different cities quickly and safely.

Black taxi drivers were also not allowed to pick up passengers at many airports (depending on state and local laws), and many taxis were “only white,” leaving travelers blacks stranded at the curb. This dilemma has made the “Fly and Rent Club” an essential element of any action in favor of civil rights.

The rental car made transportation to and from the airport convenient and proved to be an essential part of the trip for Dr. Martin Luther King, other civil rights and black business leaders during these times. difficult.

Driving in black today

Although there are still disparities between African American and white life, black travelers are generally not afraid of being lynched by white crowds or of being dismissed from hotels simply because of the color of their skin. For the most part, going to “unknown” communities is less dangerous today than half a century ago – although the recent assassination of Ahmaud Arbery for jogging in a white neighborhood is a frightening reminder the desire of some white Americans to control the mobility of black Americans.

In recent years, the ubiquitous cell phone camera, as well as a large body of academic research on traffic stops across the country (such as the Stanford Open Policing Project, involving the study of more than 200 million traffic stops), proved that race police continued to be biased.

The unfair treatment of African Americans by the authorities, and the resulting fear for the police, goes back much further than Jim Crow. It started with patrols of slaves who roamed the communities at night in search of fugitive slaves and seeking to prevent revolts. With the end of slavery, these legal patrols continued as illegal vigilante groups often punished by the police.

Perhaps the most egregious example is Bull Connor, who drew national attention in the 1960s as a vocal segregator. He became the country’s best-known “law enforcement” officer in 1961, when he ordered men with fire hoses and police dogs to attack legitimate civil rights protesters. It also allowed the Ku Klux Klan to commit murder with impunity in Birmingham, Alabama. It was not just a phenomenon from the South. African Americans and police clashed during the social upheavals of the 1960s in northern cities and on the west coast: New York, Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore.

Current restrictions on African-American mobility contribute to deep, persistent divisions between blacks and whites about their views on law enforcement. Today, 73% of African Americans believe that blacks are treated unfairly by the justice system, while 53% of white Americans consider the justice system to be fair and equal.

Similarly, a 2016 Pew Research Center study found a huge disparity between black and white Americans in their beliefs about the treatment of black citizens by law enforcement, with black Americans being much more suspicious of the police. and much more convinced that police officers are inclined to use excessive force and are rarely held accountable when dealing with people of color.

The murder of Philando Castile in his car in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, July 6, 2016; Jordan Edwards, 15, passenger in a car leaving a party in Dallas on April 29, 2017; and the murder of George Floyd, who got out of his car after being accused of having forged a counterfeit bill at a convenience store on May 25, 2020, are frightening reminders that the lives of blacks remain history captive. At the very least, perhaps the recent protests that rocked the country last month will force this dialogue.

Dr. Gretchen Sorin is a distinguished professor and director of the Cooperstown Graduate Studies Program in Museum Studies at SUNY Oneonta. She is the author of Driving while black: African American travel and the road to civil rights, available at A documentary of the same name is expected to debut on PBS in October.

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