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Driving While Black: Researching the Great Migration

Driving While Black: Researching the Great Migration
October 7, 2020 By: Kim Cady, Assistant Curator, Car and Carriage Museum

Driving While Black: Researching the Great Migration

Last month the Frick was fortunate to sit down (virtually, of course!) with Dr. Gretchen Sorin, distinguished professor and Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies. We discussed her new book Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights. The book—which chronicles how the automobile fundamentally changed African-American life—is an essential read for anyone who seeks a better understanding of African-Americans’ discrimination while driving.

Sorin, G. S. (2020). Driving while Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.

Dr. Sorin discusses the complexities of simple tasks such as navigating hotel and restaurant accommodations or planning for a family vacation—activities many of us take for granted. In the book, Dr. Sorin references her family trips as a child, still in her pajamas, loading up the car in the middle of the night and heading south to visit family. This particular memory was entirely relatable to me. I could also remember as a child grabbing my pillow and a stuffed animal, climbing into the backseat of our Subaru at two or three in the morning, my mom with sandwiches packed for the ride down the New Jersey Turnpike. The difference in our two stories is that while my dad wanted to get on the road to avoid traffic, Gretchen’s family chose to travel in the early morning hours because it was harder for would-be harassers to determine a motorist’s skin color at night.

Boys leaving for Orthopedic camp, 1958. Image from The State Newspaper Photograph Archive. Courtesy Richland Library.

Driving While Black illustrates the importance of the automobile in the everyday lives of African Americans. After the emancipation of enslaved people in the 1870s, the Reconstructionist government of the south enacted and enforced laws that segregated and continued the subjugation of newly freed African Americans. While enslaved, these men and women required authorization before traveling away from the plantation. Slave patrols served to protect the landowner’s property (the enslaved) and ensured that African Americans could not travel freely without first being granted permission. 


Slave pass for Benjamin McDaniel to travel from Montpellier to New Market, Shenandoah County, Virginia, June 1, 1843. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division. New York Public Library.

Once freed, African Americans continued to face traveling restrictions in the form of segregated public transportation. Jim Crow laws relegated African Americans to second-class citizens requiring they ride in segregated train cars or sit in the back seats of buses and trolleys. Those who dared to challenge these laws faced insult, personal injury, arrest, and even death at the hands of angry white passengers, drivers, and law enforcement. Accessibility to private transportation not only lessened the humiliation and physical dangers African American’s endured on public transit, but it also provided them the independence and freedom of mobility that whites had always been privy.

“The Greyhound Bus Co on Bay Street in the 50’s. © Lloyd Sandgren / Vintage Jacksonville.


Jack Moebes, Jim Crow sign being removed from a Greensboro, NC bus, in response to a court ruling, 1956. © Jack Moeges/Corbis.


Danny Lyons, Segregated Taxi, Birmingham, Alabama, 1960, Magnum Photos, NYC16911.

Although this new mobility allowed African Americans to free themselves from public transportation restrictions, they still encountered segregated businesses that affected their ability for comfortable travel both in the south and the north. Discriminatory practices against African-Americans in the North and Mid-West paralleled the Jim Crow laws that dominated the southern landscape. When traveling, African Americans had to be mindful that some restaurants and hotels would not offer them service; likewise, service stations and restrooms could refuse service based entirely on skin color. To put this in perspective, white motorists planning a week-long family vacation would pack their bags, load up their car, and they would be off. The same trip for an African American family would require a great deal more planning. The trip would include bringing along pillows and blankets to sleep in the car if denied lodging. Packing food and drinks in case restaurants were unwilling to serve them. Since some gas stations refused to serve African Americans, extra water and gas added to the list of things they brought along on their trip. Lastly, a map marked with roads, towns, or counties deemed unsafe due to segregationist violence accompanied the motorists.  

Wolcott, Marion Post, photographer. Hotel for colored patrons, Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis, Tenessee, United States. 1939, October. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


Delano, Jack, photographer. A cafe near the tobacco market, Durham, North Carolina. Durham, North Carolina, United States, 1940. May. Photograph. Library of Congress.

To help African American motorists find accommodations around the country, Victor Hugo Green, an African American mail carrier in New York City, began publishing an annual travel guide in 1936 entitled The Negro Motorist Green-Book. Mr. Green and his employees would travel the country collecting information about welcoming accommodations and towns and businesses motorists should avoid. The Green-Book also highlighted African-American owned restaurants, lodging, resorts, and nightclubs in various cities across the country. In addition to The Green-Book, African American motorists relied on Black-owned newspapers, including the highly acclaimed Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender, for lodging and accommodation recommendations. Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which aimed to abolish Jim Crow laws and eliminate discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin—The Green-Book ceased production in 1967 after providing thirty years of assistance to travelers. The Green-Book inspired the 2018 Oscar-award winning film Green Book and the 2019 documentary, The Green Book Guide to Freedom produced by the Smithsonian Channel.

The Negro Motorist Green-Book and its founder Victor Hugo Green. The National Civil Rights Museum.

Since publishing Driving While Black, Dr. Sorin has teamed up with filmmaker Ric Burns to create the much-anticipated film adaptation of the book entitled Driving While Black: Race, Space, and Mobility in America. The film “examines the history of African Americans on the road from the depths of the Depression to the height of the Civil Rights movement and beyond, exploring along the way the deeply embedded dynamics of race, space, and mobility in America during one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in American history.” The documentary will include African Americans’ experiences along with interviews from leading historians, authors, and journalists. Driving While Black will air on WQED on Tuesday, October 13th at 9 pm. For more information about the upcoming documentary, click here.

I discovered Dr. Sorin’s book, Driving While Black, while researching an upcoming exhibition for the Car and Carriage Museum. The show—planned for spring 2022—will examine the effect automobile ownership has had on African Americans’ lives and its role in the Great Migration. The period known as the Great Migration took place from the end of the Civil War (the 1870s) through the early 1970s when six million African Americans migrated to the north and west, seeking better employment opportunities in the budding steel and automobile industries while escaping discriminatory laws in the south. Although they still faced discrimination in the north, access to a more equitable life made the journey worthwhile.


Family moving north from Florida during the Great Depression. Illinois State Historical Society.

African American family from the rural South arriving in Chicago, 1920. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library (1168439).

Purchasing a car was one of the first things African Americans bought as they moved into the middle class. Automobile ownership provided a real sense of freedom. It was freedom from the restraints of slavery, freedom from timetables of trains and busses, and most important was the freedom of unrestricted mobility, the ability to come and go as one pleases. In the book, Dr. Sorin references a quote from the Pittsburgh Courier that stated the key to the movement (referring to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s) was a key to an automobile. It was true for the suffrage movement in the 1910s, it was true for mobilizing the vote in the 1960s, and is true for any movement or people seeking freedom.

"Photographic Print Of Man And Woman Embracing Through An Open Car Window," © Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles "Teenie" Harris Archive, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Jackie Robinson, his wife Rachel and their son Jackie Jr. posing by their car in Brooklyn, New York in July 1949. Photo: Nina Leen, Time & Life Pictures, Getty Images.

"Photographic print of two women standing in front of a car, with two men behind," Gift of Princetta R. Newman, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.          

Through this upcoming exhibition and hopefully many more like it, the Car and Carriage Museum will aid in furthering The Frick Pittsburgh’s recent commitments to inclusion and the Black Lives Matter movement. One way to make the exhibition more inclusive is to incorporate the stories of everyday people just like you. I want to include YOUR images and YOUR experiences in this undertaking. I’m looking for pictures of individuals/families posed with their cars accompanied by travel experiences—good and bad—that can help me tell the stories of this period. If you are willing to share, please email them to me at kcady@thefrickpittsburgh.org (all information will be kept private, and contributors may remain anonymous).

I’ve compiled a list below (by no means complete) of recommended readings and museum sites for those interested in learning more about the Great Migration and the discriminatory practices faced by African Americans from the time of slavery to the present. For science fiction fans, I recommend Lovecraft Country, which combines the monsters of author H.P. Lovecraft with the real-life monsters of the 1950s. I also welcome any of your suggestions and recommendations for further readings or viewings on the topic at kcady@thefrickpittsburgh.org

Further reading and viewing:

Dr. Sorin in Conversation with Dr. Barker on Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

The Great Migration by Elizabeth Craft, Michael Guillen, & Gerardo Nunez

Teenie Harris Archive, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis Tennessee

Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan

National Museum of African American History & Culture, Washington, D.C.

African American Museum in Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The 1619 Project

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
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