Cover image for Driving while Black : African American travel and the road to civil rights
Driving while Black : African American travel and the road to civil rights
1st ed.
Physical Description:
xviii, 332 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
The journey -- "Humiliation stalks them" -- African Americans and the automobile -- "Through the windshield" -- Driving while black -- Travel guides for everyone -- Victor and Alma Green's The Negro motorist green book -- "Where will you stay tonight?" -- "Vacation without aggravation."
The ultimate symbol of independence and possibility, the automobile has shaped this country from the moment the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line. Yet cars have always held distinct importance for African Americans, allowing black families to evade the many dangers presented by an entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open road. Gretchen Sorin recovers a forgotten history of black motorists, and recounts their creation of a parallel, unseen world of travel guides, black only hotels, and informal communications networks that kept black drivers safe. At the heart of this story is Victor and Alma Green's famous Green Book, begun in 1936, which made possible that most basic American right, the family vacation, and encouraged a new method of resisting oppression. Enlivened by Sorin's personal history, Driving While Black opens an entirely new view onto the African American experience, and shows why travel was so central to the Civil Rights movement. --


Material Type
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Item Available
Book 323.1196 SOR 0 1
Book 323.1196 SOR 1 1
Book 323.1196 SOR 0 1

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It's hardly a secret that mobility has always been limited, if not impossible, for African Americans. Before the Civil War, masters confined their slaves to their property, while free black people found themselves regularly stopped, questioned, and even kidnapped. Restrictions on movement before Emancipation carried over, in different forms, into Reconstruction and beyond; for most of the 20th century, many white Americans felt blithely comfortable denying their black countrymen the right to travel freely on trains and buses. Yet it became more difficult to shackle someone who was cruising along a highway at 45 miles per hour.In Driving While Black, the acclaimed historian Gretchen Sorin reveals how the car--the ultimate symbol of independence and possibility--has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing black families to evade the many dangers presented by an entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open road. She recounts the creation of a parallel, unseen world of black motorists, who relied on travel guides, black only businesses, and informal communications networks to keep them safe. From coast to coast, mom and pop guest houses and tourist homes, beauty parlors, and even large hotels--including New York's Hotel Theresa, the Hampton House in Miami, or the Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles--as well as night clubs and restaurants like New Orleans' Dooky Chase and Atlanta's Paschal's, fed travelers and provided places to stay the night. At the heart of Sorin's story is Victor and Alma Green's famous Green Book, a travel guide begun in 1936, which helped grant black Americans that most basic American rite, the family vacation.As Sorin demonstrates, black travel guides and black-only businesses encouraged a new way of resisting oppression. Black Americans could be confident of finding welcoming establishments as they traveled for vacation or for business. Civil Rights workers learned where to stay and where to eat in the South between marches and protests. As Driving While Black reminds us, the Civil Rights Movement was just that--a movement of black people and their allies in defiance of local law and custom. At the same time, she shows that the car, despite the freedoms it offered, brought black people up against new challenges, from segregated ambulance services to unwarranted traffic stops, and the racist violence that too often followed.Interwoven with Sorin's own family history and enhanced by dozens of little known images, Driving While Black charts how the automobile fundamentally reshaped African American life, and opens up an entirely new view onto one of the most important issues of our time.

Author Notes

Gretchen Sorin is distinguished professor and director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York. She has curated innumerable exhibits--including with the Smithsonian, the Jewish Museum and the New York State Historical Association--and lives in upstate New York.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in museum studies at SUNY Oneonta, depicts the historical relationship between African-Americans and the automobile as one of promise as well as peril in this insightful debut. Drawing upon archival research, interviews, and her own family's history, Sorin emphasizes the strict limitations on mobility experienced by African-Americans from slavery's Middle Passage through the Jim Crow era, and the extent to which access to a car meant freedom, at least temporarily. Though black motorists in the Jim Crow South had to rely on The Negro Motorist Green Book to locate gas stations, eateries, and motels that would serve them and to avoid "sundown towns" where they were at risk after dark, African-Americans viewed the car as an escape from the humiliation and dangers of segregated public transportation systems, Sorin writes. Car ownership, she contends, facilitated opportunities for travel and employment and provided African-Americans with a "rolling living room" to transport themselves from one "safe zone" to another. She illustrates how the increased confidence and broader horizons of black drivers fuelled the civil rights movement, while noting that the end of segregation doomed black-owned businesses that served the market. Lucidly written and generously illustrated with photos and artifacts, this rigorous and entertaining history deserves a wide readership. (Feb.)

Kirkus Review

How the automobile was both a machine of liberation and a potential peril for African Americans during the early decades of the 20th centuryand beyond.In addition to offering an eye-opening history of the terrible discrimination practiced routinely against African American drivers, Sorin (Director, Cooperstown Graduate Program/SUNY; co-author: Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art, 2008, etc.) also discusses her own family's years of distress driving from New Jersey to North Carolina to visit relatives in the late 1950s. In the first few decades of the 20th century, owning a car demonstrated economic success, and that was certainly the case for a growing black middle class. Moreover, driving in one's own car meant not having to adhere to the humiliating Jim Crow laws regarding seating in public transportation. The right to move about among the states had always been considered a fundamental constitutional rightthe 1920 Supreme Court case United States v. Wheeler assured the "free ingress and egress to and from any other state"but that was "a right denied to African Americans." While white Americans took to the road merrily, writes the author, they were "comfortable denying their black countrymen not only the right to travel freely but also the ability to use public accommodations"and this is key in Sorin's powerful story. When her family traveled south, they were sure to pack plenty of food and blankets for the children so that they did not have to stop at segregated restaurants and risk being denied a place to sleep. The author provides an in-depth look at the significance of Victor Green's (literally) lifesaving The Green Bookinspired by Jewish travel guidesfirst published in 1936 and expanded over the decades, which became the bible for African American drivers hoping to find amenable accommodations in gas and repair services, restaurants, hotels, etc. The author also discusses how the car became a vehicle integral to the civil rights movement.A pleasing combination of terrific research and storytelling and engaging period visuals. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

The automobile fascinated 20th-century African Americans no less than others who grasped motoring as part of American identity. The automobile transformed African American life, expanding freedom of movement and opportunity and also supplying a notable weapon in the battle against segregation, argues Sorin (Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY). She situates cars in the history of black mobility from the antebellum era through the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and into the 21st century. For much of the time, slavery and segregation restricted black travel. But the automobile provided an enclosed, safe space beyond many of Jim Crow's indignities. But driving was not without inconvenience, harassment, danger, and even violence for blacks; entrenched racism meant drivers were accosted as they sought lodging or rest stops, Sorin explains. Well into the 21st century, risks, such as police profiling, continue. VERDICT Sorin's engaging account of black motoring exposes a rough road in race relations but also a technology's impact on black freedom. A great resource for people learning about black freedoms--and the fragility of those freedoms--in the automobile era and during the civil rights movement.--Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe

Table of Contents

Introductionp. ix
Chapter 1 The Journeyp. 1
Chapter 2 "Humiliation Stalks Them"p. 18
Chapter 3 African Americans and the Automobilep. 34
Chapter 4 "Through the Windshield"p. 77
Chapter 5 Driving While Blackp. 119
Chapter 6 Travel Guides for Everyonep. 150
Chapter 7 Victor and Alma Green's the Negro Motorist Green Bookp. 176
Chapter 8 "Where Will You Stay Tonight?"p. 215
Chapter 9 "Vacation Without Aggravation"p. 250
Epiloguep. 265
Appendixp. 273
Acknowledgmentsp. 283
Notesp. 287
Indexp. 319