About the Documentary

Between 1896 and 1965, the automobile and the Interstate Highway System utterly transformed America. They became emblems of the look and feel, rhythm and beat, poetry and song of the American landscape. The world as seen through the windshield of a car created a new kind of vernacular: the road trip, the family vacation, the Sunday drive. No innovation has proved more poetically linked to the romance of individual desire, and none has found a more abiding home in the archive of American art, film, literature and song. This poetry – of promise and danger, partings and arrivals, loneliness and intimacy, of setting out and coming home – was intricately connected to the hopes and dreams of all Americans. But for no group was the siren call of the automobile and the highway – the promise of freedom and mobility, choice and adventure, agency and self-expression – more powerfully felt, more freighted with hope, or more fraught with danger and anxiety – than it was for African Americans. 

The documentary film Driving While Black, chronicles the history of African Americans on the road from the 1930's to the 1960's, a crucial and transformative period in American racial, cultural and social history. Drawing on a rich archive of material from the period, along with riveting oral histories and the on-camera insights of scholars, writers, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and ordinary American travelers, the film explores the genre of travel literature aimed at helping black travelers navigate Jim Crow America. At the heart of this unique travel literature and the social issues that made it necessary lies a powerfully revealing narrative of freedom, mobility and race in America –  one still relevant and resonant today.

Directed by Ric Burns and produced by Steeplechase Films in association with Dr. Gretchen Sorin and SUNY Oneonta and The Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, Driving While Black will broadcast on national public television and be distributed both online and in DVD home video markets. Stay tuned for details about the broadcast date.

Media Team

Ric Burns
Director, Writer, Producer

Ric Burns is an internationally recognized documentary filmmaker and writer. Burns has been writing, directing and producing historical documentaries for over 25 years, since his collaboration on the PBS series The Civil War (1990), which he produced with his brother Ken and co-wrote with Geoffrey Ward. Since founding Steeplechase Films in 1989, he has directed some of the most distinguished programs for PBS, and his work has won numerous film and television awards. Burns was educated at Columbia University and Cambridge University. More information.

Dr. Gretchen Sullivan Sorin
Senior Historical Advisor

Dr. Gretchen Sullivan Sorin is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Her dissertation and upcoming book form the basis of the scholarship for this project. Her research explores the role that the automobile played in the lives of African Americans during the Jim Crow era, the way that African Americans expressed middle class American values through car ownership, and how cars helped change deeply entrenched racial etiquette. Sorin received her Ph.D. in history from the University at Albany in 2009.

Bonnie Lafave
Senior Producer

Bonnie Lafave joined Steeplechase Films as a producer in 2006. She began her career as a journalist with CTV News in Canada, and then moved to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where she worked as a producer with the CBC’s flagship national programs Midday, The National and The Journal. During her time at Steeplechase she has contributed to several films including Into the Deep: America, Whaling and the World (2010), Death and the Civil War (2012), Enquiring Minds (2014) and American Ballet Theatre: A History (2015).


Kathryn Clinard

Kathryn Clinard joined Steeplechase Films in 2015 after spending two years as an educator with Teach For America Nashville. Most recently, she produced VA: The Human Cost of War (2017). She is co-producing and producing several upcoming Ric Burns films including The Chinese Exclusion Act (2018), Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (2018), and New York: the Future of Cities (2019)She is a graduate of UVA’s Distinguished Honors program Political and Social Thought.

Greg Sorin

Greg Sorin joined Steeplechase Films in 2014 where he has provided content and visual research, as well as ongoing support on projects such as American Ballet Theatre: A History (2015), Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History (2015), The Pilgrims (2015), VA: The Human Cost of War (2017), and Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man Behind the National Enquirer (2014). He has a degree in creative writing from SUNY Geneseo.

Emily Pfeil

Emily Pfeil joined Steeplechase Films in 2017 after graduating with a masters degree in Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. She has provided visual and content research as well as ongoing support for The Chinese Exclusion Act (2018) and VA: The Human Cost of War (2017)as well as co-producing projects in production including Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (2018) and New York: the Future of Cities (2019).

Humanities Advisors

Lonnie G. Bunch, III
Lonnie G. Bunch, III is an historian,
author, curator and educator, as
well as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In 2009, Ebony Magazine named
him one of its 150 most influential
African Americans.

Dr. Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis is the author of Divided Highways, Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American
, a history of the development of our national system of highways.
He is Professor of English at
Skidmore College and has a Ph.D.
from Columbia University.

Dr. Jennifer Reut
Jennifer Reut is the creator of the project and blog  Mapping the Green Bookwhich maps locations in The Negro Motorist Green Book and Travelguide. She works as a post-doctoral fellow at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, gathering data.

Dr. Spencer Crew
Spencer Crew is Robinson Professor
of History at George Mason University. Dr. Crew served as Director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. He received a Ph.D. from Rutgers University.

Dr. Marguerite S. Shaffer
Marguerite S. Shaffer is Associate Professor of American Studies and History at Miami University. She
has written extensively on tourism, the national parks and their role in shaping our national identity. She
has also researched consumer
culture and the middle class.

Dr. Craig Steven Wilder
Craig Steven Wilder is Professor of
History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a focus on American urban, intellectual, and cultural history. His career began as a South Bronx community organizer, and he continues to advise community and social organizations.

Dr. Kenneth Jackson
Kenneth Jackson is Director of
the Herbert H. Lehman Center for
the Study of American History and
the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences at Columbia University. Jackson has
won many fellowships including one from the NEH.

Dr. Thomas J. Sugrue
Thomas J. Sugrue is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University.
His specialties include 20th-century American politics, urban history,
race, and civil rights. He has
degrees from Columbia, King’s College, Cambridge, and Harvard.

Fath Davis Ruffins
Fath Davis Ruffins is a Curator in the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History. Her specialties include African American history and culture, ethnicity and commercial imagery, and 20th-centry urban history. She has degrees from Radcliffe College and Harvard.


Thanks to the following partners for their support: