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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.

Dr. Gretchen Sorin’s Forthcoming Book

Pre-order Dr. Sorin’s book here and read the book description below.

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—a cross between Yelp and samizdat—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.

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.

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).

 

Emir Lewis
Editor

Having a built an exceptional editing career over the years, Emirʼs credits span documentaries and narrative genres beginning with Slam (1998) which received both the prestigious Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Cannes Camera DʼOr. Most recently he has parlayed his editorial experience into a Supervising Story Producer role for the acclaimed Netflix Docu Series RAPTURE. In between filmmaking projects Emir also teaches the fine art of storytelling at both N.Y.U. and Brooklyn College’s Feirstein Graduate school.

Kathryn Clinard
Producer

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) and co-produced The Chinese Exclusion Act (2018). After production was completed, she managed outreach and engagement for The Chinese Exclusion Act (2018), in coordination with the Center for Asian American Media. Currently, she is producing several upcoming Ric Burns films including, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, and New York: the Future of Cities, and the Alaska Film Project. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Distinguished Honors program for Political and Social Thought.


Emily Pfeil
Producer

Emily Pfeil joined Steeplechase Films in 2017 after graduating with a Master’s degree from The Cooperstown Graduate Program. She has provided visual and content research for VA: The Human Cost of War (2017), assisted with post-production and outreach for The Chinese Exclusion Act (2018), and co-produced Made for Each Other: A History of the Bond Between Humans and Dogs (2019). She is producing several upcoming Ric Burns films including the Alaska Film Project and New York: the Future of Cities, as well as providing ongoing research and support for Oliver Sacks: His Own Life. She is also a graduate of The Honors College at the University at Albany where she received a Bachelor’s degree in Communications.

Stephanie de Wolfe
Impact Producer

Stephanie de Wolfe's work lies at the intersection of social justice programming and African American and African histories and cultures. From work with organizations such as the Global Fund for Children and Africans in the Diaspora-- of which she is a co-founder, Stephanie has a decade of experience in working with communities of African descent as a funder, program specialist, and digital media campaign organizer.  Most recently, she worked as a guide at the Whitney Plantation museum in Edgard, Louisiana, interpreting enslaved people's histories on the site while she completed her master's in Public Health from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in the city of New Orleans, where she resides. Stephanie holds a B.A. in African American and African Studies and Political and Social Thought from the University of Virginia.

Greg Sorin
Co-Producer

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.

Humanities Advisors

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.

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-century urban history. She has degrees from Radcliffe College and Harvard.

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. Jennifer Reut
Jennifer Reut is the creator of the project and blog Mapping the Green Book, which 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. 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.

Partners

Thanks to the following partners for their support: