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African Americans & the Automobile

For African Americans, the fundamental right to travel didn't become a meaningful reality until the 20th century when the automobile rose in popularity. Assuming the role of trailblazers and nomads appealed deeply to black travelers because of historical prohibitions on movement as well as the restrictions imposed by Jim Crow practices. Drivers relied only on themselves when traveling by car. The sense of independence provided a strong sense of self-sufficiency to many African American drivers. Driving became a right of citizenship and a demand of dignity.

Beginning in the 1930s, the average black middle class family began to navigate the brave new world of the automobile and the highway, seizing opportunities for mobility and freedom as never before. Car travel minimized the necessity of face-to-face interactions between black and white people, putting black drivers more in charge of their fates.

The Automobile & the Jim Crow Era

For black citizens, the Jim Crow Era offered a growing sense of possibility burdened by the ever-present dangers of a deeply segregated society. The period of 1930 to 1965 marked the beginning of the first time in history that the average black middle class family had the freedom to travel across the country by automobile. This was thanks to the decreased cost of automobiles by 1930, the fully closed car bodies that began to dominate automobile design that helped insulate black passengers from the racial hierarchies of Jim Crow, and the construction of the Interstate Highway system.  

For African Americans, however, the danger of this newfound pastime can scarcely be overstated. On and off the interstate, motorists confronted racist law enforcement officers and gas station attendants, bigoted automobile repairmen, threatening road signs, restaurants and hotels that would deny them service and even the threat of mob violence.

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The Green Book & Guides for African American Motorists

To protect motorists as they ventured out on the road, African American travel guides provided details about safe places to visit, stay, and eat. The most successful of these guides was the Negro Motorist Green Book. An avowed integrationist, its publisher Victor Green, believed that in time, travelers of all races would be able to sleep in the same hotels and use the same facilities.

However as Victor Green’s dream was realized, his Green Book became obsolete, and many of the black owned businesses listed fell into financial duress and disrepair. Driving While Black, will in part, document several Green Book sites so that the memory of these once thriving hotels, motels, bars, and nightclubs might be preserved.