Transcript, Episode 42, The War on Cars: “Driving While Black” with Gretchen Sorin


[Old-time rock ‘n’ roll music playing]

Sarah: Some people call this the first rock ‘n’ roll song. And like a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs, it’s a love song to a car. The brand new Oldsmobile Rocket ’88. 

Jackie Brenston (singing): “You women have heard of jalopies/ You’ve heard the noise they make/ But let me introduce you to my new Rocket ’88/ Yes, it’s straight, just won’t wait/ Everybody likes my Rocket ’88/ Baby, we’ll ride in style, movin’ all along.”

Sarah: That tune was recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1951, by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats. A very young Ike Turner is on the piano. The band was also known as Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings. “Rocket ’88” was just one of many songs from the ’40s and ’50s that celebrated the newfound freedom and mobility African-Americans experienced thanks to the automobile.

My guest today is historian Gretchen Sorin, whose new book, Driving While Black, dives into the cultural history of the car in the 20th-century African-American experience.

I’m Sarah Goodyear and this is The War on Cars. 

I recently talked with Gretchen Sorin about her book and the history of how black people in America used cars to create safety and dignity for their families in the Jim Crow era and to build a civil rights movement. It was a fascinating conversation, and we’ll get to it in just a moment.

But first, I’d like to give a shout out to our Patreon supporters around the globe who have been continuing to support us during the COVID crisis. It honestly means more than you can know. If you’re not a Patreon supporter yet, you can go to and click on “Become a Patreon supporter.” We’ve got stickers and other swag for you. And… and honestly, it’s what keeps this podcast going. So thank you so much.

Now let’s get to Gretchen Sorin. She’s a distinguished professor and director of the Cooperstown graduate program of the State University of New York. In her new book, Driving While Black, she explores the rich and complicated relationship between African-Americans and cars, going back to the earliest days of the automobile and up through the civil rights era. She spoke with me from her home in upstate New York. 

Sarah: OK, so I read your book. I love this book. 

Gretchen: Oh, thank you. 

Sarah: I wanted to start out talking about one of the main themes of the book, and that is the way that the introduction of the automobile into American life allowed black people in the United States to take control of their own mobility and their own place in the world. Their ability to move around in a way that was really new. You write, “The car provided security, dignity, and opportunity, and gave them the freedom to go anywhere, to have complete independence. It also represented their status as free Americans.”

Gretchen: The more I started to dig into this story, I realized that, um, for African-Americans who were living during the period of Jim Crow, the alternative methods of travel — the bus or the train — required that you depend on the decency of someone else. You depend on the bus driver. You depend on the… the train staff. And very often those people would be extremely rude. They would shuttle you to the… to the back of the bus or they would insist that you get on the rear of the bus or they would insist that you move to the Negro car on the train. So, when you had your own automobile, you got to control how you were treated. You got to control where you went. You got control over your dignity. You were able to maintain dignity when you traveled. And that was particularly important for people with families, because they wanted to make sure that their children did not have to face the same kind of humiliation that they faced when they were growing up. 

Sarah: And you write quite eloquently about that aspect of the travel; how parents — including your own parents— setting out from home, say in the North to go back South to visit family, would go to all sorts of lengths to make sure that that trip was one that didn’t traumatize their children. 

Gretchen: Well, you know, I… It was funny because I thought… I always thought my parents were peculiar because we would get up when it was still dark, you know, 3 o’clock in the morning to travel to visit my grandmother who lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina. We lived in Newark, New Jersey. And we would leave when it was still dark. And very, very often African-American families like to travel in the dark because it was harder to tell who was behind the wheel if you encountered people on the road or policemen on the road. It was harder to tell who was in the car in the dark. So, we would always carry all of our food. We had a big green Coleman cooler and it would be full of food and we would never stop. We would drive straight through from Newark, New Jersey to Fayetteville, North Carolina without stopping. My father would always gas up in New Jersey.

And I thought this was peculiar, but in talking to people — both the generation of my generation, who are the kids sitting in the backseat, and the generation of… of older people who were driving the cars — I discovered that was very common practice for African-American families. You carried blankets and pillows, you carried games and toys. You carried everything that you would need so that you wouldn’t have to stop on the road in case you had to… might have to sleep in the car… 

Sarah: And even down to the pee cans. You talk about the pee cans. 

Gretchen: Yeah, my… my grandmother carried a large can in the car whenever we traveled and I… that always struck me as really peculiar. But she had been born in the 19th century, so I just attributed it to that, you know, that she was old fashioned. But she always felt you had to have a can to pee in if you were on the road because you couldn’t stop at a gas station and use the toilet.

Sarah: Yeah. And the other thing that was interesting is when you talk about how the very type of car that African-American people favored as they gained the ability to… to buy their own cars, the very type of car was… was really informed by all of this. So the idea of a large car that… that was powerful and that was comfortable to sleep in was really important. And I guess the favorite brand was… was Buick, right?

Gretchen Sorin: Well, I was very interested in this idea of whether or not your identity shaped the kind of car that you drove. And I discovered a couple of things. One thing, for example, is that American Jews did not drive Fords, because Ford was a raging anti-Semite. So Jewish families tended not to buy Ford automobiles, but African-Americans did buy Fords. And that was because Ford hired African-Americans to work at his Ford assembly plant when other car manufacturers did not. But generally, African-Americans favored the Buick and they favored the Buick because it was a good, sturdy, sensible car that had a great reputation. So it was a car that wouldn’t strand you when you were going out on the road. And it was also heavy, and a heavy car would be harder for a mob to turn over if you encountered an angry mob on the road. But also a Buick was a nice big car with a large trunk. And you needed that trunk space to carry all of those big coolers and blankets and pillows, um, extra fan belts, maybe even some extra gasoline cans. Sometimes people would carry a few gallons of gasoline in the trunk just in case. And a Buick had nice, large, comfortable seats for sleeping if you had to sleep in the car. 

Sarah: Then you write about how during the Montgomery bus boycott, the car provided another function, another kind of autonomy. Maybe you could talk about that. 

Gretchen: Well, one of the things that I discovered was that you couldn’t have had the civil rights movement without the automobile. The automobile was… was a key tool in the arsenal to end segregation. When the Montgomery bus boycott started, people had to get to work. If you didn’t go to work, you would get fired. You’d lose your job. And so the Montgomery bus boycott organizers purchased a small fleet of cars that they used to drive people to work, to take the place of the busses. Other people who actually owned cars also picked up people who would ordinarily have been riding the buses and drove them to work. And also African-American cab companies picked up people and drove them to work.

So people were able to maintain their employment, but also boycott the buses and that in the Montgomery bus boycott, they were able to cut the revenue to the bus company by 69 percent, which was amazing. But the automobile was also very important in other aspects of the… of the movement. So, for example, if you were flying into a city — Atlanta, Birmingham, or any other Southern city — and you needed to get from the airport to your hotel, to the black hotel in town, you’d have no way to get there because the African American cab companies were not allowed to pick up people at the airports. But when you… if you booked a rental car, then you would be able to get from the airport to your hotel. So the… the rental car became key in allowing civil rights leaders and civil rights workers to get from the airport to their hotels and to the black community. 

Sarah: So to this day, riding on public transportation exposes users to a lot of indignities and humiliations, especially in various parts of the country. I’ve… I’ve interviewed a bus activist in Cincinnati who is trying to get better bus stops for the local bus service because there’s no shelters at most of the buses. There’s no benches at most of the bus stops. Often they’re in places that are dangerous to… to walk to. And that people who rely on public transportation are often subject to that kind of indignity. Do you think that… that that’s a theme that still encourages car use, that if you can have a car, it’s like, well, yes, you should have a car because public transportation still is not something in most parts of the country that people feel like they can use with dignity and safety?

Gretchen: I know, that is a shame, isn’t it? There are places like Washington, D.C., for example, where the public transportation works pretty well and is clean and user-friendly. It’s also a very modern public transportation system. I think we have become or we… we made the decision in the 1950s to become a nation of automobile drivers, whereas, for example, in Europe, you know, they’re much more dependent on trains and public transportation. But we invested heavily in this interstate highway system and automobiles, and I think we have neglected public transportation, which is unfortunate. No, I think you’re absolutely right that it’s still not… it’s still not ideal. 

Sarah: And that investment in the automobile, it struck me while I was reading your book, I mean, you know, while for black people who could afford these vehicles, you know, this was obviously a real boon and a real source of pride and autonomy. But at the same time, the interstate highway system and other autocentric infrastructure was very destructive, specifically to the African-American communities around the United States. And often the communities that were destroyed to create that infrastructure were precisely the thriving African-American downtowns. I mean, that’s a story that recurs in city after city. 

Gretchen: And that’s the irony. I think that urban renewal often went right through the middle of black communities and highways often went right through the middle of black communities because they were the communities without any power. And, you know, that that’s, I think, one of the great ironies of this story. When you look at the African-American sites that were places that African-Americans could stay when they were traveling and African-American hotels and resorts and leisure facilities, restaurants, many of them are no longer standing because they were urban-renewed. They were part of the construction of new highways and the destruction of black communities. 

Sarah: So we… we talk a lot on the show about how destructive the automobile is, especially in the context of this the American city, and how it creates a lot of danger and health impacts for people who live in cities. The air pollution, the speeding, the fatalities that occur, especially among pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. 

Gretchen: And I think that is something that was warned, you know, white Americans warned that the automobile… They called it “the devil wagon.” And they warned that automobiles were going to be a big problem, that they were going to cause death and destruction, that they were going to pollute the air, that they were going to cause families to be separated. And all of those things came to pass, but African American families were not thinking about those issues, those concerns. African American families were dealing with incredible segregation and humiliation on public transportation. And they were thinking, how do we get out of this? How do we avoid the kind of humiliation? And it wasn’t always just humiliation. It was danger. I mean, you could be… you could get on a… on a bus and be shot. If the bus driver didn’t like something that you said or something that you did or if you didn’t follow his… his requests, he would shoot you. You know, a lot of them carried guns. So the concerns were totally different for white Americans than they were for African Americans. And you never see African Americans referring to cars as “the devil wagon.” 

Sarah: And you actually quote Emily Post, the sort of, the white etiquette doyenne, talking about how she was worried about how automobiles would affect the way that people related to each other. And… and some of that was concerns about the equality that they would bring us, isn’t that right? 

Gretchen: Yes. She was concerned that it would elevate people above their social class to be seen in a very nice car. It was too much of an… an equalizer. 

Sarah: So the… the movement that there… that exists in the United States and… and globally to try to take back space from the automobile, to try to rebalance things in favor of less polluting, less destructive forms of transportation, is at least a lot of the time it looks to me to be an overwhelmingly white movement. It’s not an entirely white movement and there are many, many exceptions to that. But it’s certainly… I think it’s a problem that the movement has. And I wonder to what extent you think that there is a legacy here of… that dates back to the Emily Post days. That activists are maybe not able to… to bridge that gap of, you know, here is how African American people see automobiles and this is what… this is what the African American community sees as the value of automobiles. Is that something that… that gets lost in all of that history of social inequality? 

Gretchen: I think it does. And I think you mentioned it earlier, that African Americans are still finding that the public transportation system leaves much to be desired in many cities in the country. The bus system and the… the train system leave a lot to be desired. And still, the automobile is the most comfortable, safest method of… of travel. I think if public transportation was both widespread and safe and comfortable, you would see a much greater embrace of it. 

Sarah: But as you also talk about in the book, of course, driving vehicles exposes people of color to… to police action, among other things, that can be incredibly dangerous. 

Gretchen: Yeah. So it was… it was a double-edged sword because when you go out on the road, you are exposing yourself to the police. And I… I think one of the cardinal rules for most African-Americans who were traveling was to stay on the interstates, to not… not get off the interstate because you’d rather encounter a state policeman than you would a local… a small, local policeman. So that was rule number one. But… but no matter what, you wanted to encounter the police as… as little as possible, um, you wanted to avoid. That’s where the phrase “driving while black” comes in, because the policed tended, especially in… in many states, and this has been proven by research, they tended to stop proportionately more black drivers, even though African-American drivers were not speeding or committing crimes at any higher rate than any other drivers. They just were stopped. And there was an assumption there that black drivers were, if you… especially if you were a black driver and you were driving a nice car, that you were a drug dealer or that you were driving a stolen car, you had no business driving that particular car because police officers, just like all the rest of us, are subject to the same prejudices and stereotypes that are prevalent in the society. So, yeah, it could be dangerous if you encountered a police officer or a mob or unfriendly people when you were driving your car, as well. But at least you had some opportunity to possibly get away. One of the reasons we find African-Americans choosing fast cars as well as heavy cars is that when you hit that accelerator, your car could take off. 

Sarah: You had to be able to drive fast to get away from people. But then you also had to really be scrupulous about the speed limit. But that you would drive sometimes all night unable to find lodging or a safe place to be and that… that, too, exposed you to danger because… because you talk a lot about, for instance, the traveling musicians that would leave the club and… and be tired and maybe have been drinking and how that would expose them to crashes and the tragic history of that. 

Gretchen: The people that drove the most, of course, would… it would make sense, uh, baseball players, other athletes, and musicians, because they were going from city to city, town to town performing. And it was very common practice that you would have a gig in one town at a club or… White people loved to hear black music. And you could be at a… at a white club, an all-white club with all black performers and then after your set of music was over, you would have no place to stay for the night because the hotels in the city would not put you up. And so many of the performers found that they would perform and then get in the car and drive and then perform and then get in the car and drive. And that meant driving all night and not having a place to sit down and have a nice meal, not having a place to sleep other than the car. And it was exhausting. It was emotionally and physically exhausting. 

Sarah: And so their response was these guides, including The Green Book that you write about in great detail. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how those… those things evolved. 

Gretchen: So in the 1930s, a series of different guidebooks for African Americans developed and the… the most long-lasting and probably the most famous now is the… the one that’s called The Negro Motorist’s Green Book. But it wasn’t the first and it certainly wasn’t the last of the guidebooks. And basically, it was… it was very much like a phone book for… for black people. It told you where you could stop, where you could stay. It was a state by state listing and it started on the… in New York and the New York metropolitan area and expanded out to the South and then to the West. And ultimately, by the time it ended in 19… in the 1960s, the late ’60s, it covered the entire world: Europe, Africa, Canada, and Mexico as well, for… for African American travelers. And it was essential. It was the guide that said, you know, you can stop here, go to the bathroom. You can stop here and eat. You can stop here and stay overnight. 

Sarah: Yeah. And that, all of that, was vital, right up through the 1960s. And then as a result of civil rights legislation and… and changing pressures on hotel chains, then those chains opened up and started accepting African American guests and that was sort of why that died away. Is… is that right? 

Gretchen: Yes. And generally, the chains opened up in the… in the late 1960s. Of course, it was very easy for an independent hotel to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, we just rented our last room.” And actually, they can still say that, right? If you walk in the door and there’s something that they don’t like about the way you look. They could say, “Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have any rooms available.” 

Sarah: Right. 

Gretchen: But generally, it changed, I think, more gradually than we would like to believe, given the legislation. But the… The Negro Motorist Green Book and the other guides start to go out of business in the… about 1966, and they’re completely gone by 1970. 

Sarah: I want to talk just a little bit about the financial aspect of car ownership. One of the reasons that African-Americans were able to buy cars the way they were is that they weren’t really allowed to buy homes a lot of the time. And so, you know, the financial resources to own a car were less and also that was something that, you know, they couldn’t get redlined out of buying a car. 

Gretchen: Right. 

Sarah: But today, one of the things that we talk about on the show quite a bit is the financial burden of car ownership and how it…. it can be a really punishingly expensive thing to own a car. And… and there have been the equivalent of subprime loans with cars. There’s actually, you know, debt and cars. There’s a very ugly history of that going on right now. And so, it just strikes me as interesting the way that that calculus has changed over the past 60 or 70 years from being, you know, here’s somewhere where you can put your money and it will give you autonomy and dignity that you can’t necessarily get in buying a home because that’s not available to you. Now, well, you have to have this thing because the way we’ve built our society means that you can’t exist without it. You can’t have a job. You can’t go to school. And it’s a burden on top of your living expenses, whatever those might be. 

Gretchen: In the… in the ’40s and ’50s, when African Americans were beginning to have much more disposable income as a result of employment opportunities, that disposable income could not often go into a house because African Americans were redlined out of bank mortgages, but automobile dealers were willing to sell them automobiles. So, if your largest purchase can’t be a house, your largest purchase could be a car. And the car was so important to your dignity. But also, I think, to raising your children in a way that made them feel like decent human beings as opposed to in a way that demeaned them. And so the family car, the idea of having a family car was really a source of pride and dignity and I think that was so important for… for black families.

Segregation caused enormous emotional and psychological trauma for African Americans and, um, there’s a lot of research that shows that… that high blood pressure and just overall stress were caused, huge amounts of stress, caused by segregation and humiliation. And I… I think that trying to prevent that for their children was essential. It’s about your physical health. You know, and I… and I know you talk about bicycles and how important a bicycle is. Well, it sounds kind of crazy for me to say, well, an automobile was essential for the physical health of African Americans, but I would say that. An automobile was essential for their… for their physical well-being. 

Sarah: I have to say, you know, as someone who… I spend a lot of time thinking about how automobiles damage people’s physical health through air pollution, through, you know, sedentary lifestyle, through social isolation, through sprawl development and all that that entails. You know, that I think is really the most important takeaway for me from your book is trying to understand in a deeper way how important that has been for the African American community in the United States. 

Gretchen: You’ve got to understand the history. You’ve got to understand what it meant and what it continues to mean. It had been a source of pride for… for parents and now it’s a source of pride for their children. You know, my parents moved from Newark to the suburbs. We went back to church in Newark. You know, you had to have a car to get there. So, the automobile becomes this absolutely essential part of your… of your life. You know, and even when I think about older cousins that I know that live in Brooklyn and that live in the city, they all have cars because a car was essential. 

Sarah: Yeah. I think it’s really, really important to understand all of the deep history in that and… and your book really lays it out. And it’s… it’s beautifully written and it’s… it’s a great read. And I really think it’s… it’s a… it’s an important read for anyone who cares about transportation in the United States of America. 

Gretchen: Oh, thank you. 

Sarah: Thank you so much, Gretchen. I really appreciate your taking the time. 

Gretchen: Well, thank you very much. 

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. There’s so much more in Gretchen Sorin’s book, Driving While Black, that we could cover in our conversation. So I really urge you to pick it up. It’s filled with fascinating archival photos that really helped to tell the story. And it’s really just a wonderful cultural history. We’ll have links on the show page to help you find out more.

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This episode was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs.

I’m Sarah Goodyear, and this is The War on Cars.