From Jim Crow to Now: On the Realities of Traveling While Black

Mia Bay Maps the History of Segregated Travel

In 1922 Joseph K. Bowler told a reporter for the Chicago Defender that he never ventured to the South without a “Jim Crow traveling kit.” Designed to allow Bowler, a minister who lived in Massachusetts, to travel through segregated states in relative comfort, the kit included “a pair of soiled overalls purchased from an auto mechanic, a miniature gasoline stove and a small table top the size of a scrub board.” The contents of Bowl­er’s kit vividly illustrate some of the indignities and discomforts that Black travelers could expect to encounter in the “colored” railroad cars of his era. He wore the overalls, he explained, to avoid the expense of “soiling” good clothes in the “dirty Jim Crow coaches.”

They protected him from the to­bacco juice that white conductors and news vendors often spat on the seats, and were especially useful in “parts of the Mississippi [where] the white farmers use the Jim Crow coaches as luggage cars in which to transport chickens and hogs.” The stove and table top allowed him to prepare and eat meals. They were key components of his kit, given that “the dining car is a closed corporation as far as our people are concerned.” “White people below the Mason Dixon line maintain that we are animals, virtually camels, and can go without food or water for several days,” noted the intrepid traveler, who both carried and cooked all the food he consumed on his journey. If he had not, he explained, he would have had to “sneak into the back of some depot like a little poodle and ask for some food,” or “risk being shot to death by invading a dining car to secure my meals.”

Many Black travelers shared Bowler’s concerns—whether or not they chose to wear dirty overalls and carry stoves. African Americans loathed segregated streetcars and railway compartments more than virtually any other form of segregation. In the research for his detailed account of race relations in the American South, Following the Color Line: An Account of Negro Citizenship in the American Democracy (1908), journalist Ray Stannard Baker found that “no other point of contact is so much and so bitterly discussed among Negroes as the Jim Crow car.” A third of a century later, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, in his monumental study The American Dilemma (1944), made the same point: “It is a common observation that the Jim Crow Car is resented more bitterly among Negroes than most other forms of segregation.”

By the 1940s African Americans did not have to travel by train. They had new options to choose from, but they found all of them problematic. The in­tercity bus lines that first began operating in the late 1920s offered an afford­ able alternative to traveling by rail, but during their early years of operation many bus companies refused to serve Black passengers. Even after the courts forced them to, they did so “only grudgingly and in the most uncomfortable seats.” “If you think riding a Jim Crow car out of the South is no fun,” wrote one Black traveler in 1943, “you should try bumping along on the back wheel of a bus, with the odors of the motor keeping you restless.”

Cars initially seemed to offer those who could afford them an escape from the humiliations of Jim Crow travel. But while Black motorists could choose their own seats in their own cars, they could not expect to be treated with respect once they stepped outside their vehicles. “It used to be that black people only took a trip [if] some body died or was dying,” remembered Chicago Tribune columnist Jeannye Thornton in 1972. Driving usually involved a “nonstop trip,” because hotels and motels that accepted Black guests were almost impossible to find. Even rest stops were hard to locate: “Bathrooms were always at the next service in the next town 50 miles down the road and when you finally got there, they were always separate and filthy.” African American travelers ended up driving “all night [and] sometimes traveling to a big city before even considering stopping to stretch.” Not only were road­ side accommodations unappealing, driving through the South could be dan­gerous. “Who knows what could happen to a black family with northern license plates traveling some lonely road?”

African Americans loathed segregated streetcars and railway compartments more than virtually any other form of segregation.

Even travel by air was far from free of discrimination. Flying itself was never subject to southern segregation laws, but in the early days of air travel some airlines refused to carry Black passengers, and others assigned them to segregated seats. And when they escaped segregation in the air, Black flyers often encountered it on the ground. Southern airports had segregated waiting rooms, restaurants, and restrooms, and the taxis and ground trans­portation services that carried passengers to and from airports were divided by race.

American identity has long been defined by mobility and the freedom of the open road, but African Americans have never fully shared in that freedom. Travel segregation began on the stagecoaches and steamships of the North­ east—the nation’s earliest common carriers—and moved from there to rail­ roads, train stations, restaurants, roadside rest stops, and gas station rest­ rooms, all of which were eventually segregated by law in the South. As new modes of transportation and accommodations developed, new forms of seg­regation followed.

In Traveling Black, I explore the intertwined history of travel segregation and Black struggles for freedom of movement in America from the antebellum era to the present day. The chapters are organized around the successive forms of long­-distance transportation adopted by Americans, and they follow the experiences of generations of African American travelers as they encountered and resisted segregation and discrimination on stagecoaches, steamships, and railways, and in cars, buses, and planes. They document a sustained fight for mobility that falls largely outside the organizational history of the civil rights movement. The final chapters highlight the successes of that fight—recording the struggles that led to the overthrow of Jim Crow transportation—and close with a discussion of inequities in modern transportation. In studying how segregated transportation worked, and how and why its eradication became so central to the African American freedom struggle, this book examines Black mobility as an enduring focal point of struggles over equality and difference.

*

The history of travel is a critical but often overlooked aspect of the Black ex­perience in America. Historians, like anthropologists, tend to study their subjects in ways that privilege “relations of dwelling over relations of travel”— to borrow James Clifford’s phrase. This may be particularly true in the field of African American history, where we often study the members of a group with an almost unparalleled record of displacement and migration as “Black southerners” or “Black northerners” or residents of specific communities.

Although such approaches are vital to understanding Black people’s deep roots in particular places, they do not always capture the significance of movement in African American life. Repeatedly displaced during slavery, Black south­erners kept moving long after emancipation, in a series of migrations that took them from their regions’ plantations and farms to its cities and towns, and beyond. The Great Migration of more than six million southern Blacks to the North and West between 1916 and 1970 only accelerated this process, adding a new chapter to what Ira Berlin has called Black America’s “contrapuntal nar­rative” of “movement and place.”

I explore the intertwined history of travel segregation and Black struggles for freedom of movement in America from the antebellum era to the present day.

Within this narrative, few African Americans ever escaped travel restric­tions entirely. We associate Jim Crow cars and buses with the South, but travel segregation was never neatly confined to one region of the country. An artifact of emancipation, it took shape alongside the abolition of slavery, arriving first in the northern states that abolished slavery in the wake of the American Revolution. These densely populated states were home to many of the nation’s earliest common carriers, most of which went into busi­ness at a time when white northerners were reluctant to interact with their formerly enslaved Black counterparts on equal terms, especially within the close confines of stagecoaches, steamboats, and railway cars. Antebellum-­era white northerners often insisted that African Americans ride on the roofs of stagecoaches, on the outside decks of steamboats, and in the railroads’ dirtiest and most dangerous coaches—which came to be known as Jim Crow cars.

These segregated spaces were never as entrenched in the North as they later became in the South, where Jim Crow cars began to be mandated by law starting in the 1880s. Indeed, that same decade saw some northern states pass legislation designed to protect Black civil rights. But racial discrimination in transportation followed Black travelers up and down the railroad lines that took so many of them out of the Mississippi Delta, the Virginia Piedmont, and other regions across the South during the Great Migration.

Some of the segregation that followed African Americans north was closely linked to the South’s Jim Crow system. Prior to the 1950s, many conductors on southbound trains began herding Blacks into the Jim Crow car as far north as Chicago and New York and as far west as Los Angeles. “A Negro car is set aside for the convenience of passengers traveling south of Washington, so they will not have to change,” explained agents for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which routinely assigned all of its southbound Black passengers to this car until 1949. That year a lawsuit brought by ministers who were assigned to the Jim Crow car in Chicago finally forced the Pennsylvania Railroad to abandon this practice.

But in California the Jim Crow seating of Dixie­-bound Black passengers persisted even after that. As late as the mid­-1950s, African Americans who secured tickets on the Southern Pacific’s streamliner from Los Angeles to New Orleans would find themselves “all together in car 22 . . . at the front of the train just behind the engine.” Such forms of segregation were even more ubiquitous in border cities such as Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., which were for many years what one journalist termed “Big Change Ter­minals.” Gateways to the South, these were stations where railway officials forced all southbound Black passengers who were not already seated at the front of the train to, as one reporter put it, “dutifully tote their shoe boxes filled with fried chicken, pigs feet, cake and cornbread, blankets and squealing kids into the Jim Crow Car.” African Americans who traveled by bus like­ wise had to move to the back of the bus in Washington, D.C., and other border cities—although some bus lines, like the railroad lines, seated Blacks in the back as far north as Chicago and New York, “to ‘save Negroes the embarrassment’ of having to change to a rear seat in Washington.”

White northerners also practiced forms of travel segregation and exclusion that were in no way dictated by southern customs. White­-only hotels and rooming houses were common in virtually every region of the country right up until the 1960s, when they were finally outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the US Supreme Court case Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964). “It is understood that the southern states from Maryland to Texas are the colored vacationist’s No­Man’s­Land, but it is not so generally understood (except by Negroes) that the same thing is true of the rest of the country,” explained the African American writer George Schuyler to his white readers in 1943.

This point had been driven home to Schuyler in the spring of 1943, when he and his wife had sent out a letter seeking vacation accom­modations for a “colored family of three” to 105 northeastern vacation spots, all of which placed regular advertisements for guests in the Sunday section of a greater metropolitan newspaper. They received only one positive re­sponse. The Anchor Inn in the Poconos was happy to accommodate the Schuyler family. Seventy-­four of the businesses did not even bother to reply to the inquiry; most of the others claimed to be “sold out” or “booked to capacity, from now until Labor Day.” The few that were willing to explain why they could not accommodate the Schuylers clearly spoke for the rest. “We have never had colored guests at the Oakledge Manor,” a Vermont hotelier explained, “and fear that our other guests might make you feel ‘left out’ of our activities and entertainments.”

White northerners also practiced forms of travel segregation and exclusion that were in no way dictated by southern customs.

Finding food on the road was likewise a national problem. While more wel­coming than hotels, northern restaurants practiced overt and covert forms of segregation and exclusion that varied from place to place. In Ohio, which passed a civil rights law banning discrimination in public accommodations in 1884 but never enforced it, some restaurant owners served only whites and even placed signs advertising that fact in their windows. In New York, which had stronger anti-discrimination laws, Black customers were rarely refused ser­vice, but their patronage was discouraged in other ways. Often seated only after a lengthy wait, Black diners were routinely ushered to tables in “undesir­able locations . . . near kitchens, bathrooms, swinging doors” and other out­-of­-the-­way spots and were subject to rude service. Such practices were common enough to make the writer and frequent traveler Langston Hughes wonder “where and how America expects Negro travelers to eat.” Having been, by a “conservative estimate,” refused service in restaurants in at least a hundred cities, he had no answer. “Many communities have no Negro operated restau­rants. And even where there are colored restaurants, how is a complete stranger supposed to know where the Negro places are located? Colored travelers do not usually have time to walk all over town looking for a place to eat.”

Hughes’s lament highlights one of the defining difficulties of traveling Black, which was simply that Black travelers could never be sure where they were welcome. Localized rather than uniform, and far from obvious, the na­tion’s patchwork of segregationist laws and practices took shape unevenly over time. As C. D. Halliburton pointed out in the Philadelphia Tribune, they varied so much that they inevitably put any Black person “in unfamiliar sur­roundings in the most uncomfortable state of uncertainty, embarrassment and insecurity.” This problem was most acute in the North and West, where there were no segregation signs and few Black restaurants or hotels. Blacks had little choice but to try white establishments, but, as Black editor P. L. Prattis complained, “you could never know where insult and embarrassment are waiting for you.”

Segregationist practices were inconsistent even in the South. Jim Crow laws were largely similar across the region, and “white” and “colored” signs di­vided many facilities by race. But there, as Prattis noted, Black travelers nav­igated a landscape made mystifying by any number of “contrary and con­fusing customs.” Although accustomed to segregation, Albon Lewis Holsey, an Atlanta native and Tuskegee Institute staffer, described a 1925 trip spent “Zig­-Zagging through Dixie” as a “veritable night mare.” Not only did he encounter “the general discomforts of racial discriminations,” he was con­ founded by how frequently they varied from place to place.

On arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had to transfer from one railroad station to another, he found that the city’s redcap porters and Yellow Cab drivers did not serve Black travelers. But when he reached Little Rock, Arkansas, just four hours away, he had no such difficulties: a redcap grabbed his bags and “whistled for a Yellow Cab.” In Tulsa he once again secured a cab, but only after some covert arrangements. The “white Taxi cabs” that served the station, he was told, “won’t haul colored passengers in the day, but at night, when no one is looking they will.” Lucky enough to have ar­rived in the evening, he could get a ride, but he would have to meet his driver “in the shadows behind the station.” Holsey’s attempt to book a Pullman sleeping car for an interstate trip out of Dallas presented other, more alarming, complications. “The railroads,” an agent for one of the trunk lines informed him, “are willing to sell the space to any passenger who is able to pay for it, but it is dangerous for colored people to ride in Pullman cars in Texas. In the first place, the Texas Law has never been interpreted to mean that the [Pullman] Drawing Room is a separate accommodation”—so traveling in one might be illegal—“and in the next place, you can never tell what may happen.”

A complex pastiche of law and custom created racial rules that were too inconsistent to be easily followed—or endured. Tennessee-­born journalist Carl Rowan, who resettled in Minnesota after serving in the navy during World War II, revisited the land of his youth in 1951 only to be immediately reminded that to be Black in the South was to face “a life of doubt, of uncer­tainty as to what the reception will be, even from one building to another.” Some airports had segregated waiting rooms and restrooms; some did not. He had no trouble renting a car, but he was plagued by “doubt as to which filling­ station would allow me to buy gasoline and also to use the toilet. Doubt as to which restaurant would sell me food, even to take out.” Indeed, Rowan even wavered on whether he should keep the car he rented, and eventually de­cided to return it and travel by train and bus. “I did not know whether I would be stopped by policemen if I drove about town in the car,” he ex­ plained. “I knew that small­-town policemen often become suspicious of a strange Negro in a new car.”

Hughes’s lament highlights one of the defining difficulties of traveling Black, which was simply that Black travelers could never be sure where they were welcome.

The doubts faced by Black travelers were not just about protocol. They were also about safety. As Rowan’s experience reminds us, traveling Black could involve greater dangers than simply being refused service. African American drivers have always attracted undue attention from the police, so traffic stops were one great fear. But travel of all kinds held danger. In the South especially, African Americans who breached segregation’s codes, know­ingly or unknowingly, could be subject to violence. As some of the travel experiences featured in this book will show, taking the wrong seat got many travelers beaten, and some killed.

*

Unpredictable and dangerous, travel discrimination was a nightmare because it was virtually impossible to avoid—especially in the South. Black south­erners could and did shield themselves from some of segregation’s slights by keeping to themselves. Indeed, the accommodationist philosophy promoted by Booker T. Washington, one of the region’s most famous African American leaders, encouraged Blacks to accept Jim Crow and seek economic empowerment by creating and patronizing Black businesses—some of which catered to Black travelers. However, even Washington conceded that this approach had its limitations. African American travelers could sometimes find Black hotels, livery services, and other travel amenities, but such businesses were not universally available, and few major common carriers were Black­-owned. “We have no railroad cars and no steamboats, and we have to use yours,” explained the Black lawyer and politician George Henry White to his former colleagues at a congressional hearing in 1902, in the course of an unsuccessful attempt to secure congressional legislation outlawing segregation on Amer­ican railroads.

Although privileged in other ways, elite Blacks were often even more fa­miliar with travel discrimination than their poorer counterparts. Affluent enough to be early adopters of new travel technology, they began riding rail­ roads, buses, and planes, and buying cars well before the Black masses could easily afford to do so, and were sometimes all the more unwelcome as a re­sult. The use of prestigious modes of transportation by affluent African Amer­icans could be galling to whites, who resented sharing all but the rudest public accommodations with Blacks on equal terms. “White people have a dis­ tinct aversion to ‘associating’ with black people or meeting them in any rela­tion that implies a social equality, even in public conveyances or places,” an editorialist for the New York Times explained in 1894. “It is not that white people object to the presence of negroes. They only insist that negroes shall be kept in their place. A negress in an unoccupied passenger [seat] on a parlor car would be looked sourly on by her white fellow passengers, even if they did not enter protests against her presence, whereas the same negress visibly employed as the nurse of white children, would be innocuous and welcome.” One southern politician made the same point more bluntly in explaining his support for the passage of separate cars laws. The target of such laws, he maintained, was not “good old farm hands and respectable Negroes,” but rather “that insolent class of Negroes who desired to force themselves into first class coaches.”

In the end, no class of Negroes could fully escape traveling Black: it was a formative part of life for wealthy Blacks, poor Blacks, and everyone in between. Race leaders such as Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr. all traveled many miles to speak to a national audi­ence. Other inveterate travelers whose journeys crisscross this book include Jack Johnson, a boxer who was an early car connoisseur; Jackie Robinson and countless other Black baseball players who preceded him in the Negro leagues; and musicians such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and the blues singer Leadbelly, whose “Jim Crow Blues” featured the chorus “you gonna find some Jim Crow, everyplace you go.” This book includes many of their travel stories.

But Traveling Black also tracks the quotidian experiences of ordinary Black travelers. Among them were vacationers who, like the Schuyler family, simply sought a place to get away. As W. E. B. Du Bois noted in 1917, “ever recur­ring race-­discrimination” discouraged easy getaways, especially among Af­ rican Americans of modest means. Unlike Du Bois, who could afford to travel from his home in New York to elite Black vacation spots such as Idlewild in Michigan, they often had to “stay near home.” However, even those who ventured farther could not escape Jim Crow humiliations. Ron Reaves, who grew up in Oklahoma in the 1950s, is a case in point. His father was a janitor who worked three jobs in order to be able to afford a car, which he used to take his family to the beaches of California or to Chicago in the summer. They had no brushes with discrimination at hotels or restaurants as they drove west because both were luxuries that they could not afford. Instead, they drove nonstop for twelve hundred miles. But the segregated landscape through which they traveled still made a lasting impression on Reaves, who remem­bered seeing “plenty of ‘no colored’ signs at Phillips gas stations and the like” and experiencing the sting of discrimination still more directly at some of the service stations where the family was able to stop. Although permitted to buy gas, they “had to pee out back and drink water from a dirty dingy ladle that was set up next to nice porcelain water fountains.”

__________________________________

Excerpted from Traveling Black by Mia Bay, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Mia Bay
Mia Bay is the author of To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells and The White Image in the Black Mind, and coauthor of Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. She is Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania.





More Story
Cancellation or Consequences? Meredith Talusan and Matt Gallagher on Accountability in Literature In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by award-winning...