tv History Bookshelf Gretchen Sorin Driving While Black CSPAN April 26, 2021 9:28pm-10:08pm EDT
next historian gretchen sorin author of driving while black she talks about the introduction of the automobile and how it changed the lives of african americans providing a new freedom that was supported by black-owned businesses and travel guides the free library in philadelphia hosted hosted this 35 minute event. welcome to the free library of philadelphia. my name is andy kahan director of author events. i do have one unfortunate update to our program rick burns will not participate in our discussion this evening due to a work-related trip. however, the good news is that you are going to see a sneak preview of his new documentary, which will be aired on pbs later this year. and which is based on 10 years of research by our guest a curator with more than 30 years experience dr. gretchen. soren has consulted for more than 250 institutions including the smithsonian the jewish museum and the new york state
historical association. she is the director of the cooperstown graduate program of the state university of new york and the author of in the spirit of martin the living legacy of dr. martin luther king jr. and through the eyes of others african americans and identity in american art. in her new book driving while black just out today professor soren tells the story of the indispensable green book, which both reshape the african-american traveling experience throughout our segregated land and helped drive the nascent civil rights movement, please welcome gretchen soren to the free library of philadelphia. good evening. it's wonderful to be in this great city of philadelphia. and i'm i apologize that that rick wasn't able to join us this
evening. he had a little bit of an emergency and he's in italy, but i hope that you'll enjoy the preview of our film that he sent along. so i'm going to talk. i'm sure many of you have seen the green book movie. and i'm going to talk this evening really about something a broader story and that story is about the automobile and the role that the automobile played in african-american life. i'd like you all to think about. how important your mobility is to you how important is it that you're able to travel where you want to when you want to how important is that to american liberty? the ability to travel freely is something that all of us in this room take for granted, but if you think about the role that liberty that that mobility played for african americans for very much of american history
african americans were prohibited from traveling freely. travel and the idea of journey is central to the african-american experience. the ordeal of the middle passage and enslavement begins the journey for african americans and it's central to what it means to be black in this country. but the idea of travel is about forced travel. this is a pass a slave pass and it says pleased to let benjamin mcdaniel pass to dr. henkels in new market shenandoah county, virginia and return on monday or tuesday next to montpelier for mrs. madison, june 1st. 1843. so african americans traveling had to have passes they had to have permission. freedom was so important to many
enslaved persons that they ran away. they stole themselves and exercised their freedom of movement. excuse me. i have a five-year-old granddaughter, and she's give me the kindergarten. to give garden gold in the early twentieth century the great migration, which is the next step in the journey for african americans is the story of the greatest mass movement of people in this country's history. seeking job opportunities in the north and fleeing racism and poverty in the south men as many as seven million african americans left their homes seeking refuge in such cities as chicago, new york detroit newark where my parents moved and philadelphia where my uncle moved with expanding opportunities in education and employment came more and more black citizens among the ranks of the black middle class. freedom of mobility to go where
you wanted when you wanted became essential. but it also came to me in the ability to avoid the indignity of the jim crow bus and the jim crow railroad car. and here is a jim crow bus in the first half of the twentieth century. behavior and etiquette for african americans was prescribed by geography and by custom if you were from a particular place, you knew what the rules were. the rules changed from place to place throughout the united states states each state had its own rules each community had its own expected etiquette. emmett till didn't know the rules of racial etiquette for example. particular driving etiquette was also expected. african-american's face segregation in most aspects of public travel and accommodation in the south where it was overt
but in the north it was dictated by customs. so it was de facto segregation of buses taxis trains hotels restaurants beaches and just about any place that people gathered and this is a jim crow railroad car insulting humiliating filthy as well as dependent on timetables. although they were only supposed to run in the south many of them ran in the north as well and african americans even if you purchased a first class ticket were often expected to go into the jim crow car. this is a columbia and gulf railroad car from 1929. and you can see the word colored. on those back seats the automobile gave african-american's freedom free black travelers from the tyranny of the jim crow railroad car and bus it offered freedom of
movement and it offered dignity. african americans found that the segregated trains that gave them no dignity and here. well, here's your own private rolling living room right if you were driving in your own car you had a private space. it was protected you were you were freed from that segregated insults. you were freed from listening to the bus driver tell you to move to the back of the bus you were freed from the railroad car. that might be right behind the engine. so this was really an important change in african-american life the automobile. by the 1950s with the interstate highway system. upwardly mobile black families were able to travel and become travel consumers. and they started to consume travel just as they consumed things like refrigerators and televisions and coffee percolators. they used the dollars in their
disposable income to purchase automobiles and campers and hotel rooms and restaurant meals. with their history of forced travel it was important for the black middle class to travel for leisure. they chose to travel because they could often parents worked hard to make sure that their children were not aware of the indignities they faced so the children installed in the back seats of these cars weren't always even aware of the indignities their parents faced nor they aware of the danger that their parents faced when they went out on the road. now if you think about the make and model of automobiles make and model was was very much tied to identity. african americans purchased large cars and we know this from market studies that were done of african americans that were conducted in the 1940s and 1950s by research firms for the black
newspapers. african-american motorists preferred large heavy buicks and oldsmobiles those kinds of cars that we now would call gas guzzlers. these are not small cars. i think african americans preferred large cars because they offered protection. they were hard to turn over. they were a place to sleep if necessary you could carry blankets and pillows and you could sleep in your car you would carry water for the radiator. you could carry extra fan belts. you carried those big heavy coleman coolers full of food because you couldn't stop at a restaurant. black motorists created a home away from home in their automobiles. and this is an ad for the buick electra. and it says all the electrolax is a fireplace. so the the electorate was a heavy car and you could sleep in it if you needed to.
when civil rights worker medgar evers needed a car to travel through rural, mississippi. he chose an oldsmobile rocket 88 the rocket was large enough to enable medgar to stretch out for the night on the front seats, and it responded immediately if he hit the accelerator enabling him to get away from a pursuing car. this is a picture of the rocket 88. and we know that medgar evers died beside his car in his driveway shot by a sniper on june 12th 1963. african americans also saw their automobiles as a symbol of class status and this is a cadillac on a harlem street. african americans were often prevented by discrimination from purchasing houses. you couldn't buy a house because your neighborhood was redlined and banks would not give you a mortgage. therefore the car became their
largest and most important purchase. and therefore african americans use their disposable income to buy beautiful cars. now you may have heard the stereotype that all african americans bought cadillacs. african-american's purchased cadillacs in exactly the same proportion percentage as white americans that's three percent three percent of african-american's purchase cadillacs. that is a stereotype that all african-american had those those cadillacs the preferred car was the buick or the oldsmobile. but for african americans travel by car posed a paradox. african americans had the freedom to travel but they were forced to stay in segregated black neighborhoods and segregated black tourist accommodations that would accept them. now i'd like you to think for a minute about what it was like for all americans before there were cars before the automobile.
before the automobile people generally stayed put they didn't travel very far at all from their own neighborhoods. white people generally stayed in white neighborhoods black people generally stayed in black neighborhoods. in some poor neighborhoods black and white people live side by side, but the country was generally segregated by race. now think about what happens with the automobile. with their cars african-american's criss-cross the country traveling through white spaces to get from a safe black space to another safe black space say to get from a black neighborhood to a black resort. they had to go through a variety of white spaces where they were unwelcome. they faced signs billboards posters and objects that range from insulting to frightening. they asserted their rights to unfettered travel by going where they wanted when they wanted and this could be dangerous.
the landscape for african-american travelers was fraught with psychologically and emotionally damaging messages. this is just one example of those kinds of messages. welcome to clan country sign. this is a restaurant chain that was popular on the west coast. it started in salt lake city and diners entered the restaurant through the giant coons mouth. and this is the banner that welcomed visitors to greenville, texas greenville. welcome the blackest land the whitest people. and of course there were hundreds of sundown towns in the united states. and as african-american's traveled they were faced with towns that actually had signs that said if you were black you needed to be out of town before sundown. and these communities where all over the united states many many
in the midwest many in the west and even a few like darien connecticut in the northeast. there's a great story that. thurgood marshall told he was standing on a train car a train platform waiting for a train to shreveport. and a man came up to him and said this is before this is before thurgood. marshall was supreme court justice when he was a lawyer for the naacp and the man says to him -- boy. what are you doing in this town? and he says i'm waiting for the train to shreveport and the man says well -- boy. you better be out of this town before sundown because the sun has never set with a -- in this town and that's a story that that thurgood marshall tells in his autobiography. some african americans faced all kinds of intimidation and even real dangers when they traveled. and this is a fair in colorado i
have to wonder why were they wearing these? outfits on the ferris wheel so african americans often depended on travel guides like the negro motorists green book, which was produced in new york city. now how many of you have heard of the negro motorist screen book many of you and how many of you have heard of all the other dozens of travel guides? that existed there were many different travel guides for a variety of audiences if you were a part of a church group or a fraternity or a sorority there were guides that that found special housing for you there were guides for show people. there were many different guides and in the back of black newspapers and magazines there were travel guides as well. so the green book is the most long-lasting of the african-american travel guides and the reason it was so long lasting was because of their
relationship with standard oil. which is exxon or formerly so gas stations esso was owned by standard oil and they saw african americans as a market. and they had enlightened self-interest. they thought these people have money and we would like to get some of it and they had a policy of non discrimination in their bathrooms at their gas stations. and so african americans very often preferred esso gasoline. and they gave away the green book and that helped victor green to make his green book successful the idea for the green book was based on jewish travel guides victor green writes in the very first issue of the green book that his jewish brethren gave him the idea for the travel guide. so when you if you were a jewish american and you were traveling you also needed to be concerned
about places to stay very often if you called a hotel and said your name was schwartz or your name was ruben, you would find that suddenly they had no rooms available. so jewish newspapers and jewish there were jewish guides that told you places that you could stay and and places where you could observe the dietary laws. green really believed that travel was fatal to prejudice. he believed if people went out across the country it would help to defeat prejudice in this country. and this is a quote from mark twain. from the innocence abroad he says travel is fatal to prejudice and victor green adopted that as his mantra. this is victor green and his wife. alma green was a postal worker. he opened a business in harlem. he opened the green publishing company. now, what is so important in the reason? i always talk and show alma is because victor green dies in
1960 and the green publishing company was then operated by alma green and by four other women, so it was a five woman operation, and this was a business that publishing business was very unusual for women to be working in publishing in this time period much less running a publishing company, but alma green continues to run the publishing company until the late 1960s. victor green had a variety of ways of finding places to put in his green book and alma i have to make sure alma's in there. one of the ways was by sending out postcards and by sending out letters and asking his travelers people that had good experiences traveling to to send him information about the places that they stayed. the green book included gas stations and this one of course is an ss station hotels motels
restaurants ymca's, but also churches doctors beauticians barbers and there was an article at least one article in each issue an article might tell you about philadelphia and the things that you could do and see in philadelphia or it might tell you about chicago they usually were geographically situated and they told you the places where you might be welcome to visit that you might be welcome to visit. the green book also courted the black middle class and reflects black middle class values about polite and well-mannered behavior and here i think you can you can see that you have a very charming middle class couple with matched luggage. you can see a little bit of their car and you can see their suburban neighborhood. in the background it was the black middle class that could afford to travel and green shows
us the ideal black traveling couple. over the course of the life of the green book it the content expanded from just new york, new jersey and connecticut to the entire east coast, then the entire united states then all of north america and finally to europe africa and asia. but there were other travel guides like this one. this is the baltimore afro-american travel map. that was a part of the afro-american newspaper. other guides were called the go guide travel guide the travel guide and the bronze american just to name a few. and you can also see the kind of middle class iconography here with the the couple playing golf. in the upper right hand corner. many of the places that were listed in the guides-- the early ones were either ymca dorm rooms
or or the homes of african-american families. so you might if you had an empty room or an extra room women rented their rooms out. and might provide a good breakfast as a way to make extra money for their families and this is a ymca room. this is the rock you if any of you have visited the african-american museum in washington dc. you've seen the the rock for rock which was a a leash a leisure place to stay in kittery, maine. it was an african-american guest house. that was run by hazel and clayton sinclair and this is the rock in its original environment. this was a place that was away from the beach. the beaches were segregated in portsmouth and in kittery, but you could go and you could stay for a week or two weeks at rock rest.
you could enjoy your meals at rockrest hazel was apparently a really good cook and she catered meals for the white community as well as for the black community. there were other places to stay like mackenzie's court in hot springs and hot springs, arkansas, which was a motor hotel and perfect for the automobile you could park right outside your door. most of these places were owned by african americans, but some were owned by white americans but catered only to black people. these are some advertisements from the green book. they offered the same values and products that were offered for whites in parallel establishments some of the folks that operated these places clearly placed themselves in the ads to show readers that they were black. and this grainy picture is of shenandoah national park.
i know the national parks like to say that you were always welcome at the national parks and the national parks were always welcome. we're always open to african-american's the problem. was that all of the park facilities the guest houses the hotels the restaurants were operated by private private individuals and they discriminated so this is the picnic ground for negroes at shenandoah national park. it took a long time for the national parks to be fully integrated. what i'd like to talk just for a few minutes about the role of the automobile in the civil rights movement. it was really very important. for the the automobile plate a key and pivotal role in the civil rights movement. you couldn't have the civil rights movement without the automobile. this is where supermarket and where is clearly tying himself
to dr. martin luther king, very very important and very dangerous if you were if the white community was concerned about king coming to your community. excuse me. the man at the front of this line is a jazz singer and he is traveling back to the gaston motel in birmingham after this after participation in this picket line. this is the gaston motel after it was bombed. gaston provided spaces for civil rights workers to stay the civil rights movement people working in civil rights needed places to stay when they went south they needed places to eat and these places were were the targets of bombings. some of these places were listed
in the green book including the lorraine motel, which is the place where martin luther king was assassinated. now consider how important it would be to have an automobile if your job was to. travel around an entire county and registered voters if you had to travel an entire county or if you had to travel an entire state and register voters. this was this is called the jenkins microbus and it's a pretty marvelous bus apparently part of it is now at the african-american museum a recently acquired edition and this bus was used to travel all over the state of alabama to register voters, but also it was used as a school to train voters in literacy. so that they could pass the literacy tests. and it was a haven for children and it was used as a meeting space. so it was so important to be able to have mobility when you
were trying to register voters and bring people into the civil rights movement. but the bus boycott was perhaps the most significant use of the automobile and there were bus boycotts all over the south. here you see martin luther king. helping some women into a car so that they can get to work. in order for them to bankrupt really bankrupt the montgomery bus system. it was important for them to be able to for people to continue to be able to go to work and to move about the city the way they were able to move about the city was by the through the purchase of a fleet of automobiles. so martin luther king and the bus boycott purchased automobiles and people who already had cars helped people to drive to work so that they could continue to keep their jobs and they were able to cut
the bus revenue by 69% and still keep their jobs, but only because they had automobiles to take people to work. so the automobile becomes a weapon in the arsenal of the civil rights movement. it was also key when people needed to get from the airport to their hotels since cabs were segregated and black cabs were not allowed to pick up people at hotels people flying into various cities for protests would rent a car. and that would be able their way getting to the hotel. so, how does the story end? in 1964, lbj passes major civil rights legislation that extends voting rights and it outlaws segregation and immediately. all public accommodations are opened to african americans. so the major chain hotels the
sheridan howard johnson's the hilton are open to african americans and because they can stay at those places. they do stay at those places. so the question i have is does this story end? or does it remain an issue in america? and this is philando castile who was murdered in his automobile by a minnesota police officer in 2016 in falcon heights, minnesota and the officer was acquitted of manslaughter. because he was simply he said he was afraid of philando castile simply because of the color of his skin. this is a cartoon by stuart carlson. who is the former editorial cartoonist for the milwaukee? journal central sentinel and it's funny, but it's also it's also not funny. so i guess i guess the question is.
are we still in this place? has this story ended or does it continue? and how do we how do we address the problem that we have now with african americans and the automobile? the green book goes out of business and the black hotels the irony is the black hotels gradually lose their clientele and the large chain hotels. flourish but the black hotels go out of business. but the landscape is forever changed with the help of ordinary men and women choosing the automobile and travel as their weapon. so if you do have a question, please raise your hand we will run a microphone to you. please ask your question in the form of a question. i see how i saw the word of them were sure.
what that little girl trying to open the cardboard was that year? she looks likewise. it was yeah it was my father was a photographer and he he was a piece of film that i found. and i gave all of my old home movies to rick. and he he printed them digitally and that that was one of the pieces of film. how did you get interested in this topic? and how did you go about doing your research? i'm an exhibition curator primarily and i was doing an exhibition in saratoga springs, new york in a colleague of mine who would written a book about leisure in saratoga springs. ask me if i'd ever heard of the green book was about 20 years ago. and i had never heard of it at that point and i i was intrigued.
and one of my graduate students who is from chicago. they i found that they had one at the university of chicago and one of my graduate students. um copied it for me, and that was my first screen book and i started with the green book. but as i got into the research, i realized the story is much broader than the green book. it's really about the automobile. green book and i got into the research and realize the story is much broader than the green book it's really about the automobile. and the way that it changed african american life. so the story kind of expanded from their. >> you said the green book [inaudible] >> some of them were given away for free and others were sold.
[inaudible] >> green sold them. he sold them out of his harlem office. in some places they were sold but standard oil had a contract with green to buy when thousands of copies. >> was there any effort to put blacks [inaudible] -- some of the places where they went to say this was the green book station that people went to? >> a national trust for the preservation has been trying to put up markers at some of the sites. a large number of the sites are no longer -- the were urban renewed. in the late sixties when urban
renewal went through cities they all bulldozed entire black neighborhoods. many of those places are gone. if you look at my capital city of albany, a large part of the black neighborhood was just completely wiped out by urban renewal. so yes, there are some markers that will be going up at historical green books sites. and the trust has been working on the. >> i want to thank you for writing that book and i believe it's a wonderful experience. i want to know if what you collect it will be part of a current exhibit? >> that's a good question. i think that the film is going
to premier and detroit and destroy detroit historical society will be doing an exhibition -- not sure if it will be on automobile their travel on the green book. >> [inaudible] the jewish green book. are there other books about it? >> i actually had a jewish a story and help me because i couldn't find any. and there is a small volume called the daily -- it was a publication that basically said you had to observe dietary laws and you could have hershey's chocolates. certain things that were kosher. in the back of that there was a list of places to stay and that we decided was probably the guide --
probably the guide you and i were talking about that came in the early sixties. >> another question here from the audience. >> i bought a modern copy of the green book thinking we could travel south and learn something more. but the reprint is only of with the states have now and not really where you could go and learn something. more of with the states laws are in terms of -- rather than what it was in the past. i was looking more for something from the past. >> you can actually buy reprints of the original green books, but there are also on the new york public library website. if you just type in new york public library green book they will all pop up.
law i heard that the holiday inn specifically founded as places that were not segregated and would be all over the country is that right? >> i don't know the answer to that. but would not be lovely? >> a few more questions. >> there was an increasing number as we get into the late sixties -- there were an increasing numbers of people who are looking for integrated accommodations. i don't know about the specific history of holiday in. i will look at up though. i do know there was an increasing interest integrating accommodations and some liberal americans, white americans were
seeking those places that were integrated. >> or you [inaudible] was the deal that allowed him to sell books -- specifically to the green book? >> there were two men that were hired by standard oil to market to the black community. both of them found that when they were traveling for company business they had to use the green book. that led to a relationship between standard oil and the green book. >> is there in allegiance now among african americans to be shopping at exxon? >> i don't think so. i think it's probably forgotten. >> [inaudible] [laughs] >> please join me and thanking
next on history bookshelf. adrian miller talks about his book, the presidents kitchen cabinet. the story of the african americans who federer first families from the washington's to the obamas. he spoke at the 2017 roosevelt reading festival at the fdr presidential library at high park new york and focuses his remarks on the african americans who work for president