cover image Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights

Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights

Gretchen Sorin. Liveright, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-63149-569-4

Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in museum studies at SUNY Oneonta, depicts the historical relationship between African-Americans and the automobile as one of promise as well as peril in this insightful debut. Drawing upon archival research, interviews, and her own family’s history, Sorin emphasizes the strict limitations on mobility experienced by African-Americans from slavery’s Middle Passage through the Jim Crow era, and the extent to which access to a car meant freedom, at least temporarily. Though black motorists in the Jim Crow South had to rely on The Negro Motorist Green Book to locate gas stations, eateries, and motels that would serve them and to avoid “sundown towns” where they were at risk after dark, African-Americans viewed the car as an escape from the humiliation and dangers of segregated public transportation systems, Sorin writes. Car ownership, she contends, facilitated opportunities for travel and employment and provided African-Americans with a “rolling living room” to transport themselves from one “safe zone” to another. She illustrates how the increased confidence and broader horizons of black drivers fuelled the civil rights movement, while noting that the end of segregation doomed black-owned businesses that served the market. Lucidly written and generously illustrated with photos and artifacts, this rigorous and entertaining history deserves a wide readership. (Feb.)