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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Adapting Transportation to Jim Crow

African-Americans, wherever they lived, faced challenges every day as Jim Crow laws proliferated in the South and spread in practice to other parts of the country. Transportation was one such challenge, for the experience of travel was very different for African-Americans and white Americans. Plessy v. Ferguson was a ruling on separate rail cars in intra-State operation, but as Woodward pointed out, its impact soon spread to other modes of transportation as they evolved:

Jim Crow kept step with the march of progress in transportation and industry, as well as with the changes in fashion. Mississippi brought her transportation laws abreast of the times in 1922 by passing a state-wide Jim Crow law applying to taxicabs. City ordinances requiring Jim Crow taxis were adopted by Jacksonville in 1929, by Birmingham in 1930, and by Atlanta in 1940 . . . . The advent of the cross-country buses as serious competitors of the railways was marked by the extension of the Jim Crow train law to the buses in all particulars, including seating arrangement, waiting rooms, toilets, and other accommodations.

The growth of air transportation challenged separate-but-equal laws:

No Jim Crow law has been found that applies to passengers while they are in the air. So long as they were upon the ground, however, they were still subject to Jim Crow jurisdiction. The Virginia legislature empowered the State Corporation Commission in 1944 to require separate waiting rooms and other facilities in airports. Air companies generally complied with custom without the compulsion of law - at least so far as activities on the ground were concerned. [Strange Career , p. 103-104]

Fireside also discussed the spread of segregation in transportation:

As if the Jim Crow car wasn't demoralizing enough, there were the train stations . . . after four decades of segregation, with separate entrances and waiting rooms for Negroes and small, dirty toilets where there were any at all. By the 1940s second-rate quarters also waited intercity bus travelers, who were often seated in the back of the vehicle-if there was room after whites had occupied the front seats. Negroes could expect to wait outside, while whites were admitted into waiting rooms, often with segregated lunch counters. The enforcement of these laws varied somewhat from state to state and town to town. In Birmingham, for example, street cars had partitions clamped on the back of the seats to indicate the race of passengers for whom they were reserved. In New Orleans, steamboats and trains had "whites only" sections, as did, eventually, the front seats of streetcars. [Separate and Unequal , p. 230-231]

Use of the highway also was restricted, as Packard discussed in his history of Jim Crow laws:

Where blacks had since slave days been expected to step off the sidewalk to allow white persons to pass unimpeded-failure to do so could result in being murdered-some communities with the new century began to require blacks to keep off the sidewalks altogether when any white children were occupying any part of them. Much the same held for the roadway, where blacks could expect to be stopped by police if they dared pass a white driver. So offensive to white sensibilities was a black driving an expensive car that even well-to-do African-Americans kept to older models so as not to give the dangerous impression of being above themselves. [American Nightmare , p. 91]

African-Americans were never prohibited from owning cars, but the highway "etiquette" of Jim Crow affected their operation:

One requirement was to sometimes illogically cede the right-of-way to a white driver-or even to a black driver who was chauffeuring white passengers. At many four-way-stop intersections in the South, the right-of-way was determined not by who reached the intersection first, but rather by the race of the drivers. When confronting a white driver who was female, a black male driver in the South could and sometimes did face a life-or-death decision. Compounding the difficulty facing African-Americans was the lack of universality of any of these conventions. In some places whites did maintain normal driving rules. But in others, Jim Crow was more important than highway safety. [American Nightmare , p. 167]

Although the Jim Crow laws were confined mainly to the South, practices elsewhere resulted in similar restrictions that were tolerated by State and local laws. Gas stations would not allow African-Americans to use the rest rooms. George S. Schuyler, an African-American author and journalist, described the experience in the August 1930 of The American Mercury magazine:

Next to being strictly honest, there is no more trying state in this humdrum Republic than being simultaneously a Negro and a traveler. Indeed, the troubles of Job seem trivial in comparison with those that bedevil the poor Aframerican who ventures forth to see his country. No matter in what part of it he may reside he knows very well that the hotel and resort advertisements he reads in the newspapers and magazines are not intended for such as he . . . .

When the Negro assumes that ninety-nine out of every one hundred American hotels are closed to folk of his ancestry he is not far wrong. Where he is given accommodation it is often done so grudgingly and with such obvious ill-will and annoyance that it is exceedingly difficult for him to enjoy his stay unless his feelings are tougher than a prison warden's or he possesses a sense of humor like Jonathan Swift's.

Schuyler added: "In the few remaining places in the Land of the Free where he is not openly discriminated against because of his color, he can almost be sure that some touring member of the Superior Race will demand that something will be done about it."

Schuyler's article was largely concerned with the humiliations of rail travel-from buying a ticket, using the dining car, securing a sleeping birth, and getting to and from the station. In reaction, he said, "all Negroes who can do so purchase an automobile as soon as possible in order to be free of discomfort, segregation, and insult." The new car owner would be "accorded courteous treatment" at gas stations, and even in the South, might be "dumbfounded to hear that he can eat a quick lunch at a roadside lunchstand," but when it came to tourist camps, "he is usually out of luck."

In 1930, whites in the South had grown accustomed to seeing African-Americans driving automobiles "so they are seldom molested nowadays." In earlier days in the South, he said, they would be suspected of having stolen the vehicle. "Up until very recent times, it was unhealthy for a Negro motorist to whizz past a white automobilist in certain parts of Mississippi."

Although African-Americans had not yet taken to air travel, Schuyler predicted that "Mr. James Crow will be equal to the occasion" when they do:

[Where] Negro passengers are not completely barred we can confidently expect to find them openly or subtly herded into whatever happens to be the dirtiest and most uncomfortable part of an airplane or dirigible. [Schuyler, George S., "Traveling Jim Crow," The American Mercury , August 1930, p. 423-432]

Professor Neil R. McMillen, writing in 1989, recounted some of the tribulations facing African-American motorists in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era:

Black motorists apparently bought gasoline wherever it was sold, but few service stations maintained "colored" rest rooms, and none seem to have kept them clean. Inconvenience, humiliation, and uncertainty nearly always accompanied the black traveler. Overnight lodgers throughout the Jim Crow period depended largely on the hospitality of their race or the chance discovery of a Negro rooming house . . . . Early in the automobile age white opinion and the local constabulary in some communities arbitrarily denied black motorists access to the public streets. Many towns informally restricted parking to whites on principal thoroughfares; for a time following World War I, Jackson's Capitol Street, portions of Greenwood, the entire city of Laurel, and doubtless all or parts of many other communities were known to be open only to white motor traffic. In the Delta, custom forbade black drivers to overtake vehicles driven by whites on unpaved roads. "Its [sic] against the law for a Negro to pass a white man," a black Holmes Countian reported in 1940, "because the black man might stir up dust that would get on the white folks." [McMillen, Neil R., Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow , University of Illinois Press, 1989, p. 11]

Celebrity status made little difference in the South, even when white audiences wanted to see their performances. Musicians, actors, and athletes lived the Jim Crow life, often forbidden to stay in hotels or patronize clubs where they performed. Cultural historian Harvey G. Cohen cited several examples in his biography of musician and composer Duke Ellington:

In 1931, Earl Hines and his orchestra "were the first big Negro band to travel extensively through the South." Hines referred to it as an "invasion" rather than a "tour." Between a bomb exploding under their bandstand in Alabama ("we didn't none of us get hurt, but we didn't play so well after that, either") and numerous threatening encounters with the police, the experience proved so harrowing that Hines in the 1960s recalled that "you could call us the first Freedom Riders." . . .

Louis Armstrong, who grew up in New Orleans, also endured numerous instances of trouble, the worst being when he and his band were thrown into a Memphis jail after a local bus driver, not knowing that the band he agreed to transport would be black, refused to transport them. Armstrong and his band, who were regularly involved in business relations with gangsters who ran jazz clubs in New York City and Chicago, did not meekly submit to the authority of the driver or the summoned police, a transgression which landed them in the slammer until the club they were scheduled to play that night freed them on the proviso that the band would perform a free radio broadcast for the club. Visiting black entertainers had endured such treatment in the South for decades. [Cohen, Harvey G., Duke Ellington's America , The University of Chicago Press, 2010, p. 130]

African-American baseball players in the Negro Leagues traveled by bus and had to scramble to find food and lodging. Kansas City sports columnist Joe Posnanski described a recent visit by former Negro League players to an elementary school in the 2000s. One of the students asked Red Moore "what was the hardest part of playing in the Negro Leagues?"

Moore said that he remembered restaurants would not let him eat. He said that was the hardest part. They were hungry. James Lee nodded. "We ate luncheon meat on the buses," Lee told the kids. "We ate crackers on the buses. Sometimes we didn't eat at all. It was hard. We were treated like we were . . . less than men. [Posnanski, Joe, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America , Harper, 2008, p. 191]

Even after Jackie Robinson had integrated the major leagues, African-American players joining the formerly white teams had to deal with racism in public accommodations. J. C. Hartman, a Negro League player who signed with the Houston .45s (now the Astros), recalled an incident involving Billy Williams. In 1959, Williams abandoned his integrated minor league team and went home. Hartman recalled the incident that prompted the departure after a day game in Victoria, Texas:

The game had gone late, and by the time Hartman and Williams finished getting dressed after the game, the one black restaurant in town was closed.

So they went back to the Ambassador Hotel, where the team was staying. They saw teammates eating in the hotel restaurant. Hartman said it was the most familiar scene in the world-ballplayers laughing, drinking, telling stories, a waitress flirting-but on this night it left them cold. Williams and Hartman were black and were not allowed to eat in the hotel restaurant. This was a minor nuisance on most nights because they could eat somewhere else, but now it was late and they were hungry, and they felt humiliated. Hartman found the manager and said, "We need to eat. We're hungry." The manager called the hotel owner. A deal was struck. The manager took Williams and Hartman to the kitchen and set up a table for them.

"You can eat here," he said, and he walked off.

Williams and Hartman sat in the kitchen. They heard their teammates talking about the game and Billy's big hit [that won in the game in the ninth inning]. Nobody offered them food. A waitress rushed by and did not seem to hear their calls. This was seven years after Ralph Ellison's book Invisible Man had been published. They felt invisible. (The Soul of Baseball , p. 86-87]

Williams went home, but eventually returned. With Houston and the Chicago Cubs, he had a lifetime batting average of .290, hit 426 home runs, and accumulated 1,475 runs batted in. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987; the Chicago Cubs retired his number 26 that same year.

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington had been born in Washington, D.C., in 1899, at a time when African-Americans in the city were enjoying a vibrant cultural life:

It was a center of black musical and intellectual resistance to racism, and probably the best place to be an African American at the turn of the century, though certainly not without racial problems. The city was a bastion of the black middle class . . . . After the Civil War, Washington gained a reputation as a center of "respectable Negro society," serving as a haven from exploitive sharecropping in the South designed to resemble slavery, most of the worst Jim Crow discrimination, and increased incidence of lynching and racial violence. It boasted the largest black urban community in the nation-31 percent of its inhabitants. Until the Woodrow Wilson administration ushered in an era of increased segregation in 1913, the federal government treated and hired local blacks with relative equality. [Duke Ellington's America , p. 10]

Ellington's middle class family lived mainly in the Shaw neighborhood, the city's main black business district. He attended segregated schools, but they had a strong reputation:

Most importantly, race pride was emphasized in Washington's black schools, and emerged as a major influence in the generation of black youngsters that came of age in the early twentieth century . . . .

Ellington reported in his autobiography that his teachers (and his father) taught him that African Americans needed to cultivate especially good manners and speech and that blacks in his neighborhood were careful not to mix with any below-average people-black or white. "At that time there was some kind of movement to desegregate the schools in Washington, D.C.," Ellington explained. "Who do you think were the first to object? Nobody but the proud Negroes of Washington, who felt that the kind of white kids we would be thrown in with were not good enough." [Duke Ellington's America , p. 12]

By the 1920s, the city's reputation had changed:

President Wilson's 1913 purge of blacks from federal government work eliminated many prestigious jobs for them. The violence against blacks following World War I included a race riot that raged for five days, provoked by false reports of black men attacking white women. The attacks by whites inspired blacks to take up arms against them . . . . But the lowest moment of the era in D.C. race relations occurred at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, when blacks were segregated from the main audience by a rope and a dirt road, and a black speaker at the event honoring the president who freed the slaves could not even sit on the dais. Ellington and band members Sonny Greer and Otto Hardwicke left Washington for New York shortly after this event. [Duke Ellington's America , p. 22]

(The African-American speaker was Dr. Robert R. Moton, president of Tuskegee Institute, who proudly represented 12 million African-Americans-"none more grateful, none more reverent" at this moment honoring the great President.)

By the 1930s, Ellington was an international star whose orchestra enjoyed a triumphant European tour. He had always avoided playing the South, but fresh from Europe, he agreed to do so if the tour could be handled in a way that would minimize friction with Jim Crow restrictions. He and his manager hired three Pullman cars for the southern tour and had the name of the orchestra painted on the sides of each of them. "The band had hired out trains for nonstop cross-country trips before, but it usually used buses between gigs." The Pullmans, with their sleeping arrangements and facilities added for cooking, avoided two of the great problems African-Americans experienced when touring the South, namely finding restaurants and lodgings that would accommodate them.

"No band, black or white, had traveled through the South in that manner before," setting an example of pride for African-Americans in the South:

Blacks in the South could not hope to evade Jim Crow constrictions in the regal manner of the Ellington orchestra, but the mere presence of well-dressed, world-renowned, and accomplished black men, who attracted white paying audiences as well as black, made a lasting impression on blacks living in the "beleaguered segregated communities" where Ellington, Armstrong, [Cab] Calloway, and Hines played and stayed.

The group's performances were segregated, but Ellington also performed shows for exclusively black audiences. They performed separate performances in Dallas ("A Special Dance for Colored Only"), the Houston Colored Junior College, and the Panhandle Theatre (the "first colored attraction") in Amarillo, Texas. This last concert was a midnight performance for African-Americans who had never been allowed in the theater.

Cohen summarized the successful Southern tour in the protective Pullman cocoon:

. . . Ellington's approach outlined a new, more urbane identity for African Americans, proud of both their postslavery urban roots as well as their preslavery African roots. Ellington's American audiences, even in the South, began to realize that he and his band represented black artists who defined themselves on their own equal terms, and not as whites viewed them. The Ellington orchestra implicitly rejected the Jim Crow vision of blacks not through words (which would have been dangerous) but through deeds, images, and actions. [Duke Ellington's America , p. 130-135]

Ellington's 1933 experience was possible because he could afford to insulate his orchestra from Jim Crow. For most other performers and athletes, the blues singer and musician Leadbelly summarized the experience in "Jim Crow Blues":

I've been traveling,
I've been traveling
From coast to coast.
Everywhere I have been
I find some old Jim Crow

One thing, people,
I want everybody to know
You're going to find some Jim Crow
Every place you go.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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