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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The Family Vacation

After war's end in 1945, pent-up demand for travel was unleashed during an unexpected economic boom that erased fears the Depression of the 1930s might return. Travelers took advantage of the network of two-lane paved roads that had been built in the 1920s and 1930s under the Federal-aid highway program. This network-much of it part of the U.S. numbered highway network-constituted the Nation's first interstate highway system. (The inadequacies of this network were to be corrected with construction of the Interstate System described in the two reports to Congress mentioned earlier, Toll Roads and Free Roads (1939) and Interregional Highways (1944).)

Professor Susan Sessions Rugh, in her book about American family vacations,explained that the availability of this highway network was only one of the factors contributing to the post-war rise in leisure travel. Another factor was the growth of vacation benefits for American workers:

More middle-class families could afford to take vacations because of the increasingly liberal vacation benefits awarded American workers in the late 1940s. A Department of Labor report in 1948 declared that "paid vacation clauses are now a standard feature of union agreements in most industries." By the end of 1944, 85 percent of union agreements contained vacation provisions for workers . . . .

In the following decade, paid vacations became widespread (93 percent of collective bargaining agreements contained vacation provisions in 1949), and provisions were liberalized. Two innovations occurred: reducing the length of service required to earn vacation time, and awarding longer vacation periods for time of service. Vacation provisions thus expanded from one week for one to four years of service, to two weeks after as little as two years of service. And upper-rank workers could expect to be paid for a three-week vacation with fifteen years of service. By 1956, only 18 percent of hourly employees were held to a two-week ceiling of vacation, and paid holidays were more common. [Rugh, Susan Sessions, Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations , University Press of Kansas, 2008, p. 17]

The expansion of car ownership was another factor:

Car ownership by families rose from 54 percent in 1948 to 77 percent in 1960 and 82 percent by 1970. The family car was a home on wheels, an extension of the domestic space, and thus represented a sense of security for the traveling family on the road. [Are We There Yet? , p. 18-19]

Even as America took to the road, white and black travelers could expect a very different experience, as African-Americans traveling the Nation's roads before the war well knew:

Travelers in Jim Crow America-where whites and blacks were made to use different restrooms, drink at different water fountains, eat in different restaurants, and stay in different hotels-were citizens as well as consumers. Discrimination against black travelers meant that vacationing was a fundamentally different experience for them than it was for white families in cold war America. It was an uncertain, even fear-filled, experience because blacks never could be sure that they would find places to sleep and eat on the road. Indeed, African Americans often feared for their safety, even their very lives, as they traveled the dark highways of the Deep South . . . . [Are We There Yet? , p. 69-70]

Among the obstacles to pleasure travel, they had to anticipate passing through "sundown towns" that prohibited any African-Americans from being within their borders after sundown. Author James W. Loewen dated this phenomenon to the 1890s. Before then, African-Americans could live anywhere in the country, although most remained in the South. As discussed earlier, racism had increased over the years after the Civil War, aided by court decisions and local action. "The idealism spawned by the Civil War," Loewen stated, "was fading too, as memories of the war dimmed." By the 1890s, only one in three Americans had been alive during the war, and millions of immigrants had arrived after it ended.

Within this context, Loewen attributed the creation of sundown towns to "the three i's": Indians, immigration, and imperialism. First, the army's destruction of the Indian camp at Wounded Knee in South Dakotaon December 29, 1890, brought an end to the Indian wars, prompting the attitude that, "If it was okay to take Indians' land because they weren't white, wasn't it OK to deny rights to African Americans, who weren't white either?" Second, immigrants understood the advantage of identifying with whites and holding down African-Americans, in part because they were competing with them for low-wage jobs.

As for the third "I," Loewen explained that with the country dealing with sovereignty issues following the addition of dependent countries in the wake of the Spanish-American War (1898), "Imperialism was sweeping the West, and it both depended upon and in turn reinforced the ideology of white supremacy." This ideology, he stated, had been at the heart of the call of "Manifest Destiny" that had pulled the American people across the continent. [Loewen, James W., Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism , A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, 2006, p. 30-32]

From these and other causes, sundown towns spread across the country:

Beginning in about 1890 and continuing until 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns across the United States for whites only. Many towns drove out their black populations, then posted sundown town signs . . . . Other towns passed ordinances barring African Americans after dark or prohibiting them from owning or renting property; still others established policies by informal means, harassing and even killing those who violated the rule. [Sundown Towns , p. 4]

Such towns included cities of many sizes and income ranges as well as suburban communities in all parts of the country. By allowing African-Americans to be within the city limits only during daylight hours, the towns retained access to service employees. To make the restriction clear to all travelers, sundown towns often posted signs on the main roads with variations of "WHITES ONLY WITHIN CITY LIMITS AFTER DARK." In an era before "political correctness" had been conceived, many of the signs used blunter language.

Loewen wrote that in general, "travel was difficult and often unsafe for African Americans, and not just in the South . . . . Older African Americans can still recall how trips had to be meticulously planned to reach places with restrooms or overnight accommodations in a timely manner." Sundown towns added to the uncertainty and potential for humiliation:

Although any stop for gas, food, or lodging might prove humiliating to the black traveler, sundown towns posed the worst hazards. In other towns, even if hotels and restaurants refused to serve African Americans, they could secure shelter within the black community. Sundown towns had no black community, of course. Worse still, black travelers were acutely aware that they stuck out in these all-white towns, not only as unusual but also as illegitimate and unwanted.

Some communities did not post signs to alert travelers. African-American motorists had to find a way to avoid these communities and the public accommodations that would not serve them:

Until well after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations such as restaurants and motels, African Americans coped by compiling guidebooks of places that would not harm or embarrass them . . . . Families also assembled their own lists and shared them with friends. [Sundown Towns , P. 343]

Professor Rugh described these guides:

To resist Jim Crow, by the 1930s blacks had created an entirely separate tourist infrastructure, including their own travel guides and travel agencies that directed travelers to places where they would be welcome without fear of humiliation. [Are We There Yet? , p. 70]

The Green Book (1936-1966) and Travelguide (1946-1955) "attempted to spare black travelers that humiliation." Victor Green modeled his guide on Jewish travel guides, listing hotels, motels, tourist homes, and restaurants that would serve African-Americans. Rugh quoted the foreword to the 20th anniversary edition, published in 1956, stating that the guide "has made traveling more popular, without encountering embarrassing situations." Travelguide included similar listings but "was a more racially assertive publication with the motto: 'Vacation & Recreation Without Humiliation.'" [Are We There Yet?, p. 77]

In June 1955, Ebony magazine reported that conditions were improving "in the South and Throughout America for Negroes who travel the highways." Even in the South, "Motels worth more than $3 million have been built in Dixie for Negro guests." The magazine added, "Still more are being planned." The situation had improved since World War II:

Until the end of World War II, few white motel operators were willing to accept Negro patronage. In recent years, however, discrimination against the naturally tanned traveler has declined noticeably along the highways . . . . [Many] white motels in the North and West have voluntarily opened their doors to Negroes. In the far west where motor courts are plentiful, Negro motorists are likely to find the going easiest.

Still, the welcome was uncertain:

In Kansas last year, for example, a Negro couple was admitted to a white court on condition that they disappear before daylight. "We wouldn't want to offend anyone," the owner explained timidly. And in Oklahoma, a Negro family was lodged at a white motel for two days after they agreed to "pass" as Mexicans during their stay.

At the University Motel in Atlanta, "Clientele is mainly Negro, but state law permits motels to accept whites, manager says, if they do not share rooms with Negroes."

The article added:

Encouraging though the motel picture is, travel accommodations for colored people are still too few and too scattered. In 1955, for example, 3,500 white motels would put up dogs, but less than 50 unhesitatingly said they would house Negroes. ["Hotels on the Highway," Ebony , June 1955, p. 92-103]

Professor Rugh began her chapter on "Vacation with Humiliation" by quoting July 1963 testimony by Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, before the Senate Committee on Commerce. He asked the Senators to imagine themselves "darker in color" on an auto trip across the country:

How far do you drive each day? Where and under what conditions can you and your family eat? Where can they use a rest room? Can you stop driving after a reasonable day behind the wheel or must you drive until you reach a city where relatives or friends will accommodate you and yours for the night? Will your children be denied a soft drink or an ice cream cone because they are not white?

When questioned by Senator John O. Pastore [D-RI] as to what families did in these circumstances, Wilkins admitted, "You take your chances. You drive and you drive and you drive." Unable to stop when tired because there were no accommodations, he said, "You keep on driving until the next city or the next town where you know somebody or they know somebody who knows somebody who can take care of you."

As Professor Rugh put it:

Discrimination against black travelers meant that vacationing was a fundamentally different experience for them than it was for white families in cold war America. In was an uncertain, even fear-filled, experience because blacks never could be sure that they would find places to sleep and eat on the road. Indeed, African Americans often feared for their safety, even their very lives, as they traveled the dark highways of the Deep South. [Are We There Yet? , p. 68-69]

Rugh added, "While African American highway travelers expected to have trouble in the South, they were frequently denied accommodations in the North." Restaurants were a particular problem:

Traveling families also faced discrimination at restaurants along the road, all over the country. In the late 1940s, blacks who wrote to the NAACP complained of being refused service in the Midwest (Bloomington, Indiana, and Zanesville, Ohio); the West (Reno, Nevada): and the Northeast (Port Jefferson, New York)-all outside the South. Even in 1961, so many black tourists from the South along Route 66 in Illinois were refused restaurant service that they took to bringing their food along and eating in their cars, "rather than chance being embarrassed."

After citing examples found in her review of letters to the NAACP, she explained why traveling was so different than experiences at home, even in the South:

At home they might know how to avoid places that would treat them that way, but on the road they were in unfamiliar territory and especially vulnerable to humiliation. Their treatment was made even more humiliating because it was in front of their family. Members of their family could see that they were denied the privileges of citizenship, and that they were powerless to obtain their rights. And because they were on vacation and did not want to provoke a confrontation, parents were less likely to insist on fair treatment. [Are We There Yet? , p. 74-77]


In 1987, Courtland Milloy, Jr., an African-American columnist with The Washington Post , wrote about a trip that he and his father made to their home State of Louisiana "to see what had changed during the past 30 years." His father, a businessman in Shreveport, drove his ivory-colored Mercedes 420 SEL.

Milloy's parents told him that he could not remember how bad it was back then:

"I remember you were just a little baby, riding in a basket on the back seat of the car, on our way to see your grandmother," my mother recalled before we left. "The car broke down in Hope, Arkansas, and do you know the white people there would not let us heat up your bottle? My baby had to drink cold milk."

During the 1950s and into the '60s, Mother would spend the evening before the trip frying chicken and boiling eggs. We thought it was because Mom knew we liked to eat and ride at the same time. The truth was harder to swallow.

"After riding all day, I'd say to myself, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could spend the night in one of those hotels?'" Mom recalled, "or, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could stop for a real meal and a cup of coffee?' We see the little white children jumping into motel swimming pools, and you all would be in the back seat of a hot car, sweating and fighting."

Driving through Arkansas, Milloy's father told him:

"Back in the old days, a black man with a new car would drive real slow on a road like this," Dad said as we passed the cotton, bean and rice fields en route to Earle. "The police would be looking for a reason to pull you over, humiliate you in front of your family or, if you were alone, just brutalize you."

At night, the Milloys pulled into a Ramada Inn in West Memphis:

I thought about what my mother had said, how ridiculously painful it must have been for blacks to have once been barred from public accommodations.

But there was no sign that now. Two young black women, Lisa James and Shirley Brown, greeted Dad and me at the reception desk and went out of their way to make us feel at home . . . .

The next day we ate breakfast-served by a white woman-and didn't think twice about it.

As they drove that day, Milloy's father recalled an incident from his childhood:

"A black kid from Memphis was riding his bicycle along the sidewalk and ran into a white woman," Dad recalled. "The police beat that child half to death, took him to jail and confiscated his bike. A friend of the family was a custodian at the jail and after some months had passes, he asked if he could have the bike and gave it to me. That's how I got my first bike," he said sadly.

In Earle, they found that the family home had burned down and that few of his father's friends remained behind. They headed for St. Louis where his father had attended Vashon High School because Earle did not have a high school for African-Americans at the time. He excelled, worked in a war-bonds office and on the fuselage assembly line for the McDonnell Aircraft Company, while saving enough money to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. There, he met his wife who would become the journalist's mother.

His father overcame the "tragedies, the hardships and sacrifices" to become a successful businessman:

I'm proud of my dad, and thankful that he passed on to me some of the lessons he learned the hard way. I wonder sometimes if it would have been better for me to learn them the hard way, too, instead of comfortably in the new world my dad and so many other black men fought to build.

But today, I'm happy to be riding in comfort with my dad along a road where we both feel free. [Milloy, Jr., Courtland, "Black Highways," The Washington Post , June 21, 1987.]

World War II was a dividing line for on-the-road discrimination. Before the war, African-American travelers for the most part had to accept the order of things. After serving in the war or seeing their loved ones fight for freedom, African-Americans felt the sting of humiliation more sharply. "War veterans thought that they deserved better treatment, given their service to the nation." [Are We There Yet? , p. 75]

Post-war complaints prompted the NAACP to increase its efforts against travel discrimination:

In the late 1940s these practices were brought to the attention of Thurgood Marshall, special counsel to the NAACP, who notified the offending hotels that they were in violation of state law and that he would ask the district attorney's office to intercede with the Hotelmen's Association. After a 1947 embarrassment when Negro delegates to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization brought suit against a Denver, Colorado, hotel for denying them accommodations, the NAACP became proactive in checking out hotel procedures before conferences . . . .

As more black travelers refused to accommodate Jim Crow, the NAACP pursued a strategy of putting pressure on two national restaurant and hotel chains, Howard Johnson's and Hilton Hotels.

Marshall, driving with a companion, had experienced an incident at a Howard Johnson restaurant in Elizabeth, New Jersey, that prompted the company to send a letter of apology:

The NAACP had documented a consistent pattern of discrimination at Howard Johnson restaurants, and Thurgood Marshall had extracted an apology from the chain regarding an incident in 1941. In 1947 Marshall was refused service at the same Elizabeth, New Jersey, restaurant (certainly not a coincidental choice), and he lost patience with corporate executives' promises. [Are We There Yet? , p. 85]

He eventually sued for $500 in damages.

President Lyndon B. Johnson recalled an incident in the early 1950s that awakened him to the difficulties African-Americans faced in traveling around the country. Rugh explained that when Johnson was in the Senate, he and his life would fly between Texas and Washington, while their maid Helen Williams, her husband Gene, and their cook, Zephyr Williams, would drive the 1,300 miles. One year, Johnson asked them to take the family beagle in the car with them. When Gene Williams hesitated to take the dog, Johnson asked why. In a memoir, Johnson recalled Williams' explanation:

We drive for hours and hours. We get hungry. But there's no place on the road we can stop and go in and eat. We drive some more. It gets pretty hot. We want to wash up. But the only bathroom we're allowed in is usually miles off the main highway. We keep goin' 'til night comes-'til we get so tired we can't stay awake anymore. We're ready to pull in. But it takes another hour or so to find a place to sleep. You see, what I'm saying is that a colored man's got enough trouble getting across the South on his own, without having a dog along. [Are We There Yet , p. 89]

Updated: 10/17/2013
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