Historian Gretchen Sorin says driving represents freedom for African-Americans.
“Because using public transportation subjected African-Americans to humiliation,” Sorin said. “Taking a train or taking a bus, you would be relegated to the Jim Crow section. And so driving came to represent an opportunity to keep your family from being humiliated.”
But Sorin told Texas Standard that it also comes with risks. She is a distinguished professor at the State University of New York Oneonta. Her new book is “Driving While Black,” and it’s now a documentary by the same name, airing Oct. 13 on many PBS stations across the country.
“Even though it represented personal freedom to have your own car, you might be stopped or you might be considered to be in the ‘wrong neighborhood,’” Sorin said. “So you might be subjected to an angry mob or you might be subjected to police officers who were stopping you for just being Black.
Examples in Texas aren’t hard to come by. Sorin said in the 1950s, Greenville, Texas, had the slogan, “The blackest land, the whitest people,” on a banner hanging across the main street and on the water tower.
Another chilling story was about a Black family driving through Texas on their way to Florida:
“They were on the highway and they accidentally made a wrong turn, pulled into a town and there was a lynching going on. And that crowd saw them and decided they would chase them,” Sorin said.
The family was able to escape.
Sorin said while there have been positive changes, including civil rights legislation, Black Americans still struggle to travel freely.
“I think this is something that that we can change now; we do have a moment,” Sorin said. “You see white Americans and African Americans joining together, and peaceful protests is certainly a patriotic thing to do, and it’s certainly an American thing to do. And it’s something that I hope comes out of this documentary film.”