The history of transportation in America is intertwined—as so many of our national practices are—with segregation, racism, and white supremacy. Codified, state-sanctioned segregation on common carriers—first stagecoaches, then trains—arose mainly in the 19th century.
“The advent of mass transportation kind of takes shape around the same time as the abolition of slavery, first in the North and then in the South,” author and University of Pennsylvania history professor Mia Bay said recently by phone. “And it introduces this formerly enslaved population to white Americans, potentially on equal terms, for the first time, in ways that make whites very nervous. It sort of introduces new concerns about whether preexisting status is going to be observed.”
In the aftermath of emancipation, and despite the existence of late-19th-century national civil rights legislation, white Americans, especially in the states of the former Confederacy, sought to preserve their privileged social position, and all the economic and political benefits derived from it, by subjugating Black Americans in nearly every part of life: housing, education, healthcare, employment, and ultimately public transportation.
Bay’s latest book, Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance meticulously examines how, with the arrival of each successive form of transportation technology—from those stagecoaches and trains to cars to buses to planes—there was hope on the part of African Americans (and their allies) that the invention would result in a fairer and more equitable system. But each time, white supremacy found its way into the new sphere.
Bay posits a variety of theories for why this happened. Much of it seems due to the fact that transportation, and the infrastructure it depends on, is shaped by economies of scale, thwarting efforts at self-sustaining, Black-owned and -operated entrepreneurialism. “So Black attempts to develop transportation, which occur in every industry—there were even notions of Black airlines—none of them survive,” Bay said. “And transportation ends up being dominated by large companies, which it still is for the most part.” And these companies, by their nature, conform to the existing power structure.
With the advent of the highway system and interstate travel, legally enforced segregation grew to include every type of business that was touched by the motor vehicle, including motels, restaurants, gas stations, and even parking lots, making travel for African Americans challenging and often dangerous.
“There were different rules from place to place, and state to state,” Bay said. “Some of the rules were informal, so it was kind of hard to observe them. And this was particularly hard on travelers, because when you’re traveling, you’re often someplace where you’ve never been before, so you don’t know the rules.”
Intentional Black resistance developed in reaction to this subjugation. “One of the things I found when I started researching this book was that Black protests over segregated transportation were so easy to find,” Bay said. “There were so many Rosa Parks. There were so many people who had been thrown off trains.”
As Bay notes, segregated transportation in the American South became the locus for much of the formal resistance that defined the modern Civil Rights Movement. This included Parks and others like her, who refused to abide separate, second-class accommodations on public transportation. It also included the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, who personally challenged segregated private bus systems by riding into the South, often facing state-sponsored harassment, incarceration, and violence because of it. In fact, the desegregation of these forms of transport, and the ancillary businesses that served them—depots, restaurants, hotels, etc.—were the focus of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But while that legislation had a profound effect in reshaping American society, Bay is quick to point out that the work is nowhere near done. “There are ways in which the kinds of racism that Black travelers encounter is as serious today, and perhaps more lethal,” she said.
Her book ends with an epilogue about the world after 1964. “In particular, it looks at things like racial profiling and traffic stops on the highways—the ways in which driving has become in some ways even more dangerous,” she said.
We don’t have to look beyond recent news—the police killing of unarmed motorist Duante Wright in Minnesota—to find an example. “We need fairly serious police reform,” she said. “And then, of course, with climate change, it’s important to think about these sorts of reforms as not just something that would be about helping the poor. They might also help the planet. But we also need to think about transportation more holistically, as a big factor in achieving racial and class equity—for example, we need more equitable, more accessible public transportation. And we need to think about serving everyone, as opposed to using most of our tax money to support cars and drivers.”
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