Traveling Black

Harvard University Press
4 min readFeb 8, 2022

All this month we are celebrating Black History Month with excerpts from some of our recent books. In Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance, a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2021 and a book that Ibram X. Kendi calls “extraordinary,” Mia Bay provides a riveting, character-rich account of racial segregation in America that reveals just how central travel restrictions were to the creation of Jim Crow laws.

In 1922 Joseph K. Bowler told a reporter for the Chicago Defender that he never ventured to the South without a “Jim Crow traveling kit.” Designed to allow Bowler, a minister who lived in Massachusetts, to travel through segregated states in relative comfort, the kit included “a pair of soiled overalls purchased from an auto mechanic, a miniature gasoline stove and a small table top the size of a scrub board.” The contents of Bowler’s kit vividly illustrate some of the indignities and discomforts that Black travelers could expect to encounter in the “colored” railroad cars of his era. He wore the overalls, he explained, to avoid the expense of “soiling” good clothes in the “dirty Jim Crow coaches.” They protected him from the tobacco juice that white conductors and news vendors often spat on the seats, and were especially useful in “parts of the Mississippi [where] the white farmers use the Jim Crow coaches as luggage cars in which to transport chickens and hogs.” The stove and table top allowed him to prepare and eat meals. They were key components of his kit, given that “the dining car is a closed corporation as far as our people are concerned.” “White people below the Mason Dixon line maintain that we are animals, virtually camels, and can go without food or water fors everal days,” noted the intrepid traveler, who both carried and cooked all the food he consumed on his journey. If he had not, he explained, he would have had to “sneak into the back of some depot like a little poodle and ask for some food,” or “risk being shot to death by invading a dining car to secure my meals.”

Many Black travelers shared Bowler’s concerns — whether or not they chose to wear dirty overalls and carry stoves. African Americans loathed segregated streetcars and railway compartments more than virtually any other form of segregation. In the research for his detailed account of race relations in the American South, Following the Color Line: An Account of Negro Citizenship in the American Democracy (1908), journalist Ray Stannard Baker found that “no other point of contact is so much and so bitterly discussed among Negroes as the Jim Crow car.” A third of a century later, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, in his monumental study The American Dilemma (1944), made the same point: “It is a common observation that the Jim Crow Car is resented more bitterly among Negroes than most other forms of segregation.”

By the 1940s African Americans did not have to travel by train. They had new options to choose from, but they found all of them problematic. The intercity bus lines that first began operating in the late 1920s offered an afford­able alternative to traveling by rail, but during their early years of operation many bus companies refused to serve Black passengers. Even after the courts forced them to, they did so “only grudgingly and in the most uncomfortable seats.” “If you think riding a Jim Crow car out of the South is no fun,” wrote one Black traveler in 1943, “you should try bumping along on the back wheel of a bus, with the odors of the motor keeping you restless.”

Cars initially seemed to offer those who could afford them an escape from the humiliations of Jim Crow travel. But while Black motorists could choose their own seats in their own cars, they could not expect to be treated with respect once they stepped outside their vehicles. “It used to be that black people only took a trip [if] some body died or was dying,” remembered Chicago Tribune columnist Jeannye Thornton in 1972. Driving usually involved a “nonstop trip,” because hotels and motels that accepted Black guests were almost impossible to find. Even rest stops were hard to locate: “Bathrooms were always at the next service in the next town 50 miles down the road and when you finally got there, they were always separate and filthy.” African American travelers ended up driving “all night [and] sometimes traveling to a big city before even considering stopping to stretch.” Not only were road­side accommodations unappealing, driving through the South could be dangerous. “Who knows what could happen to a black family with northern license plates traveling some lonely road?”

Even travel by air was far from free of discrimination. Flying itself was never subject to southern segregation laws, but in the early days of air travel some airlines refused to carry Black passengers, and others assigned them to segregated seats. And when they escaped segregation in the air, Black flyers often encountered it on the ground. Southern airports had segregated waiting rooms, restaurants, and restrooms, and the taxis and ground transportation services that carried passengers to and from airports were divided by race.

American identity has long been defined by mobility and the freedom of the open road, but African Americans have never fully shared in that freedom. Travel segregation began on the stagecoaches and steamships of the North­east — the nation’s earliest common carriers — and moved from there to rail­roads, train stations, restaurants, roadside rest stops, and gas station rest­rooms, all of which were eventually segregated by law in the South. As new modes of transportation and accommodations developed, new forms of segregation followed.