The Legal History of Travel Discrimination

Bus station in Durham, North Carolina in 1940. (Jack Delano/Library of Congress)

Many of us take for granted the ease of our particular American-style mobility. We can go wherever we want to, whenever we want to, usually in a car. At the heart of American mobility, University of Pennsylvania History Professor Mia Bay reminds us, are American politics of race, class, and gender and contested battles for freedom and equality. As she says, “African Americans have never fully shared in that freedom” to move (Bay 2021, 3). In Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance (Harvard University Press, 2021), Bay examines how racial segregation and racial discrimination were enacted during and through travel, and how many of the battles for civil rights revolved around equal access to travel. At the intersection of gender, class, and technology, travel-based discrimination took shape. Bay’s fourth book, Traveling Black examines this shape, asking how, as American transportation technology evolved from train to car to bus to plane and over state lines, gendered and racial customs and discrimination evolved and were contested over time. Bay shows that as the technologies of transportation changed over time, so too did gendered customs of travel, state-based segregation laws, and classed transportation options. She shows that, at bottom, the struggle against racial discrimination and travel segregation took shape primarily as legal battles, which were often led by Black women.

Traveling Black starts with trains. This is important because, as Bay explains, traveling by train was a fundamental shift in the nature of travel to that point in time. It “changed the space of travel, [by] moving it indoors and creating new kinds of sheltered mobile spaces that were at once private and public, and more accessible to women” (14). As train travel became widespread in the 1830’s, it corresponded with the Victorian movement and predated Emancipation, which set the stage of travel within gender and racial customs reflecting that time. The nicest car was reserved for wealthy white women and had special amenities like cleaner bathrooms and being marginally safer and less sooty, creating space for women to at once be in public and among strangers, yet protected and inside a kind of domesticized space. A kind of private public. This nicer car was coveted, then and over time, by travelers who could pay for the fare. Already, classed hierarchy in travel was woven in from the beginning and coded as specifically white female space. Before the Civil War, Black travelers, men and women, were generally denied access to this car unless they travelled as servants accompanying their owners or employers, and instead forced to the smoking or luggage cars.

Bay shows how the intersection of class, race, and gender customs in travel were not a universally static Venn-diagram. She does this, in Chapter 1 and throughout the book, by telling stories of specific Black travelers. Depending on if you were in New England or Tennessee or Louisiana or elsewhere, the customs of enforcing who sat where could differ dramatically, creating conflict and violence especially as travelers moved across state lines, through areas with differing customs. Black travelers faced not only discrimination, but inconsistent and unpredictable degrees of discrimination and expectations. It was easy to make what a stagecoach driver could see as a misstep. “Black travelers could never be sure where they were welcome” (6). This volatile situation was made more dangerous to Black travelers by drivers’ and conductors’ unbridled power. Bay provides dozens of historical examples of individuals’ stories, but one stand-out is the journey taken by three high-school-aged boys, Alexander Crummel, Henry Highland Garnet, and Thomas Sidney, as they went from home in New York City to an abolitionist school in New Hampshire, in the 1835. Rather than being allowed to travel in the car where their parents had purchased tickets, they were forced to ride on top of the car for the entire 400 mile journey, which, it should be noted, occurred during winter. As the train passed through towns and countryside, they were jeered at as a spectacle. Crummel later reflected on the hypocrisy of so-called Christian people, saying it was “hardly possible that a Christian people could thus treat human beings traveling through a land of ministers and churches” (24).

Between the time of Crummel and his friends’ train travel calamity and the end of the 19th century, the Civil War and the politics of civil rights during and after Radical Reconstruction intensified the dangerous legal and customary patchwork that Black travelers negotiated. This confusion is aptly captured by example of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which on paper promised equal access to travel services but which was had no teeth and was hardly enforced. Resilience and resistance amidst this patchwork of hostility was both legal and grassroots, as demonstrated through the publications of works like The Green Book and the 1840’s publication “Travellers’ Directory” [sic] from the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator (13) and by Black travelers using the 1875 Civil Rights Act as a legal foothold in what would become a centuries-long struggle for equal access and treatment in travel, especially by Black women. Black male travelers as individuals, though, had a comparatively limited arsenal to protest mistreatment during travel, since they faced more immediate threats of violence if they trespassed customary boundaries, whereas Black women could use paternalistic customs of protecting femininity to their advantage. In 1883, The 1875 Civil Rights Act was repealed by the comprehensive Civil Rights Cases suit at the Supreme Court. Corresponding with the end of Radical Reconstruction, its repeal further opened the gates for southern legislatures to enact racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws against Black travelers, leading the way to Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and the cementing of legal racial segregation at the state level. Enter: the Jim Crow car. Northern states also responded to the repeal of the 1875 Civil Rights Act by enacting laws that protected Black access to travel and travel amenities.

After establishing this legal history that underpinned racial exclusion and resistance in travel, Bay takes each of four major modes of transportation in turn—train, car, bus, and plane (in Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 respectively). In each, Bay tells stories of specific travelers’ experiences of new forms of travel discrimination and the legal segregationist frameworks that state legislators used to permit the discriminatory behavior of conductors, drivers, and pilots. On trains, the Jim Crow cars were dirtier because of their proximity to the engine, more dangerous in the event of a crash because they were often made of wood (whereas the rest of the train would be updated to steel), and often, which particularly enraged Black travelers, was the same cost as a regular ticket. One loophole to the Jim Crow car that wealthy Black travelers could exercise was booking a luxury ticket through the Pullman Company. Sometimes, these far more expensive tickets were not honored.

By car, Bay discusses, Black travelers, especially the wealthy, found an opportunity for autonomy in movement, since they could drive themselves. However, racist southerners’ “long-standing hostility to any display of Black wealth” perversely encouraged these travelers to dress as if they were chauffeurs (117). Furthermore, southern landowner’s fears of Black car ownership, and therefore the lost agricultural labor which would jeopardize their lucrative sharecropping system, created new forms of surveillance of Black mobility. By bus, traveling Black resembled Jim Crow travel, but the quarters were closer between Black and white travelers. Incidents of violence against Black travelers, especially on Greyhound buses and across the United States, were particularly pervasive. These incidents increased and intensified into the early 1930’s and were taken up by the NAACP as a bedrock of a massive lawsuit claiming damages for Black travelers, which Bay discusses at length in Chapter 6: “Traveling for Civil Rights”. In early aviation, discrimination against Black people was most prominently exhibited by their exclusion to the technology development and employment; later, Black people continued to be segregated as travelers. Services provided along travel routes, like lodging and food, were also sites of racial exclusion and discrimination. This was acutely felt, Bay argues, in the North and West where even though there was no Jim Crow law, there was still hostility against Black travelers that was even less predictable than in southern states. Bay shows how the eventual national-level outlawing of segregated travel relied arguments made by travelers and travel companies about the interests of interstate commerce—segregation wasn’t good for business.

In centering travel as a primary site of racial discrimination and resistance for justice, Bay widens the conventional frame on Civil Rights, which tends, understandably, to focus on desegregation during the Civil Rights era of the mid-20thcentury. In Traveling Black, though, Bay tells the nuanced and long history of the fight for equality in travel. There are so many stories of specific individuals’ journey, in fact, you may find one with a specific connection to you, as I did with the story of Irene Morgan, who in 1944 set out from my hometown of Gloucester, Virginia, to return to hers of Baltimore, Maryland. On her journey, she was harassed by multiple bus drivers and policemen, and in standing her ground, inadvertently became what Bay calls the first Freedom Rider. She refused to pay the $10 fee she incurred for violating Virginia’s segregation laws, a legal battle which she eventually won at the Supreme Court. Chapter 7: “Traveling for Freedom” brings us into the heart of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the embarrassment and shame of segregation felt by United States leaders on the international level, and the acute violence against travel equality protestors. Traveling Black will be important reading for any student of American travel history, as this history is at bottom one of struggle for racial equality.

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Rebecca Dudley

Rebecca Dudley is a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology and a Graduate Fellow with American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Her historical anthropological research examines legacies of the plantation in contemporary industrial agriculture, including the racialization of labor, technology, financing, commodity flows, and knowledge on industrial farms. Her research is supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Washington University in St. Louis Center for the Humanities.