The following is a chapter titled “The Racial Right-of-Way,” excerpted from “Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance,” by Mia Bay, published by Harvard University Press. Bay is a University of Pennsylvania professor of history, whose book, released March 23, explores the intertwined history of travel segregation and African American struggles for freedom of movement.
When African American southerners first began to buy cars, some whites called for “Jim Crow highways”; others correctly predicted “there will be no Jim Crow highways since it will require the combined assets of both races to construct even one set of highways worthy of the name.” But although Blacks and whites ended up sharing the same set of roads, were those roads open to all?
The evidence is mixed, and varies by region. Black northerners may have experienced some sense of equality on the road; but in the South, rising levels of Black car ownership did little to quell the hostility that whites felt toward Black drivers. Racial power struggles played out on the road in ways that would shape the experiences of all Black drivers who traversed the region.
Cars, which were available to anyone who could afford to buy one, challenged the Jim Crow South’s carefully regulated social order. Unlike trains, they allowed African Americans to move freely and share space with whites on potentially equal terms. Cars empowered Black drivers while provoking resentment among whites, which could endanger Black drivers and complicated the process of traveling Black.
The empowerment was transformative, according to some close observers of the region. [Sociologist] Arthur Raper was convinced that the automobile gave rural Black southerners a new sense of importance and power. Cars were coveted by even the poorest Black sharecroppers, he maintained, because “the feel of power, even in an old automobile, is most satisfying to a man who owns nothing, directs nothing, and while producing a crop literally begs food from his landlord.” To Raper, automobility was a democratic force that allowed Black travelers to avoid the “irritations of unequal transportation facilities,” and transformed even day-to-day encounters between Blacks and whites in the rural South. “In automobiles on public roads,” he argued, members of these groups met “on terms of equality” for the first time. “Prior to the coming of the automobile, when the landlord met the tenant, or when the Negro met the white man, each knew the relationship to each other and acted accordingly. But today when the landlord, speeding down the road at forty miles an hour, sees an old automobile coming he doesn’t know whether he is meeting his tenant or the richest planter in the country who takes pride in his ability to go as fast in his old car as a neighbor in a new one.”
To Raper, the fact that cars allowed Blacks to travel without being easily recognized was important. Not only did automobiles spare rural Blacks from always meeting on unequal terms, they also allowed them to escape white surveillance. “Incognito” once they got some distance from home, African American car owners could make more choices about where they shopped, worked, traveled, and sought recreation. Cars took both rural Blacks and rural whites out of their immediate communities, “providing the mechanical means for greater self-direction and self-expression.”
Black sociologist Charles S. Johnson, who also conducted research in the Black belt during the 1930s and 1940s, was far less confident that the impact of the automobile was wholly democratic. An African American driver himself, he recorded the emergence of a new mode of traveling Black. “The automobile is a technological innovation which has disturbed many of the traditional patterns of association, caused some modification of established mores, and presented new problems of interracial etiquette,” wrote Johnson in 1943. Having conducted research in the Black belt for almost two decades, Johnson was able to trace these changing mores over time.
“At first,” he noted, “Negroes were expected to operate automobiles for whites, but not own them. Later ownership by Negroes was tolerated, but they were not supposed to own large or pretentious cars.” By the 1940s, he explained, “Negro ownership of any type of car is no longer questioned except in small towns.” But driving had its own racial etiquette, which had also changed over time. When Black drivers were almost exclusively chauffeurs, “they were identified with whites and accorded the rights of the road.” But as greater numbers of African American car owners hit the road, a new system evolved in which Blacks who drove their own cars “were expected to maintain their role as Negroes and in all cases, give right-of-way.”
In practical terms, the historians Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom explain, the racial right-of-way was “a rule of black deference to white drivers, especially white women drivers, without regard to which car arrived first at an intersection.” Passing white drivers was also problematic. “In some Southern communities,” James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1927, “it is a breach of social code for a colored man driving an automobile to pass a white.” In Mississippi, historian Neil R. McMillan writes, local custom “forbade black drivers to overtake white drivers on unpaved roads.” As one Black Mississippian understood this custom: “It’s against the law to pass a white man because the black man might stir up dust that would get on white folks.”
In some counties in the Deep South, “racial right-of-way” rules remained in place through the 1950s. Folklorist and activist Stetson Kennedy’s “Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A.,” first published in 1959, offered instructions for driving through “segregated territory” designed to help visitors follow these rules. “The only time you can safely claim right-of-way in segregated territory,” wrote Kennedy, “is when the other motorist is also nonwhite; while if you are white, you can claim not only legitimate right-of-way in encounters with white motorists, but also racial right-of-way over nonwhite motorists.”
Additionally, parking could also be subject to segregation: many southern towns reserved the parking spots on their main streets for whites, and some workplaces had segregated parking. At the Firestone tire plant in Memphis in 1941, Black workers could not park on the paved lot (the “white lot”) directly outside the plant. Instead, they had to be sure to park a little farther away on the gravel parking lot (the “Black lot”). “Even after the plant was integrated,” one Black worker remembered, “it was just unwritten law that you just didn’t do certain things” such as park in the “white lot.”
Segregated parking was fairly straightforward, but many of segregation’s road rules were unworkable. On the highway, as Charles Johnson noted, the racial right-of-way was impossible to honor: no one could identify the race of the driver “without further investigation.” “Usually you are by before they know you are colored anyhow,” a North Carolina educator told Johnson. “If I have the right-of-way, I take it.” And likewise, sociologist Arthur Raper acknowledged that the car was a more democratic force at higher speeds: “Effective equality seems to come at about 25 miles an hour or above.”
Even on local roads the racial right-of-way system conflicted with the law and logic of traffic regulation in ways that made it impossible for Blacks to follow it. An African American driver who gave several white drivers the right-of-way could hold up other white drivers, and would surely end up offending somebody. “Some of them don’t like it when you don’t wait for them to get away first,” Johnson was told by one Black informant who largely disregarded white claims to superiority of the road. “But where there is a lot of traffic you can’t bother with them because you tie up traffic and that would be worse.”
Blacks generally resisted racial right-of-way whenever they thought they could get away with it. Several informants told Johnson that it was possible to “bluff people out of the way” by driving quickly and aggressively. Johnson described such practices in detail. “With white men the Negro may sometimes indulge in ‘bluffing’ in traffic,” he wrote. “He may appear to be driving with minimum of caution, when in reality he is employing a great deal of skill. He attempts to obtain his traffic right of way by innocently driving his rickety car very close to the white man’s shining automobile. They both know that in the event of collision about all the white man can get is personal vengeance, which might give him a measure of satisfaction, but will not repair his car.” Almost twenty years later, Stetson Kennedy noted that such calculations, and the “bluffing” they inspired, were still commonplace. “One of the best forms of protection for nonwhite motorists in the South is a dilapidated car,” he noted. “White motorists are less likely to impose upon the driver of such a vehicle, it being assumed (1) that the brakes are no good, (2) that the owner will care but little if it is wrecked, and (3) that the owner is financially unable to pay for any damage done the white car.”
However, both Johnson and Kennedy underscored that Blacks had to be far more careful when driving anywhere near a white woman, whose racial right-of-way was absolute. Several informants told Johnson that white women drivers made them nervous because “many of them pay little attention to traffic regulations when a Negro is involved.” One man said: “These white women act like these brakes is colored too and just naturally stop dead still when they sees a white woman busting into the open highway without stopping. They look up and see you colored and keep going like it is a disgrace to stop at a stop sign to let a nigger pass.”
Even in the rural South, racial right-of-way was never universal. “In some places whites did maintain normal driving rules,” writes historian Jerome Packard. “But in others, Jim Crow was more important than highway safety.” African American travelers who ventured into unfamiliar territory often pulled aside for white drivers as a “precautionary measure,” stayed on interstate highways if they could, and sometimes drove on back roads only at night in the hopes of avoiding any confrontation with white drivers.
African American drivers had other reasons to avoid such confrontations: when it came to insurance, they faced another kind of racial right-of-way if they got into any kind of accident. In the South, as Johnson wrote, custom dictated that “if there is a collision, the Negro does not expect to get paid for damages to his own car, whether entitled to them or not.” The North seems to have had a similar custom. African Americans throughout the country had a great deal of trouble getting automobile insurance. The history of automobile insurance policies and their regulation varies by state and has received virtually no historical analysis. But both the African American newspapers and the NAACP records reveal that throughout the interwar years many automobile insurance companies refused to insure African American drivers, on the grounds that they would always be held at fault should they get in an accident and find themselves in court.
“It is generally understood that insurance companies do not want Negroes as risks,” an underwriter for the Saugus Insurance Company told one Boston resident when he applied for auto insurance in 1933. A year later, another insurance company canceled all of its African American policyholders’ accounts “due to the fact that if a Negro and a white man are in an automobile accident, the Negro is blamed regardless of the circumstances.” Commenting on this news, an insurance agent said that Blacks, especially in the South, should expect to find it increasingly “difficult to obtain automobile liability insurance . . . because litigation in several cases has shown a Negro defendant or plaintiff cannot expect to get justice in the courts if a white man is his opponent.” Other insurance agencies were more welcoming, if not enthusiastic. Equitable Building told a reporter for the “Baltimore Afro-American” who investigated the subject in 1933: “Our company as a general rule does not accept colored business, but when they are in business and in a profession it makes a difference and they are considered as any other risk.”
African Americans who wished to insure their cars (automobile insurance was not compulsory in most states prior to the 1950s) were limited to a few often underfinanced companies — some of which were Black owned. But such firms were hard to find. A court ordered investigation into automobile insurance company practices in Illinois, conducted in 1939, looked into the practices of 47 insurance companies and found that 44 of them “refused to insure Negroes” and three said “they would do so ‘under certain circumstances.’” Not surprisingly, in the 1930s the NAACP received regular correspondence from members looking for a list of insurance companies willing to sell insurance policies to Blacks, and it began challenging state lawmakers in several states to address the issue. But in states where insurance was not mandatory or linked to other driving privileges, such as securing a license or registering a car, this discrimination was hard to fight. In 1940, Travelers Insurance Company canceled the policy held by Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court Justice. Marshall could do nothing about it. The insurance company’s official reason for canceling was that Marshall “‘lived in a congested area,’ meaning Harlem and ‘not’ because I am Negro,” which made it “practically impossible to work out a court case.”
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