Q&A with Author Gretchen Sorin on Her book 'Driving While Black'

By Gregory Stall, Adult Librarian
February 4, 2020
Gretchen Sorin portrait

Dr. Gretchen Sorin and her book, Driving While Black

On February 20, 2020, Grand Central Library is hosting Gretchen Sorin, Director of Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies. Dr. Sorin will discuss her new book, Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights. Her years of research have also been used by Ric Burns in an upcoming PBS documentary. While prepping for our program, Dr. Sorin kindly answered some questions about her process and work. Be sure to check out her reading recommendations toward the end!

What will you discuss at your upcoming NYPL Talk?

I'll discuss the important role of the automobile in African American life. While there is considerable scholarship on the overall importance of the automobile in American history, there has not been an exploration of how cars changed the lives of black Americans in ways that were both significant and unexpected.  Driving While Black is a very extensive and complex account of the African American experience of transportation in America. What led you to this remarkable topic?

I started thinking about this topic more than 15 years ago when a colleague and I were working on an exhibition in the resort community of Saratoga Springs, New York. She asked me if I had ever heard of the Negro Motorist Green Book and I was intrigued. I decided to do my dissertation on the Green Book, but I discovered that this travel guide was only a small part of the story.  

The Negro Travelers' Green Book: Fall 1956

NYPL Digital Collections ID: 5206210

How does your research frame and expand on the information already out there?

The Negro Motorist Green Book has really caught on as a topic of popular interest, but, I think what is most important is that it provides a window into a much broader story about the meaning of mobility for individuals living in a democratic society and the role that the automobile and the interstate highway system played in facilitating the Civil Rights Movement. The Green Book was not the first black travel guide and it would not be the last one. While it was the most long-lasting of the guides, as a group, these pamphlets shine a light on the completely separate world in which African Americans lived in Jim Crow America. My story is one of personal agency for black travelers, but also an exploration of mobility and travel, a fundamental right, seen as essential by the framers of the Constitution. 

How do you see the role of the automobile on the Civil Rights Movement? 

The Civil Rights Movement depended on the automobile. Cars made the bus boycotts possible. During the Montgomery boycott, for example, Martin Luther King purchased a fleet of cars to transport people to work so that they could avoid the buses. People who owned cars also picked up walkers and drove them to work. The protesters were able to cut revenues to the bus company by 69%. The cars facilitated their success. Similarly, rental cars transported civil rights workers to and from airports when cabs were not available to black travelers.  Cab companies were segregated and white cab companies held the contracts to airport access. Civil rights activists arriving at airports would be stranded without their car rentals. In addition, civil rights workers who were registering voters, teaching potential voters how to pass poll tests and traveling all over various counties in the southern states to take voters to the polls needed cars to get around. As he traveled to rural sites throughout Mississippi as a field secretary for the NAACP Medgar Evers drove a large, fast Rocket 88. He could use it for sleeping, if necessary, and it provided a fast getaway in the event of trouble. Cars proved to be one tool that made the Civil Rights movement successful.  

The Schomburg Center has digitized the entire Green Book series. Could you describe your collaboration with them and how they contributed to your book?

Actually, while I think that it is wonderful that the Schomburg Center has digitized the Green Books, my research was done the old fashioned way since most of it was completed before the books were put online. I spent many hours reading The Green Books in the reading room and laboriously copying information. But, when I needed to look up information or to confirm something near the end of my project the digitized books made that process much easier.  

You have partnered with filmmaker Ric Burns on the documentary Driving While Black; how is this work distinct from your other diverse work?

Ric is an extremely creative filmmaker and our collaboration has expanded the story by providing the visual testimony of lived experience. He is an old and dear friend and because I knew him years ago I asked him to work with me on the project. It has been a very comfortable collaboration and Emir Lewis, also an amazing filmmaker, has joined us in this project. I think what we are trying to do with the film is to provide viewers with a visual experience that combines creative storytelling with the music and historical context of the time. It is incredibly compelling and emotional when you hear scholars talk about both their research into the subject, but also their personal experiences "driving while black" and their hopes and fears for their children. We have also gathered the experiences of many ordinary; perhaps I should say extraordinary citizens who tell their stories as well. It is a powerful documentary.  

In general, what overlooked or underappreciated books, pieces of music, or films would you encourage NYPL users to explore?

I discovered a piece of music entitled "Christian Automobile" by the Dixie Hummingbirds that I use quite often in my talks.  It compares Christianity to driving. It is terrific music, and also demonstrates the importance that African Americans placed on the automobile. 

Jim Loewen's book Sundown Towns is quite eye-opening. It is a history of the places that African Americans could not go.

Architectural historian Jennifer Reut has developed a very useful website called "Mapping the Green Book." It can be accessed here: https://mappingthegreenbook.tumblr.com/whatsnew

Thomas J. Sugrue’s excellent essay, “Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relationsin Modern America,” can be found online as a part of the collections of the Henry Ford Museum.