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The Social and Cultural Meaning of the Automobile for African-Americans

photo of vintage steering wheel
Apr 25 2019

“Picture the open road.” For many, the automobile is associated with freedom. But how does the social and cultural meaning of the automobile change when analyzed from the perspective of African-American drivers? Dr. Allyson Hobbs, associate professor of American history, director of African and African American studies, and Clayman Institute Faculty Fellow,  explores this question in her forthcoming book, "Far from Sanctuary: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights" (Harvard University Press).

photo of Hobbs
Dr. Allyson Hobbs

At a Faculty Fellows lunch, Hobbs described the contradictory and complex meaning of cars and the open road for African-Americans in the twentieth century. For black motorists, cars were at once a source of humiliation and a desired commodity. Traveling by car often meant facing unwanted attention and acts of terrorism from white drivers and law enforcement. Jim Crow laws restricted African-American travelers’ access to hotels, restaurants, roadside services, and restrooms. Such laws were inconsistently enforced, meaning the threat of being denied access was ever-present. Hobbs said, “White service station operators might allow black motorists to purchase gasoline, but then they might refuse to sell a Coca-Cola or to open the bathroom to the driver, which could cause great humiliation, especially in front of one’s children.” Black motorists deployed a variety of strategies to avoid painful experiences of exclusion and violence, including relying on The Green Book, a guide that listed black-friendly businesses. According to Hobbs, “African-American women played a critical role in welcoming weary travelers into their homes, providing a place for them to stay, and a hot meal.”

Hobbs described the contradictory and complex meaning of cars and the open road for African-Americans in the twentieth century. For black motorists, cars were at once a source of humiliation and a desired commodity.

Yet, as Hobbs explained, cars also offered African-Americans a rare taste of “the good life.” Owning a car meant participating and belonging in mainstream consumer culture. Hobbs described how automobiles provided black women with a sense of freedom, black men with a sense of pride, and black families with a sense of closeness. Cars also played an important role in the daily activities of Civil Rights workers and organized protests, like the Montgomery bus boycott.

Hobbs said that black mobility has been an enduring source of white anxiety—the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 is one example—and the automobile, as a new technology, elicited similar attempts at controlling the movement of African-Americans in the twentieth century. As one example, Hobbs described how African-Americans living in northern cities, like Chicago, were thwarted in their attempts to “spirit away” relatives living in the Jim Crow South by gas station attendants who refused to sell gas to black drivers with out-of-state license plates. While they may no longer encounter segregated lodging and roadside services, Hobbs’s work reminds us of the deep, historical roots of the harassment and violence black drivers still face today.

(Car photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash)

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