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Hideous legacy: Documentary explores long history of the perils of ‘Driving While Black’

A crowd attacks cars driven by African Americans to protest integration in the schools. (Courtesy of Robert W. Kelley/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In 1949, as African Americans traveled West, there were fewer and fewer places for them to stop.

Enter “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” an annual guidebook for African American travelers.

It was originated and published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966, during the era of Jim Crow laws, when open and often legally prescribed discrimination against African Americans and other non-whites was widespread.

During that time, there were places like Aunt Brenda’s Pit Barbecue, then located at 406 Arno NE in Albuquerque, which would provide African Americans a safe place to eat and stay.

There were two other locations on Arno listed in the book, as well as listings in Las Cruces, Roswell, Carlsbad and Tucumcari.

A young African American man sits in the spare tire on the back of an automobile. (Courtesy of Charles Dunn Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History)

“It was very much like a phone book, and it’s state by state,” says Gretchen Sorin, historian and author. “Because it was treated as a phone book, people would often throw it away when a new one was published.”

Sorin put together 25 years of research into what would become the documentary “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America.”

She teamed up with documentary filmmaker Ric Burns on the project.

The two-hour documentary premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13, on New Mexico PBS.

The documentary chronicles the riveting history and personal experiences – at once liberating and challenging, harrowing and inspiring, deeply revealing and profoundly transforming – of African Americans on the road from the advent of the automobile through the seismic changes of the 1960s and beyond. It also explores the deep background of a recent phrase rooted in realities that have been an indelible part of the African American experience for hundreds of years – told in large part through the stories of the men, women and children who lived through it.

Granville Clarke, a Florida migratory agricultural worker, studies a road map in July 1940 before leaving Elizabeth City, North Carolina, with his crew. They are going to Bridgeville, Delaware, to work in a cannery. (Courtesy of North Carolina/Jack Delano)

Sorin says the right to move freely and safely across the American landscape has always been unequally distributed by race and powerfully contested in the American experience. With urgent and powerful relevance to issues and dynamics at work in American society today – of race and class, gender, safety, law enforcement, automobile culture, recreation, personal freedom and national identity – this resonant and deeply moving history is at once revelatory, troubling and deeply inspiring for what it uncovers about the long road to justice in American history, and about the creativity, courage and commitment to change that makes it possible.

“I think this story resonates tremendously with Americans, both Black and white, because everyone understands and remembers driving or riding in an automobile, and many people have the experience of going on an annual family vacation,” Sorin says. “But while these vacations may be fairly universal American experiences, Black and white travelers went down parallel roads, and the experience for Black drivers on the road is something unknown to most white Americans. For African Americans, travel by automobile during the 20th century posed a paradox: Although cars freed them from the tyranny of the Jim Crow bus or train, they faced intimidation and even violence when they ventured out on the road.”

Sorin says “driving while Black” has become a hot-button issue in today’s society, as cameras are capturing police brutality across the nation.

A photo from Gretchen Sorin’s personal collection. (Courtesy of Gretchen Sorin)

“I wanted audiences to see that this isn’t anything new,” she says. “Black people have dealt with this for decades.”

Sorin grew up in New Jersey, far from where her mother grew up, in South Carolina.

“My parents are the products of the great migration,” she says. “We would go visit my mom’s family, and we would drive while it was dark. We never stopped and brought our own food with us. We were kids, and we wanted to stop. It didn’t click to me as a child. I only realized why my parents were traveling at night as I began to research. People never knew who was behind the wheel, and it made traveling safer.”

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