Historian Mia Bay on ‘Traveling Black’

The professor of history’s new book explores the intertwined history of travel segregation and African American struggles for freedom of movement.

African Americans gather in a segregated waiting area at a train station
Segregated waiting room at Union Station railroad depot in Jacksonville, Florida. (Image: State Library and Archives of Florida.)

“American identity has long been defined by mobility and the freedom of the open road, but African Americans have never fully shared in that freedom,” historian Mia Bay writes in the opening pages of her new book, “Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance,” which hits bookstores on March 23. “Segregation began on the stagecoaches and steamships of the Northeast—the nation’s earliest common carriers—and moved from there to railroads, train stations, restaurants, roadside rest stops, and gas station restrooms, all of which were eventually segregated by law in the South. As new modes of transportation and accommodations developed, new forms of segregation followed.”

Cover of a book titled "Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance" with artwork of African Americans in 1940s dress and a drawing of a bus.
Mia Bay's new book hits the shelves in March. (Image courtesy of Harvard University Press)

Bay’s research focuses on African American intellectual, cultural and social history; Black women’s thought; and the history of race. She is also the author of, among other titles, 2009’s “To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells.” It was in researching that book, Bay says, that she first became intrigued by the issue of traveling while Black.

“The moment that turned Wells into a political activist was when she was kicked out of a lady's car in Tennessee in the early 1880s,” says Bay. Ladies cars were nonsmoking train cars set aside for women and their families that were a little nicer, cleaner, and more comfortable than other passenger cars. This was before Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 railroad case in which the United States Supreme Court gave sanction to de jure segregation, she says.

“I hadn't known that train seating was originally a gendered system that then switched to a race system, and I wondered how it happened on the ground. I looked around and I didn't see any answers, so I started to research it in my spare time,” Bay says.

Over a decade later, her discoveries are laid out in “Traveling Black.” The book explores the intertwined history of travel segregation and African American struggles for freedom of movement, from the antebellum era to the present.

Penn Today talked with Bay about how the book came to be and about lessons people today can take from her findings.

Woman with curly hair and glasses crosses her arms and smiles at the camera
 Mia Bay is the Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of American History. (Image: Eric Sucar)

What made you decide to delve into this topic?

One of the early essays I wrote about it was about why Black people couldn’t leave New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. In it, I talked about modern day transportation inequalities, like the level of car ownership, the ways in which no provisions are made in the case of disasters. No provisions were made for people without cars during Katrina.

In working on the book, I went backwards in time. I ended up starting in the antebellum era because I found that segregation on transportation starts with the advent of various forms of public transportation like railroads, stagecoaches, and steamships.

Was there anything you discovered in researching this book that took you by surprise?

It took me a long time to understand why there were always so many stories about train crashes in Black newspapers, taking note of how many people died in these crashes. It turns out that the Jim Crow cars would ride right behind the engine throughout their history. As railroads began to replace most passenger cars with all metal cars, they used the oldest cars for Jim Crow cars, so by the turn of the century the Jim Crow car was often the only wooden car on the train. When there were crashes they would just collapse, and say if you had 100 deaths at least 70% of them would be the Black people in the Jim Crow cars and most of the rest would be the engineer and the conductor and the other railroad workers, who often traveled in the Jim Crow cars.

I was surprised to learn about airport segregation. I didn’t know that there had been Jim Crow bathrooms and restaurants in airports, and I was able to find evidence of informal segregation actually in the air itself. When I started writing a chapter on planes, I wasn’t sure whether I would ever actually have enough information to write.

I was fascinated by discussions of a racial right of way in the segregated South, where when cars become common there’s some idea that Black people are going to have to defer to white people on the road. It doesn’t actually work very well. If you stood at a stop sign waiting for every single white person to pass, then white person behind you wouldn’t be very happy. It wasn’t terribly viable.

Why is it important to look at the topic right now?

The pandemic has further complicated travel. Before the pandemic when more people were still traveling to work, transportation inequalities were just getting worse and worse. The lack of commitment to public transportation would mean that everyone who doesn’t have a car is a second-class citizen. And the policing of Black people driving cars is an ongoing problem.

With the advent of the pandemic there are new problems. We still have a lack of commitment to public transportation, using it has grown much more dangerous, and unless the nation’s economic outlook improves, we will likely have fewer people who can afford to travel any other way than to use it. What is that going to mean for us in the future? We already have minimal support especially for long distance public transportation. There are many places, especially in the South, where you simply can’t go if you don’t have a car. Bus service in much of the country has disappeared, and the number of railroads is minimal.

One of the ironies that my book underscores is that at the point at which, after literally fighting for 100 years for the desegregation of trains and buses, that is finally achieved with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then the public commitment to funding any of those forms of transportation just kind of disappears.

We don’t have functioning systems for traveling a great distance. My book very much focuses on traveling as opposed to everyday commuting. I think that traveling is a special case partially because it involved a particular kind of legal struggle. You can boycott the streetcars in your town, but what do you do when the problem you encounter on a train crossing several states?

What do you hope people take away from this book?

People need to take away that infrastructure is really important. The way people move through the world is not something that we simply do as free agents. We move through the world easily or with more difficulty depending on how our society provides for us and depending on how our rights are protected.

One of the striking things to me looking at transportation segregation was that many whites were unaware during Jim Crow just how difficult it was for Black people to get anywhere. The kind of humiliation they would encounter in things like Jim Crow train cars or just even the fact that they might not have access to the same kind of resources. That continues to be a problem. We need to think more seriously about transportation.

Beyond that, we also need to understand the Civil Rights Movement, at least in part, as a struggle for Black mobility—the right to freedom of movement. Transportation was one the movement’s key issues. People sometimes forget that Plessy v. Ferguson was a railroad case; it was not a case about school.

It shouldn’t be overlooked, and that’s where the dangers that African Americans face out in the world, especially when far from home, have really been highlighted by things like the Black Lives Matter movement. Black and brown people cannot travel safely through their nation, especially in environments where they don’t know exactly where to go. Then, they’re in trouble.

If there’s one thing Americans need to know about this topic right now, what is it?

We often think about and talk about the United States referencing the open road and people traveling freely. We should understand that that has never ever been true; it’s still not true today. Black and brown people navigate the American landscape in ways that are very much shaped by their race.

Man in hat and suspenders stands near a bus in Georgia in 1940
Bus station in Durham, North Carolina, May 1940. (Image: Jack Delano/Library of Congress)

Mia Bay is the Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of American History in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.