Thomas Sugrue: On "Driving While Black"

Historians in the News

... The automobile represents the American dream for everyone, but it has a special sentimentality for African Americans, according to Thomas Sugrue, a historian and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in urban history and race relations.

"African Americans from Detroit who could buy cars on company plans could certainly make a show of going South in their new wheels," he said. "Until the late 1960s, there was a huge wage gap between Northerners and Southerners. With a new car, you could show you had broken through."

For Jeff Wardford, 51, a car collector whose family migrated to Detroit from Tennessee, cars didn't just represent a dream, but middle-class reality.

"In so many other places, blacks didn't have access to housing or jobs, so a car created the illusion of wealth," he said, remembering his uncle who used to drive from New York to Detroit in his new Cadillac -- but who didn't own a home.

"In Detroit, blacks built nice, middle-class neighborhoods like Conant Gardens. For us, the car was an accessory to a bigger lifestyle."

Melvin Bell, 64, remembers when his Uncle Ollie would come down with the family from Detroit to Kosciusko. "He would have his big Chryslers and Lincolns," said Bell, whose father ran a used-car business in Mississippi. "We looked up to him because he was coming from the North, but we found out that he wasn't doing much better than we were!"

Sugrue argues that the automobile was about more than social climbing for African Americans, it was about freedom from Jim Crow laws.

"In an era where blacks were cordoned off into separate and invariably unequal accommodations on buses, trains and in stations," he said, "having a car meant that you could bypass those indignities."...

Read entire article at Desiree Cooper in The Free Press

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