The Significance of Race to Transport History

By Seiler, Cotten | The Journal of Transport History, September 2007 | Go to article overview

The Significance of Race to Transport History


Seiler, Cotten, The Journal of Transport History


This article joins the conversation on the 'cultural turn' recently begun in this journal and at the T2M conferences, making a specific appeal for scholars' attention to race as a fundamental category of analysis. It suggests two ways in which transport historians might look to race to deepen their work and to engage and complement scholars in other fields such as history and cultural studies. First, briefly describing the historical predicament of African-Americans, I encourage scholars of mobility to bear in mind the always raced identity of the traveller/passenger/driver. Second, I discuss how the 'scientific' notion of race crafted in the nineteenth century underwrote the imperial expansionism which brought about the revolution in modern transport.

The English jurist William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69), asserted that 'personal liberty consists in the power of locomotion, of changing situation, or removing one's person to whatsoever place one's own inclination may direct; without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law'.1 Blackstone influenced deeply the architects of the political culture of the United States, where mobility came to signify a range of other freedoms and opportunities associated with modern citizenship. Not surprisingly, in the nineteenth century, the opponents of American chattel slavery-that ultimate attenuation of mobility- and, later, the advocates of full freedom for newly emancipated slaves invoked Blackstone's precept in their legal challenges to 'Jim Crow' statutes and informal codes that hampered or curtailed the mobility of people of colour.2

For example, the conflation of mobility and freedom informed the 1896 suit brought before the US Supreme Court by Homer Plessy, a New Orleans man who had been ejected from a 'Whites only' railway car. Plessy, a Creole who could 'pass' as white, had been, much like Rosa Parks fifty years later, selected by a civil rights organisation to implement a legal challenge to a segregation law. Plessy and his lawyers were unsuccessful. The momentous decision handed down by the court in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the public streetcar company's discriminatory policy, giving constitutional sanction to the egregious 'separate but equal' doctrine that prevailed in New Orleans and many other parts of the nation and would shape American race relations for the next half-century. In his dissent Justice John Harlan cited Blackstone, lamenting the 'badge of servitude', the circumscription of mobility affixed to blacks.3

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which rendered unconstitutional the Jim Crow system established by Plessy, mandated the desegregation of all public facilities and spaces, not just schools. Before Brown the conveyances of American public transport, as they carried travellers of colour across geographical space, also carried them through a bewildering range of racist laws and policies. The experience of the mid-century traveller of colour was marked by a terrorising inconsistency: her or his dignity, safety, and comfort depended on variables of location, not merely in geographical space but on the conveyance itself. As one 1954 commentator observed:

A Negro passenger may ride on a Pullman car quite free of the molestation by train officials, and the same is generally true of the dining car situation. But if he travels by railway coach . . . the full demand of segregation rules is placed upon him and he will likely experience the additional injustice of inferior physical accommodations. On a single train, therefore, one set of policies are made to apply on the front end and a contrary set on the back end.4

A traveller of colour's social class could often ameliorate discrimination. Yet as the travel narratives of affluent and renowned black travellers (i.e. black entertainers, athletes, and political figures) and the guidebooks which served them attest, race could always trump class: even the most elite people of colour travelled subject to the caprice of any white authority figure. …

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