Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War

Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War

Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War

Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War

Synopsis

Americans have long regarded the freedom of travel a central tenet of citizenship. Yet, in the United States, freedom of movement has historically been a right reserved for whites. In this book, Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor shows that African Americans fought obstructions to their mobility over 100 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. These were "colored travelers," activists who relied on steamships, stagecoaches, and railroads to expand their networks and to fight slavery and racism. They refused to ride in "Jim Crow" railroad cars, fought for the right to hold a U.S. passport (and citizenship), and during their transatlantic voyages, demonstrated their radical abolitionism. By focusing on the myriad strategies of black protest, including the assertions of gendered freedom and citizenship, this book tells the story of how the basic act of traveling emerged as a front line in the battle for African American equal rights before the Civil War.

Drawing on exhaustive research from U.S. and British newspapers, journals, narratives, and letters, as well as firsthand accounts of such figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Wells Brown, Pryor illustrates how, in the quest for citizenship, colored travelers constructed ideas about respectability and challenged racist ideologies that made black mobility a crime.

Excerpt

“I am unable to travel in any part of this country without calling forth illustrations of the dark spirit of slavery at every step.” The words of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, written in 1852, were literal. He meant not only that slavery infiltrated every aspect of American life but also that traveling was hard. From at least the 1810s and until the Civil War, free African Americans in the antebellum North confronted obstacles to their mobility, including racial segregation in public space. It was difficult for a person of color to walk across town without being harassed, but the vehicles of public transportation—stagecoaches, steamships, and railroads—emerged as one of the most notorious spaces for antiblack aggression. Even so, when Douglass voiced his complaint, segregation was not yet the law of the land. It was not until the 1860s that southern states passed segregation laws, and it was not until 1896 that the federal government institutionalized “separate but equal” legislation in the United States. Instead, free people of color in the antebellum North were facing an antecedent to government-sanctioned segregation. Through a combination of social customs, racial codes, and popular culture, U.S. whites worked vigorously to construct a system that surveilled, curtailed, and discouraged black mobility. White racism in public space was arbitrary and inconsistent, but it nevertheless rendered a jaunt across town and a voyage to England equally fraught endeavors. It was a practice, as Douglass noted, that was born out of slavery, but it was also one decidedly separate from it. It was also so insidious that Douglass could justifiably lament, “such is the hard fate of the colored traveler.”

This book tells the story of free people of color in the antebellum North who had the financial resources and social networks to be able to travel. When they traveled, they faced mounting white opposition, a circumstance that prominent black activists vehemently resisted. As a result, these men and women birthed, shaped, and cultivated the equal rights movement in the United States. I call the subjects of this study “colored travelers,” a term that activists such as Douglass used to describe himself and others. “Colored” is a fitting descriptor because black activists in the nineteenth century consciously chose it to signal racial . . .

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