Viewed through a legal lens, the narrative arc of civil rights history starts with the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the “separate but equal” standard, and the completion of the southern Redeemer assault on Black liberation following the end of Reconstruction. The bookend to Plessy is Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, in which the Supreme Court overturned “separate but equal” and facilitated more robust assaults on segregation laws. However, while these two historic cases evaluated the constitutionality of segregation, they responded to two very different forms of discrimination—transportation versus education. Mia Bay’s comprehensive social history of segregated Black travel looks before and beyond Plessy to understand the process by which Jim Crow policies spread throughout the United States and the multifaceted ways Black Americans resisted them. In so doing, Bay extends and complicates the history of Black travel both chronologically and geographically.

Chronologically, Traveling Black begins its analysis in the antebellum period and ends it in the 1960s. Geographically, it traverses outside the South to show that even without formal law, forms of discrimination were inscribed into social custom. The first “Jim Crow cars” and segregated travel accommodations were actually developed in the antebellum North as gradual abolition threatened white superiority in public spaces (19). The epilogue closes by drawing connections to how contemporary travel and transportation continue to be shaped by race.

Organizing her analysis around the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ major forms of transportation, Bay dedicates separate chapters to traveling by train, car, bus, and plane. Within those categories, she also includes experiences on stagecoaches and steamships, and in the related spaces of waiting rooms, train stations, roadside rest stops, gas stations, restaurants, and restrooms. By centering transportation and travel as distinct arenas of discrimination and resistance, Traveling Black argues that the legislative successes of the 1950s and ’60s were the result of a much longer and sustained “history of black protest against segregated transportation” (12). Long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1957 and the Freedom Rides in 1961, Black Americans in every region of the country challenged segregation by refusing to move from their seats, suing in the courts, boycotting, and even operating their own forms of transportation (153). Deftly applying social historical methods, Bay uncovers the experiences of everyday Black travelers who navigated continually changing laws and faced the daily humiliations of trying to access public space within travel. While race shaped all of these experiences, Bay also considers the dynamics of gender and class, demonstrating how one’s social status impacted their reaction to and strategy for accessing transportation.

Black women, in particular, posed a problem for transportation carriers like railroads, which separated cars along gendered lines. Meant to safeguard white women from the smoking cabins and rowdy male passengers, middle-class and wealthy Black women demanded entry into the more comfortable ladies’ cars by buying first-class tickets. Prior to the passage of local and state segregation laws, railroad carriers were financially inclined to let African American women onto these cars, but they prohibited their male companions. Bay makes clear, however, that segregation policies were not meant to keep Black men and women out of these spaces completely. They were welcomed as servants, porters, nannies, or butlers, but not as social equals.

When Black passengers were denied service or entry, many successfully utilized the courts, citing the Civil Rights Act of 1875 until its reversal by the Supreme Court in 1883. With this decision, known as the Civil Rights Cases, the Court undermined Black rights by gutting congressional authority to pass anti-discrimination laws. Bay persuasively argues that it was this decision, not Plessy, that sent shock waves and disappointment among Black Americans. By the time Plessy was decided in 1896, all of the southern states had already enacted their own forms of segregation in the area of transportation. When the decision was handed down, Bay writes, it “received only passing notice in the newspapers published by African Americans” (60).

When automobile technology improved in the early decades of the twentieth century and became more financially accessible beyond the wealthy or celebrities like boxer Jack Johnson, Black Americans embraced the freedom that came along with it. Owning a car was not only an important status symbol but, quite practically, it allowed Black Americans the first option to avoid Jim Crow travel. However, Bay argues, as would be true with buses and planes, automobile travel “offered African American travelers both new forms of mobility and new sites of racial contestation” (108). Especially in the South, Black car ownership generated resentment among white observers who were hostile to any displays of Black wealth. Here, Bay makes a key contribution: technology in transportation, alone, would not be the solution to escaping Jim Crow. She argues that “instead the invention of the automobile introduced new and complex forms of traveling Black” (108). By removing the presence of a white authority to regulate space, automobiles presented an enormous challenge to segregation. Some whites responded by calling for “Jim Crow highways” to keep even the roadways free of integration.

In each of the chapters, Bay centers the obstacles Black travelers faced when hitting the road or sky: their placement in unsafe train cars resulting in higher fatalities in minor accidents; the planning necessary to avoid Jim Crow service stations, restaurants, and bathrooms; making sure not to be caught in a “sundown” town when passing through all-white communities; relying on friend networks or Black guidebooks to locate safe lodging; or potentially being kicked off a flight once the airline discovered they were Black. All of these were additional burdens placed on Black travelers that white Americans either explicitly supported or were ignorant of. When segregated transportation became a central target of the modern civil rights movement in the early 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson admitted he had never considered the danger his Black cook, Zephyr Wright, faced when driving the Johnsons’ second car back to Texas at the close of each congressional session (302). As Congress worked to pass the Civil Rights Act, Black travelers testified before the Senate about their experiences. In great detail, witnesses described the burdens and fears of “traveling while Black” both on public transportation and in private automobiles. For the first time, a century’s worth of discrimination, violence, and inequities as told by Black Americans themselves was admitted into the public record. Bay’s detailed analysis of the Civil Rights Act highlights the significance and necessity of Congress’s use of the Interstate Commerce Act, as opposed to the Fourteenth Amendment, to justify their authority to pass antidiscrimination laws.

Of course, this is not a history of uninterrupted progress. Bay does well in the epilogue to bring the narrative to the present day and explore how traveling Black continues to bring unjust burdens and unwarranted violence, such as the use of racial profiling by law enforcement. Additionally, statistics show that Black consumers pay more for new cars and car insurance and are more likely to be fined for minor traffic infractions. Black women are also disproportionately targeted by TSA in air travel. The current forms of systemic racism contribute to a culture that criminalizes Black travelers and reproduces inequalities within transportation. Bay’s rich and detailed narrative underscores the necessity of understanding the legacy of this history and seeing America’s rail lines, waterways, freeways, and air routes as distinct spaces of injustice and resistance.

Natalie Novoa