Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart
Gretchen Sorin traces her new book “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights” back about 15 years ago when a friend showed her a copy of the Green Book, the annual travel guidebook for African-Americans published by Victor Hugo Green from 1936-1966.
“She wanted to know if I had ever heard of it,” said Sorin. “I wasn’t familiar with it, and I started to research what it was and how significant it was to African Americans from that time.”
Her research of the Green Book became the basis of her doctoral dissertation at the University at Albany. “But the book I wrote expanded dramatically to a study of the automobile and how it impacted African-American life. Prior to the automobile, African-Americans were forced to ride in Jim Crow cars on trains and in the back of buses. It was humiliating, demoralizing and racist.”
Sorin found when African-Americans could finally purchase their own cars they felt liberated to go whenever and wherever they wanted.
A problem they often faced was not knowing where they could stop. “That’s where the Green Book was important. It identified places where they could buy gas, stop for the night and get a bite to eat. That book was valuable in both the South and the North.”
Sorin said the Green Book was the most famous travel guide for African-Americans but not the only one. “Entrepreneurs had created an alternative world to help these people navigate their way through this segregationist society. There were guest houses, black restaurants and hotels. White America was completely unaware of all this.” General awareness of the Green Book was vastly expanded by the 2018 film by the same name starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen film, which won the Academy Award for best picture in February.
Sorin’s book, which will be published next February, is also the basis of a documentary she and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns are currently making titled “Driving While Black.” There will be a film screening and Q&A session with Sorin and Burns at the University at Albany, Sorin’s alma mater, on Friday in Page Hall on the SUNY Albany downtown campus. The event is co-sponsored by the UAlbany history department and the New York State Writers Institute. They will show an hour of the film — “a very powerful and emotional section,” Sorin said — which will be shown in its entirety on PBS in October 2020.
“Ric and I are old friends,” said Sorin. “I was one of his talking heads with his (“New York: A Documentary”), and I approached him about five years ago with the idea of doing this film.”
She was researching the book, and she showed him the numerous photos she had collected from this time period. “He agreed that this was an important topic that needed to be turned into a film.”
About the Oscar-winning “Green Book,” Sorin says it was a great Hallmark movie. “That movie came out at Christmastime, and it made you feel good,” she said. “It was a Hollywood film filled with many inaccuracies. Many of the places mentioned in the real Green Book were very nice. Some were luxurious hotels in places like Cleveland, Miami, New York and Baltimore. For the purposes of the movie they made all the places look dilapidated.”
The basis of her book “Driving While Black” was a collection of oral histories, and she started with her hairdresser in Albany who told Sorin stories about her life during the 1950s, expanding to include other stories of travel in an automobile.
If you go
What: Film screening of “Driving While Black” and conversation/Q&A with author Gretchen Sorin and director Ric Burns
When: Friday at 7 p.m.
Where: Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., Albany Downtown Campus
Sorin spoke to drivers from the 1940s and 1950s, but she also spoke with people from her generation, the kids in the 1950s and 1960s who rode in the backseats of those cars.
“It was fascinating to hear how parents protected their children from some of the humiliations on the road, such as racist road signs and restaurants that wouldn’t serve them. I have a whole new appreciation for that generation of parents who wanted to protect their kids from all that hate.”
Today, Sorin is a professor and director of SUNY Oneonta’s Cooperstown graduate program in museum studies. She grew up in Newark, N.J., and remembers fondly all the times her two parents used to bring her to the Newark Museum.
“I grew up going to that museum. I remember running through the galleries excited to see the art, and they also had a science section with animals and snakes. It inspired me to become a historian, and I’ve always wanted to work in museums where you can tell incredible stories.”
Jack Rightmyer, an adjunct English professor at Siena College, is a regular contributor to the Times Union.