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Museum programs examine role of cars in civil rights history and of blacks in shaping automotive history

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The Rosa Parks bus at The Henry Ford, part of a collection of newly digitized videos by The Henry Ford.

A spate of museum programs scheduled for this month aim to explore the confluences of African-American history and automotive history, specifically how black pioneers influenced the cars we drive and how cars helped empower the civil rights movement.

“The car was pretty important in the last century-plus and has had a role in all sorts of different things,” Jason Hartwig, the Petersen Automotive Museum’s education coordinator noted. “And the last century will forever be remembered for the civil rights movement, so we wanted to take an overview of how the two played on one another.”

Hartwig said he wanted to take an academic look at that interweaving of the two historical movements, specifically at the societal, economic, and cultural components of each.

“For instance, one of the societal impacts was that the car allowed an escape from Jim Crow,” he said. “It put the power back into the individual’s hands, so it was an important tool for empowerment. Just look at how, during the Montgomery bus boycotts, a private taxi system rose up to meet the needs of the people who were affected.”

Busing, however, remained a necessity for most African-Americans, as Joan Eardly, education manager and curatorial assistant at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum, pointed out. Her upcoming presentation on the Freedom Riders of 1961 – a group of blacks and whites who organized trips by bus from Washington, D.C., into the South and faced violent resistance – explores how that one mode of transportation proved integral to the desegregation movement of the Sixties.

Perhaps even more important, Hartwig noted, were the economic opportunities afforded not by automobiles directly, but by the mass production of automobiles. “Production played a huge part in the rise of the black middle class,” he said. Specifically, he pointed to statistics showing black employment in the auto industry rising from 3 percent in 1940 to 15 percent by the end of the war and even higher in the following decades.

However, as Rochelle Robinson, the exhibit program director at the AACA Museum, pointed out, blacks were employed primarily as laborers for much of the century, not as engineers, designers or executives.

Which is not to say they had nothing to contribute, as Robinson set out to illustrate in Pioneers of African American Automotive History, a month-long exhibit at the museum. In the works for two years, the exhibit focuses on a number of individuals from the 1880s through the 1940s who either invented now-common automotive items or advanced auto manufacturing in some way. Among those pioneers: Garrett Morgan, who patented one of the first traffic-control devices in 1920 and often gets credit for inventing the traffic light; Frederick Patterson, the first African-American automaker (right); and George Washington Carver, who developed synthetic materials for automotive uses.

However, excepting perhaps Carver, who benefited from Henry Ford’s patronization, the pioneers in Robinson’s exhibit had uphill battles to fight just to gain recognition for their advancements. “It was difficult for [African-Americans] to apply for patents,” she said. “Some of them were refused patents, while others were intimidated from filing, and others had theirs outright stolen from them. They were consistently being told to stop what they were doing.”

Hartwig, whose presentation encompasses the Twenties through the Seventies, noted that it took several decades for blacks to rise from laborers to higher-level positions within American car companies. “Social progress always takes time,” he said.

The AACA Museum’s Pioneers in African American Automotive History runs through February 28 at the museum; for more information, visit The Petersen Automotive Museum’s “The Car and Civil Rights” presentation, the first in the museum’s planned series of bimonthly talks, will take place February 16; for more information, visit The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum’s “Freedom Rides: The Impact of Transportation on the Civil Rights Movement” will take place February 21; for more information, visit