Racism on the Road: 3 Friends Drive Across America in the 1960’s

Racism on the road

Photo cred: Didrik Johnck via Flickr


by Al Hirshen

In September 1961, two college friends and I picked up a yellow and green Ford taxicab in New York City, to be delivered to its new owner in Kennewick, Washington. Anyone who wanted to purchase a new or second-hand car in NYC, without having to pick it up in person, used a “Drive Away” agency. It was a cheap way to travel to other parts of the USA. We only had to pay for gas and tolls.

All of us were recent graduates of the City College of New York (CCNY) and, as was typical of the time, we were the first or second in our families to go to college. You could call us a diverse group of Americans: I was a Bronx son of Ukrainian-Polish Jewish immigrant parents; Oliver, a Queens Black man and son of a Seventh Day Adventist mother; and Walter, a Polish Catholic from the lower East side of Manhattan. Oliver was a dark-skinned, muscular man with a kind, mustached face. People felt his warmth and immediately liked him. Walter was the fairest and tallest and the most reserved of us. I was the skinny guy who loved to laugh and argue. Hadn’t I been the captain of the CCNY debate team?

We had five days to drive across America and deliver the car. Afterwards, we planned to go south to Orange County, California, lay back with our CCNY friend Joe and enjoy his apartment’s swimming pool.

We left NYC in 90-degree heat toward Chicago and, as we were going to Southern California, we were dressed in short sleeve shirts and summer pants.

Sundance, Wyoming

It was lightly snowing in the late afternoon when we arrived in Sundance, Wyoming. The scene reminded me of James Joyce’s The Dead. : “The snow was falling, faintly falling over the crosses where Michael Fury lay buried.”  We were totally unprepared for this drastic change of weather. Perhaps as “New Yorkers” we had in mind the maps of our country where New York and California make up 99% of America. It was the kind of mistake the young are prone to make.

Just after being greeted by the unexpected snowfall in Sundance, we encountered another problem—a loud, grinding, sound suddenly coming from under the car. The first garage mechanic we visited in Sundance abruptly told us he could not be of any assistance. Was the car going to die on us two-thirds of the way to our destination? The second mechanic said the rear differential was a goner. He could fix it but would have to have the necessary parts delivered the next day. If the parts arrived on time, the car would be ready later that day. We called the owner and received the go ahead.

We carried our luggage from the mechanics to a hotel we had noticed on the main road in town. Without sweaters or coats, it was a chilling walk.

When we entered the hotel, a man who was at least six-foot-four and looked to be nearly 300 pounds, towered behind a desk and told us he had no rooms available. We found shelter from the snow at a bar near the hotel. Without the burden of luggage, I went to check out a motel we had spotted on our way into town. I was the guy who had set up the “drive away” and as I had the most forceful personality of us three, it seemed natural that I would be the one to venture forth. But first, I gave the hotel another try. I told the owner we would happily pay to use the lobby overnight. The lobby had a few stuffed chairs and a sofa. He curtly said, “My wife wouldn’t like that.” I sensed this refusal was a cover for something else.

I trudged on to the motel, shivering from the cold. The owner, an older man, at first stated he had rooms, but then hesitated and asked, “Are you with the colored boy?” When I said yes, he exclaimed: “I will not rent to coloreds!” Shocked, I asked him to repeat what he had said. He repeated it word for word. How did he know I was with a “colored boy”? Was it so strange to see a person of color in Sundance that the news of Oliver’s presence was spreading like wildfire? Had the hotel owner quickly called him with the news? Back at the bar, rubbing my hands together for warmth, I told my friends they would not rent to college boys. I was not going to tell Oliver that the color of his skin would prevent us from getting a room. It just was too hurtful. Walter said: “You got to be kidding!” Oliver said nothing. I then offered to walk around and see what else I could discover.

On the main street, I spotted an official-looking man who turned out to be the night marshal. He could have been any average man going about his business except for the badge pinned to his heavy brown jacket. After explaining our predicament I asked if we could sleep the night in the town jail. At first, he indicated that we could, but then he asked if I was with the “colored boy”. Again I said yes, but quickly added that we did not intend to freeze to death. Either he let us sleep there the one night voluntarily, or we would find reasons for him to lock us up. After what seemed an eternity, he said ok. I asked if the jail had heat. There was a pot-bellied stove, he told me. He would supply some wood and coal. I was elated, thanked him profusely and told Oliver and Walter the good news that we were going to spend the night in jail.

As we were walking towards the jail, a car with men we recognized from the bar swerved toward us, causing us to throw our luggage and jump to the side of the road. They continued on their way. Walter and I gave each other a glance that said: “We need to get out of Sundance as soon as possible.”

When the night marshal opened the door to the jail, there were only two simple cells, each with a single-person bed and a large table. We lit up the stove and stood around it to get warm, then tossed a coin to decide who would sleep on the beds in the cells, and who had the bad luck of the small “table bed.” Walter, who was without any “butt padding,” accepted his fate with good cheer. We had been given thin blankets by the night marshal. Luckily, we awoke in the night in time to discover that the fire had gone out and were able to relight it and avoid hypothermia. The next morning we awoke with a start, as the front door was thrown open with a jolt by the day marshal. Although we had not discussed our recognition that we were the subject of bigotry and potential violence, each of us had a two-by-four firmly in our grasp. Boys from the streets of NYC have the same instincts of self-protection.

Of course, we knew that racial discrimination existed in New York City and elsewhere in America, but we did not comprehend the depth of bigotry we would encounter. Mississippi yes, but Wyoming—no way.

After leaving jail and ringing the mechanic, we discovered that we were in luck. The parts had been delivered and the car was fixed late in the day. Unwilling to spend another night in jail, we left the town shouting: “Fuck you, Sundance”. As the daylight was fading, we found a motel in the next town and decided to enter together, so we would know immediately where we stood. To our relief, there was no hesitation and the clerk rented us three rooms. It felt as if we were back to NYC normal. With a good night’s sleep behind us, we headed off toward our destination, Kennewick.

Rexburg, Idaho

Somewhere in the mountains between Yellowstone and Rexburg, Idaho, we heard a thumping under the car. After some investigation, we pieced together that we had lost one of the brackets on the gas tank. We found some wire in the trunk, rigged the gas tank and nervously headed for Rexburg. The mechanic at the Ford dealership flat-out told us he would not fix our car because of Oliver. He did offer to give us some strong wire, however, to do a better patch-up of the tank, which we hastily accepted and drove away. As we made our way to Kennewick, there was undeniably an elephant in the car, but in 1961 men would not think to talk about their feelings, and we didn’t. Instead, we laughed off the incidents of blatant discrimination and changed the subject. We managed to make it to Kennewick without further incident and handed the car over to its new owner. As we drove away in a taxi to get a bus to San Francisco, we broke into a spontaneous cheer, thinking our encounters with racism on this road trip were behind us.

Orange County, California

Our friend Joe was a good-looking, energetic, always curious Italian-Catholic from the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He lived in a typical Southern California apartment, a stucco-style horseshoe building around a swimming pool. After spending a few relaxed days together, there was a knock at the door. The landlord announced that “the Negro” could not stay. At this point, we’d almost become accustomed to these racist attitudes based on the experiences we encountered on our road trip. But we didn’t expect them here, not in California. We were dumbstruck. Joe had the presence of mind to negotiate and asked: “If all the tenants said it’s ok for Oliver to stay, would that be ok?” He then went to each of his neighbors, who all responded in the affirmative. However, some of them said: “But only if he doesn’t use the swimming pool.” A fear that Oliver’s color might wash off, or…? Oliver agreed to do without swimming for the time of our visit. He was so nonchalant about it that it made me wonder how many times this had happened to him before.

We decided to leave California a day earlier. Walter stayed on with Joe, while Oliver and I left for Chicago to begin graduate and law school. Not a word was said amongst us about this shameful incident. What was the point? Oliver knew we were horrified and shared his pain. We wanted to put it behind us and move on. Leaving a day earlier was no big deal. We had to start our classes anyway.

Chicago, Illinois

A short time later, as I approached the Law School, I saw Oliver sitting on the steps to the entrance. His 5’10’’ body was hunched over. The usual sparkle in his eyes was missing. I was surprised to see him there, as his classes were several blocks away. “What’s up?” I asked him. He said: “I will never again enter into a new friendship–Black, White, or whatever.” I was taken aback and asked why. He told me he had made friends with two Jamaican Blacks over the last few weeks and they had repeatedly talked about race relations in America. Early this morning they had declared: “A Black can’t save money in a White man’s bank.” He told them they were nuts. He himself had money in such a bank. They didn’t believe him. They said, “Prove it.” He went home, retrieved his passbook and showed it to them. At this point, they pulled a gun and ordered him to take them to his bank and withdraw all his funds. With one of them directly behind him and a gun in his back, Oliver withdrew his funds. They drove him around for twenty or so minutes, then to his surprise, stopped the car and let him go. “I thought I was going to die,” Oliver told me.

The Chicago Police later affirmed Oliver’s story. The people involved had targeted Black university students in both Indiana and Illinois. Oliver’s experience showed the negative impact our road trip had had on him. Because of his experiences with Whites over the last month in Wyoming, Idaho, and Orange County, Oliver had been so eager to make new Black friends that he let his New York City street smarts desert him in the process.

The following fall Oliver and I planned to share an apartment together with another CCNY friend who was starting at the Law School. A number of apartments in the paper appeared promising, but when we visited them they suddenly turned out to be unavailable. It turned out that racism was still alive and well in multicultural metropolises like Chicago. After a shockingly large number of refusals, we were dejected but decided to try one more address. I knocked on the door, and a Black man answered. We grabbed Oliver, who was behind us and moved him to the front. Luckily the owner was not prejudiced against Whites! Finally, we had our new apartment for the year. Oliver never discussed the discrimination he faced nor the feelings of anger and degradation he must have felt, and we didn’t push him. Whenever recounting these incidents, we discussed them in a matter of fact way or with humor, sensing that we were the unwitting actors in a Theatre of the Absurd play.

The impact of our road trip and the continuing reality of racial discrimination were major reasons for my joining the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in 1965. I could no longer idly stand by. My time serving in this division (1965-1968) taught me a lesson about examining my own prejudices while fighting discrimination.

Over the last fifty-six years, whenever we road-trippers get together, we joke about the jail, the swimming pool, and our Chicago apartment. But it is impossible to look back on these memories without reliving the painful moments when we felt helpless because of an unfair reality in America—racial discrimination. Recently, with events such as the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally, we have been worrying that too large a segment of the American public is again accepting bigotry as the norm. We had hoped that as a country we had traveled a long way from the America of our 1960’s road trip. But racism was and continues to be America’s Achilles heel. And whenever we are laughing off our past experiences or stating our present concerns, I always see a flicker of pain in Oliver’s eyes.

Al Hirshen is a former civil rights lawyer, member of the Carter Administration, and a development consultant in numerous countries. His book Stories from a Lifetime of Travel is forthcoming in 2018. You can keep up with him on Facebook here.

Comments

  1. Excellent piece of writing, thought provoking and sad