“Pittsburgh and the Great Migration: Black Mobility and the Automobile” now at the Frick’s Car and Carriage Museum until Feb. 4, 2024, is a reminder that in this country, freedom highways run parallel to cul-de-sacs of racial oppression far more than whitewashers of American history would care to acknowledge.
For African Americans, Black mobility has always meant more than holding on to the greasy back of upward mobility as it squealed and darted mindlessly through the fields.
From the first days of African enslavement in this country, the need for mobility and speed has been a non-negotiable aspiration for Black people.
In different eras, this desire has been as urgent as following the North Star with only the clothes on one’s back during the long trek through the American wilderness to freedom. It has also meant experiencing the Underground Railroad as an ecstatic reality rather than a metaphor or rumor.
The desire for mobility and freedom also found echoes in the jitneys and communal ride shares that sustained the Montgomery bus boycott for 13 months in the middle of the last century.
Even in the winter, Black people preferred walking miles to work to the indignity of enriching a municipal bus system that treated them as second-class citizens despite the fact they paid the same fare as whites.
In the early 1960s, the Freedom Riders who considered the right to travel unmolested on interstate highways the essence of American freedom, defied the terrorists who burned their buses in the bus terminals of the deep South.
And of course, the Great Migration itself was a testament to the desire for mobility by an estimated six million Black folks who left the drudgery of the South between the 1910s and the 1970s for opportunities in other parts of the country by whatever means were available.
Because of the aggressive recruiting of Black labor by the steel industry, Pittsburgh became a destination city for those seeking economic opportunity and an escape from the humiliation of agrarian Jim Crow laws. The jobs in Pittsburgh didn’t pay much, but they paid better than sharecropping or other menial labor below the Mason-Dixon.
The Frick Pittsburgh exhibition, which features 10 restored cars that served different purposes during the Great Migration, presents a sweeping narrative about those years when expats from Alabama and Mississippi journeyed north with all their earthly goods to a place that was far from the Promised Land they had imagined.
If you’re curious about the red 1938 Packard Twelve Convertible that Gus Greenlee, the Hill District’s most successful numbers runner regularly drove, there’s a gleaming replica of it at the center of the Frick’s upgraded Car and Carriage Museum.
The 1938 Mercury Eight Town Sedan was also a favorite with Black consumers because it housed a powerful V-8 engine behind its elegant grill work. It looked great at the time and was as much a status symbol as any car could be, but more importantly, it could move like a shot if the driver and his family needed to get out of a “sundown town” faster than a white mob could form.
It’s one thing for a car to be appreciated for its sheer beauty, but every car Black folks drove had to have the added value of being fast, reliable and relatively easy to repair if it broke down on some hostile, segregated stretch of road in those pre-turnpike days.
Because of Jim Crow, most white-owned garages in the country either didn’t cater to Black customers or would charge a premium for their services unless they were affiliated with the Esso gas station chain, a company that truly welcomed Black patronage out of a sense of shared humanity and recognition of the financial windfall that such an untapped market represented.
Because Black folks couldn’t buy homes where they wanted, join country clubs, put their money in the best banks or enter high-end stores, there were millions of disposable Negro dollars burning holes in pockets across the country. A huge chunk of that money went into the kind of cars featured in the exhibition at the Frick.
Because Yellow Cab operators refused to service the Hill District, an entrepreneur named Silas Knox established the Owl Cab Company by enlisting once unaffiliated jitney drivers under its distinctive banner. Knox bought a fleet of 1941 Super Streamliner Torpedo Six Sedan Coupes and put them on the street, which filled the vacuum and met the needs of the community to a great extent.
Who needed a Yellow Cab when the Owl Cab Company was around? Up close, it is hard to imagine a more solid automobile than the Super Streamliner Torpedo. It would’ve been an honor to ride in a car like that.
The beauty of a show like “Pittsburgh and the Great Migration” is discovering the ingenuity and indomitable spirit of Black people — many of them rural folk — as they figured out how to get what they wanted and needed in a casually racist environment like Pittsburgh in the first half of the 20th century.
At one point, Bella Hanley, 22, a docent on duty, engages in a conversation with several guests about how Black people were able to buy cars despite car manufacturers fearing that the ubiquity of their brand name in the wrong neighborhoods would cheapen or endanger the brand with white folks. The car manufacturers didn’t initially want dealerships to sell Cadillacs or other status symbol cars to Black people.
It turns out that Black people called upon their white friends to do straw purchases if the dealer refused to sell directly to them for racial reasons. The registration would be transferred to the rightful owner after the sale. If a white friend couldn’t be found, it wasn’t hard to find a white freelancer who would purchase the car for a fee.
“I want this to be a celebration of these migrants,” Hanley said after the tour. It was her first day as a docent and she was concerned that she didn’t hit all the points she intended, but she did.
Like the best docents, Hanley, who has green highlights in her hair, was polite, yet direct about Pittsburgh and its treatment of the migrants once they got here. She was acutely aware of the trauma many of them faced, but she didn’t want to lose sight of their triumphs or how they manifested their dignity.
“This is a show that says so much about society and how it changes. My main struggle is trying to figure out how to work in the most interesting details.”
She doesn’t have to look very hard for interesting details. An older woman confessed that she was not familiar with the term “redlining” after Hanley used it, so she patiently explained to her what it was. The group of subscription members the woman was with murmured among themselves about how so much of the information was new to them.
Meanwhile, a few feet away, an older Black woman and her teenage companion who were not a part of the group had an animated discussion about the cars and the large Charles “Teenie” Harris photos that gave them context.
“Wonderful show,” I said to the well-dressed woman who looked as if she had personally known those times a long time ago.
“It tells the truth,” she said, before increasing her pace to catch up with her young companion who had to be bewildered by the fact that all of the showroom mannequins dressed in period costumes and posed next to the cars looked like extras from “The Great Gatsby.”
More information on “Pittsburgh and the Great Migration: Black Mobility and the Automobile”
The exhibition’s companion book “Pittsburgh and the Great Migration: Black Mobility and the Automobile (The History Press, $23.99)” is published by the Frick Pittsburgh and compiled by Kim Cady. It contains wide-ranging essays by Cady, Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, Samuel W. Black, Ron Baraff, Joe William Trotter Jr., Mark Whitaker, Jonnet Solomon and Laurence Glasco, along with photos by Charles “Teenie” Harris.
- Guided tours: Tuesday-Friday, 2 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- Exhibition talks: Tuesday-Sunday, 1 p.m.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.