Mrs. Potts type flatiron made by A. C. Williams Company of Ravenna, Ohio, 1893-1910. THF171197
A "Cool Hand" Who Always Came to the "Point"
In the early 1870s, a young wife and mother had a better idea for making the arduous task of ironing easier. Her name was Mrs. Potts.
At this time, people smoothed the wrinkles from their clothing with flatirons made of cast iron. These irons were heavy. And needed to be heated on a wood stove before they could be used—then put back to be reheated once again when they began to cool. (Automatic temperature control was not to be had.)
Mary Florence Potts was a 19-year-old Ottumwa, Iowa, wife and mother of a toddler son when she applied for her first patent in October 1870, one reissued with additions in 1872. Mrs. Potts’ improved iron had a detachable wooden handle that stayed cool to the touch. (Conventional irons had cast iron handles that also got hot as the iron was heated on the stove— housewives had to use a thick cloth to avoid burning their hands.) Mrs. Potts’ detachable wooden handle could be easily moved from iron to iron, from one that had cooled down during use to one heated and ready on the stove. This curved wooden handle was not only cool, but also more comfortable—alleviating strain on the wrist.
Mrs. Potts’ iron was lighter. Rather than being made of solid cast iron, Mrs. Potts came up with idea of filling an inside cavity of the iron with a non-conducting material like plaster of Paris or cement to make it lighter, and less tiring, to use. (Florence Potts’ father was a mason and a plasterer, perhaps an inspiration for this idea.)
Previous iron design had a point only on one end. Mrs. Potts’ design included a point on each end, to allow the user to use it in either direction.
Mrs. Potts appeared on trade cards advertising her irons. This one dates from about 1883. THF214641
Mrs. Potts’ innovations produced one of the most popular and widely used flatirons of the late 19th century. It was widely manufactured and licensed in the United States and Europe with advertising featuring her image. Mrs. Potts’ iron was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Millions of visitors attended the exhibition.
The Potts iron became so popular that by 1891, special machines were invented that could produce several thousand semicircular wood handles in a single day, rather than the few hundred handles produced daily with earlier technology. Mrs. Potts' type irons continued to be manufactured throughout the world well into the twentieth century.
Though Mrs. Potts proved her inventive mettle with her innovative flatiron design, it appears that she did not reap spectacular financial rewards—at least by what can be discerned from census records and city directories. By 1873, the Potts family had moved from Iowa to Philadelphia, where her daughter Leona was born. They were still living there in 1880, when the census mentions no occupation given for any family member. Perhaps, if Mrs. Potts and her family became people of leisure, it was only for a time. Whether through need or desire, the Potts family had moved to Camden, New Jersey by the 1890s, where Joseph Potts and son Oscero worked as chemists. Joseph Potts died in 1901. By 1910, Florence and Oscero were mentioned as owners of Potts Manufacturing Company, makers of optical goods.
Mrs. Potts’ creativity made the tough task of ironing less onerous for millions of women in the late 19th century. And—though most are unaware—the story of the inventive Mary Florence Potts lives on in the many thousands of irons still found in places like antique shops and eBay.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
By the 1930s, many motorists had grown weary of camping out. Turned out it wasn’t much fun cooking meals, sleeping in crude tents, and roughing it with primitive equipment and few amenities. Homey little cabins like this one, which were increasing in number at the time, seemed much more appealing. Often home-built by the property owners with a little elbow grease and a can-do attitude, these offered privacy, a modicum of comfort, and a needed respite on the journey from home to one’s final destination.
This tourist cabin, now in the “Driving America” exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, was once part of a group of cabins clustered together along U.S. Route 12 in Michigan’s picturesque Irish Hills region. Originally called the Lore Mac Cabins, this modest cabin complex was built between 1935 and 1938. Today this cabin looks much as it did back then, with many of its original fixtures and furnishings.
The cabins were arranged in a semi-circle along a dirt road. Common bathroom facilities were located behind the main office and the owner’s residence (visible in the foreground of this snapshot). Men’s and women’s shower facilities were located here as well.
The owner of the Lore Mac Cabins was also an approved Gulf gasoline dealer. Two gasoline pumps out in front beckoned both overnight guests and other motorists needing to fill up while driving along busy Route 12 between Detroit and Chicago.
The cabin proprietors lived behind the office in which lodgers registered for their nightly stay. Here the daughter of the owner (and donor of the snapshot) poses self-consciously on the back porch of their residence.
The heat for the “heated cabins”--as advertised in large letters emblazoned across the main building--was provided by small, pot-bellied stoves in each cabin, fueled with wood or coal. The Gulf gasoline sign is visible out front.
In the early 1940s, the owner charged around $2.50 for a single cabin and four to five dollars for a double cabin. The interior walls of the cabins were lined with an inexpensive beaver board material while linoleum covered the floor. Throw rugs alongside the metal-frame beds added a touch of hominess. Guests not wanting to trek all the way to the central sanitation facility could use a white enamelware commode discreetly placed under the bed.
The chairs scattered about the property became a perfect place to pose for snapshots. Taking pictures provided a concrete reminder of a trip and might serve as free advertising for the proprietor when guests shared their adventures with family and friends back home.
Alas, competition eventually made it impossible for small Mom-and-Pop operations like the Lore Mac Cabins to survive. Travelers began to bypass tourist cabins like these for the improved amenities of motels, motor inns and, by the 1950s, standardized chains like Holiday Inn.
Cabins like those at the Lore Mac were certainly preferable to camping. But, despite the attempts by tourist cabin proprietors to offer “homes away from home” at a modest price and in an informal atmosphere, the days of these early bare-bones roadside lodgings were numbered.
Dodge Demon 1.0: “Insidious,” one of 800 hot rods and custom cars on view at the 2018 Detroit Autorama.
There’s still snow on the ground in the Motor City, but car show season is officially underway after the 66th annual Detroit Autorama, held March 2-4. Some of the wildest, weirdest and/or most beautiful customs and hot rods filled Cobo Center in a celebration of chrome and creativity. For those who’ve never been, Autorama is a feast for the eyes (and, at closing time when many of the entrants drive off under their own power, the ears). Some 800 cars, built by the most talented rodders and customizers in the country, are brought together under a single roof to be admired, coveted and judged.
Wit is as much a part of the customizer’s toolbox as wrenches and rachets. Check out this 1955 Chevy “Bad Humor” ice cream truck, surrounded by used popsicle sticks.
The most prestigious prize at Autorama is the Ridler Award, named in honor of show promoter Don Ridler. Only cars that have never been shown before are eligible. On Autorama’s opening day, the judges select their “Great 8” – the finalists for the Ridler. Anticipation builds throughout the weekend until the winner is announced at the end of the Sunday afternoon awards presentation. In addition to considerable bragging rights, the Ridler Award winner receives $10,000 and enshrinement in the online Winner Archive. This year’s Ridler went to “Imagine,” a silver 1957 Chevrolet 150 owned by Greg and Judy Hrehovcsik and Johnny Martin of Alamosa, Colorado.
Our 2018 Past Forward winner, a 1956 Continental Mark II with a fifth-generation Chevy Camaro powertrain under the body.
Each year The Henry Ford gives out its own prize to a deserving Autorama participant. Our Past Forward award recognizes a car that 1.) Blends custom and hot rod traditions with modern innovation, 2.) Exhibits a high level of craftsmanship, 3.) Captures the “anything goes” spirit of the hobby, and 4.) Is just plain fun. Our 2018 winner, a 1956 Continental Mark II owned by Doug Knorr of Traverse City, Michigan, and built by Classic Car Garage of Greenville, Michigan, had all these qualities in the right combination. Everything about the car said “Continental,” only more so – from the oversized turbine wheels to the elegant Continental star on the valve covers. And if the 400-horsepower LS3 Camaro V-8 under the hood doesn’t say “anything goes,” then I don’t know what does.
The 1976 Dodge Monaco – notably a model made after catalytic converters, so it won’t run good on regular gas.
If chrome-plated undercarriages aren’t your thing, then Autorama Extreme was there for you again this year on Cobo’s lower level. Shammy cloths and car polish are decidedly out of place among the Rat Rods down below. In addition to show cars, vendors and the ever-popular Gene Winfield pop-up chop shop, Autorama Extreme features a concert stage with ongoing musical entertainment. There’s always a healthy dose of 1950s rockabilly on the schedule, but this year’s lineup also included a Blues Brothers tribute act – complete with a 1976 Dodge Monaco gussied up (or down, I suppose) into a fairly convincing copy of the Bluesmobile.
Unpolished and proud of it. A 1930 Ford Model A with the Rat Rods in Autorama Extreme.
Not everything at Autorama is textbook classic. Here’s a 1980 AMC Spirit patriotically living up to its name with lots of red, white and blue.
“Lethal T,” for those who’ve always dreamed of putting a 427 Cammer in a Model T.
If you haven’t been to Detroit Autorama, then make a point of being there in 2019. You won’t find anything quite like it anywhere else in the world.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
The familiar silver packaging for the “Black Vader” Atari 2600 was created by Evelyn Seto, who led the Atari design team with John Hayashi. THF160364
Cardboard boxes printed in bold colors: shimmering silver, blazing orange, primary blue, circus purple—hot pink. Overlaid with white and yellow Bauhaus typography announcing the contents: Centipede, Breakout, Space Invaders. Inside the box, a black plastic cartridge that holds the promise of video game entertainment, all from the comfort of home. Games played while sitting cross-legged on the floor. Later, aching hands from hours of play on a square, non-ergonomic, one-button joystick. No quarters necessary. By the fall of 1977, there was no denying the fact that the arcade was successfully finding its way into the living room.
The Atari Video Computer System (later sold as the Atari 2600) changed the gaming industry. Earlier systems like the Magnavox Odyssey, Home PONG, and the Fairchild System F were available in the early 1970s, but the remarkable success of the Atari 2600 defined a “second generation” of home consoles, selling over 30 million units between 1977 and 1992.
The number of games available for the 2600—taking into account Atari and Sears releases as well as those by third-parties like Activision and Imagic—finds us looking at approximately 550 unique titles. Several games within this vast library include important contributions made by women.
Female employees were not uncommon at the company. Carol Kantor became the first market researcher at a video game company, ever. Wanda Hill drew the circuit diagrams for Asteroids. Judy Richter worked as a packaging designer and production manager for a decade, through multiple leadership transitions. The people working on the assembly lines populating the circuit boards for arcade games were almost all women. Evelyn Seto supervised the design team, inking the original three-pronged “Mt. Fuji” logo and creating the shelf-appealing silver packaging for the Atari 2600.
Dona Bailey and Ed Logg’s 1980 arcade version of Centipede was translated as a “port” for the Atari 2600 in 1982. In 2013, this cartridge was excavated from the “Atari Tomb” located in an Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill. THF159973
The scales were not exactly balanced in terms of gender equality within Atari’s engineering staff, but take for instance the work of Dona Bailey, programmer of the arcade version of Centipede (1980). Not only was she the first female programmer to design an arcade game, but her collaboration with Ed Logg led to the creation of one of the most iconic video games of all time.
When Carol Shaw created 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, she became the first professional female video game developer. THF171081
Carol Shaw & Susan Jaekel
Dona Bailey’s time in the “coin-op” division at Atari overlapped with Carol Shaw’s work for the “cart” division. In 1977, Shaw graduated from the University of California, Berkeley’s Computer Science program, and was hired as the first female programmer at Atari in August 1978. When she completed her first cartridge game that year—3D Tic-Tac-Toe—she effectively became one of the women to work in the professional video game industry. 3D Tic-Tac-Toe is an abstract strategy video game based on a game called Qubic, which wasoriginally played on room-sized computers in the mid-1950s.
In the 1970s and 80s, the exterior graphics of a coin-op console or the illustration on a game’s cardboard box were often a player’s first exposure to a game. Typically, the vibrant and dynamic graphics promoting a game were light years beyond the pixelated game that showed up on the screen. Nonetheless, Evelyn Seto from Atari’s graphics team once said: “The romance of the game was told in the box artwork.”
And what could be more intriguing than a woman in space with her spacesuit-clad dog competing against a robot with laser-powers? The illustrations on 3D Tic-Tac-Toe’s box were painted by Susan Jaekel, who became known for her illustrated textbooks and cookbooks, as well as the packaging for Atari’s Adventure, Circus, Basic Math, and others. On 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Jaekel collaborated with Rick Guidice to create the four grids in the design; Guidice is well-known for his 1970s illustrations of space colonies for NASA’s Ames Research Center.
In 1978, Shaw also programmed Video Checkers and Super Breakout (with Nick Turner). In 1982, Shaw left Atari to work for Activision, where she created her most celebrated game: River Raid.
River Raid by Carol Shaw. Activision was the first third-party video game developer, making compatible cartridges for the Atari 2600. THF171080
River Raid is a top-down-view scrolling shooter video game. Players move a fighter jet left to right to avoid other vehicles, shoot military vehicles, and must refuel their plane to avoid crashing. The game was pioneering for its variation in background landscape. Whereas most games repeated the same background, Shaw found a way to create a self-generating algorithm to randomize the scenery.
In an interview, Carol Shaw spoke of how “Ray Kassar, President of Atari, was touring the labs and he said, ‘Oh, at last! We have a female game designer. She can do cosmetics color matching and interior decorating cartridges!’ Which are two subjects I had absolutely no interest in…”
Detail of River Raid instruction manual, introduced by Carol Shaw.
In Atari’s early years, Carla Meninsky was one of only two female employees in Atari’s cartridge design division, along with Carol Shaw. When Meninsky was a teenager, her programmer mother taught her the basics of Fortran. Carla’s academic studies at Stanford began in the mathematics department, but she switched to a major in psychology with a focus in neuroscience. In school, she became interested in building an AI-powered computer animation system and spent her free time playing the text-based Adventure game. Soon after graduation, she pitched her computerized animation idea to Atari, and was hired. Almost immediately, she found herself shuttled into the unintended role of game programmer, working through a list of proposed titles with no actual description.
Carla Meninsky and Ed Riddle’s Indy 500 was one of the first of nine titles released with the Atari 2600 launch. THF171078
Meninsky co-designed Indy 500 with Ed Riddle. When the Atari 2600 launched, this was one of the first nine titles advertised. The game was a bird’s eye view racing game that was a “port” made in the spirit of full-size coin-op arcade games like Indy 800, Grand Trak 10, and Sprint 4. This game could be used with the standard controller, or a special driving controller with a rotating dial that allowed players to have greater control over their vehicles.
Dodge ‘Em is another driving maze game designed by Carla Meninsky, and was one of the first games she created for Atari. THF171079
Star Raiders, also by Meninsky, is a first-person shooter game with a space combat theme. The game was groundbreaking for its advanced gameplay and quality graphics that simulated a three-dimensional field of play. The original version of the game was written by Doug Neubauer for the Atari 8-bit home computer and was inspired by his love for Star Trek. This “port” to the home console market for the Atari 2600 was programmed by Carla Meninsky.
Star Raiders came with a special Video Touch Pad controller. The Henry Ford’s collections house the version sold with the 1982 game, as well as a crushed and dirtied version that was excavated from the “Atari Tomb” in 2013. THF171077 and THF159969
The 2600 version of the game could be used with a regular joystick, or a deluxe version was sold with a special Video Touch Pad controller. This twelve-button touchpad was designed to be overlaid with interchangeable graphic cards, printed with commands for different Atari games. Star Raiders was the only game to make use of this controller—perhaps if it weren’t for the looming “Video Game Crash” of 1983, other developers would have made use of this controller.
Atari was one of the first companies with the types of workplace perks that are now ubiquitous at Silicon Valley companies today. It had a reputation for attracting the young, the rebellious, and the singularly talented. While certain aspects of Atari’s workplace culture might raise eyebrows today (and rightly so), it also doesn’t take much digging to find stories of women who were empowered to make vital contributions to the company. These recent artifact acquisitions—games designed and programmed by female gaming pioneers working at Atari—embody an ambition to represent and celebrate diverse cultures through our technological collections.
Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
“Jim Crow” laws—first enacted in the 1880s by angry and resentful Southern whites against freed African Americans—separated blacks from whites in all aspects of daily life. Favoring whites and repressing blacks, these became an institutionalized form of inequality.
Jim Crow was a character first created for a minstrel-show act during the 1830s. The act—featuring a white actor wearing black makeup—was meant to demean and make fun of African Americans. Applied to the later set of laws and practices, the name had much the same effect. THF98689
In the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states had the legal power to require segregation between blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws spread across the South virtually anywhere that the two races might come in contact. In the North and Midwest, segregation became equally entrenched through informal customs and practices. Many of these laws and practices lasted into the 1960s, until outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Through separate (and inferior) public facilities like building entrances, elevators, cashier windows, and drinking fountains, African Americans were reminded everywhere of their second-class status. THF13419, THF13421
It took a great deal of courage, resilience, and strength of character for African Americans to maintain their self-respect and battle the daily humiliation of Jim Crow. The black church, self-help organizations, and men’s and women’s clubs offered refuge, support, and protection, while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) provided potential legal assistance.
The NAACP, formed in 1909, emphasized fighting for racial equality through legal action rather than political protest or economic agitation. THF11647
Out of the demeaning environment of Jim Crow arose the opportunity for some African Americans to establish their own businesses. The more cut off that black communities became from white communities and the more that white businessmen refused to cater to black customers, the more possible it became for enterprising black entrepreneurs to create viable businesses of their own.
Most of these businesses were local, small-scale, and family-run. Many black entrepreneurs followed the tenets of Booker T. Washington, who had established the National Business League in 1900 to promote economic self-help. Washington advocated economic development as the best path to racial advancement and the means to eventually challenging the racial prejudice of Jim Crow. While Washington’s precepts would become increasingly out of step with the times, especially when the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, the support for his ideas among black entrepreneurs of the Jim Crow era is repeatedly evident in the naming of businesses after Washington.
The following images from the collections of The Henry Ford provide an intriguing window into the world of black enterprise and entrepreneurship during the Jim Crow era.
Rodger Clark’s No. 1 Barber Shop, c. 1950. THF240383
Black barbers had long cut white customers’ hair as part of their traditional second-class status in service to white people. But, by the early 20th century, white patrons had begun to shift their business to white-owned shops. A new generation of black barbers proudly established shops within their own communities, catering to a growing black consumer market. They knew that their white counterparts would offer no competition, as they did not want the close contact with blacks that cutting hair demanded. Nor could white barbers offer black men the kind of haircut and shave that they themselves knew how to give.
The cost to enter the field was low but black barbers’ status was high. They generally attracted a regular customer base, akin to church preachers. Men congregated and felt comfortable in these shops, and conversation flowed freely, both about local goings-on and larger racial matters that concerned them all. Barber shops remained important spheres of influence during and after the Civil Rights era.
The rise of black female beauty culture paralleled larger trends in society, especially the influence of mass media like movies and popular magazines. Several black female entrepreneurs spearheaded an emerging beauty culture industry—the most famous of these being Madam C. J. Walker. Some enterprising black women, initially trained as agents to sell special hair preparation and cosmetic products (so-called “beauty systems”), eventually opened their own beauty shops as permanent spaces to facilitate their work as “beauty culturists.” With the little capital needed to start their own businesses, they could free themselves from economic dependence on their husbands or on white employers. It was respectable work, considered doing their part for racial progress and the economic uplift of the black race.
Beauty parlors became places where black women could indulge in moments of pampering, self-indulgence, and relaxation while also letting off steam, gossiping, and speaking their minds. Increasingly, beauty parlors became vital public spaces that nurtured debate and activism among women within black communities.
Undertakers and Funeral Directors
Booker T. Washington was depicted on the front of this cardboard handheld fan for the Jacob Brothers Funeral Home, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1955. As advertised on the back, the funeral home promised air-conditioning and an organ in its chapels. THF224305
By the 1920s, funeral homes had emerged across the country as primary locations for carrying out the responsibilities of handling and burying the deceased. These first emerged in large towns and cities and gradually spread to rural regions. Funeral homes became a particularly lucrative avenue of entrepreneurship for blacks, which lacked white competition because of the close physical contact that was involved in this work. When African Americans were excluded from joining the National Funeral Directors Association, they organized their own independent organization in 1925.
People entrusted black undertakers and funeral directors in their local communities with the proper and responsible treatment of their deceased loved ones. These entrepreneurs offered an appropriate mixture of respect for traditional religious practices, modern American values, and the changing desires of local neighborhoods. Some black funeral homes flourished through aggressive marketing and modern amenities like spacious limousines.
Cafés, Taverns, and Liquor Stores
Dixie Liquor Store, St. Louis, Missouri, 1940s. THF240367
Saratoga Café and Sportsman Lounge, Chicago, Illinois, 1940s. THF240377
During the Jim Crow era, segregation may have been the law in the South but it was just as apparent in northern and midwestern cities. Restaurants, cafés, taverns, and liquor stores thrived in black neighborhoods, established by local businessmen and geared to local customers. These two stores—in St. Louis, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois—seem to have been extremely popular gathering places for both men and women.
It was one thing to frequent the businesses in your own neighborhood. But what happened when you took an out-of-town road trip? Where might you and your family inadvertently encounter hostility, be turned away, perhaps even risk your lives? Black postal worker Victor H. Green attempted to help black travelers combat this dilemma by creating The Negro Motorist Green Book. From 1936 to 1966, the Green Book offered a directory of safe places for African-American travelers. This included not only the expected roadside amenities of lodgings, service stations, and restaurants, but also listings of many of the classic businesses found in local neighborhoods—like barber shops, beauty parlors, liquor stores, and nightclubs. [For more on the Green Book, see this blog post.
One of the most difficult and risky aspects of cross-country travel for African Americans was the question of where to stay overnight. The Negro Motorist Green Book attempted to update its listings as often as possible, while word of mouth helped African Americans learn of safe places—who often drove miles out of their way to get to them. But the fact remained that the most extensive listings of hotels and motels were in northern metropolises with large populations of black Americans. In smaller towns, a tourist home or two might be listed—which meant staying in a room in someone’s house. Many towns lacked even a single listing.
In 1954, a new kind of black-owned lodging opened in Birmingham, Alabama, coinciding with a black Baptist convention in town. Billed “The Nation’s Newest and Finest Motel,” it was built, owned, and run by pioneering black entrepreneur Arthur George (A. G.) Gaston. Gaston also established several other businesses in Birmingham, including a bank, radio stations, the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company, a funeral home, and a construction firm.
Modeled after the groundbreaking Holiday Inns that had recently opened in Memphis, Tennessee, the A. G. Gaston Motel included 32 rooms, each with their own air-conditioning and telephone. Gaston remarked that opening this motel “means that many persons passing through our city will have a fine place to stay.” In 1963, the Gaston Motel became the epicenter of Birmingham’s Civil Rights protests and demonstrations.
Berry Gordy and Motown Records
This Smokey Robinson and the Miracles 45 rpm record was licensed to and issued nationally by Chess Records because Motown as yet lacked a national distribution network. THF170558
Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan, in 1959, created a business that successfully bridged the Jim Crow era and the post-Civil Rights Act era. He accomplished this by accurately predicting the coming of an integrated market of consumers for black popular music.
In 1922, Gordy’s father, Berry Sr., moved his family to Detroit from Georgia—an area steeped in Jim Crow laws and practices—because he faced hostility and potential violence from local whites when his food distribution business proved too successful. Berry Sr. established the Booker T. Washington Grocery Store in the black working-class neighborhood of Detroit, which soon also became highly successful. All the while, he encouraged his children to be industrious and establish their own business ventures.
Inspired by the legendary boxer Joe Louis, Berry Jr. first dreamed of becoming a famous boxer but he eventually gravitated to his other interest—music. From record store owner to songwriter to multi-million-dollar record producer and distributor, Gordy used his business savvy to redefine black music coming out of Detroit as popular music that both blacks and whites would want to hear and buy. Throughout the monumental success of his career, Gordy claimed that he had continually upheld his family’s business ethic and the self-help ideals of Booker T. Washington.
The Jim Crow Era provided the impetus for a number of black businesses to grow and flourish, instilling a sense of pride within black communities, serving as symbols of racial progress, and promising safe places to do business and socialize. The conversation and ideas that flowed freely in black business establishments also helped raise consciousness and establish a sense of solidarity within black neighborhoods. When the Civil Rights movement gained momentum—offering an end to the indignities and disenfranchisement of Jim Crow—many black entrepreneurs did what they could to support the movement. After the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, and segregation was declared illegal, black entrepreneurs could take pride in the role they had played in the Civil Rights movement despite the fact that the future viability of their segregated businesses were now in jeopardy.
To read more on these topics, check out these helpful books:
Cutting Across the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, by Quincy T. Mills (2013)
Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-75, by Susannah Walker (2007)
Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the 20th Century South,(2016)
Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit, by Suzanne E. Smith (1999)
Donna R. Braden is the Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Motown Record Album, “The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks, June 23, 1963.” THF31935
Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, held on June 23, 1963, helped move the southern Civil Rights struggle to a new focus on the urban North. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. later called this march “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America.”
Organized by the Detroit Council on Human Rights, this was the largest Civil Rights demonstration to date. Its main purpose was to speak out against Southern segregation and the brutality that faced Civil Rights activists there. It was also meant to raise consciousness about the unique concerns of African Americans in the urban North, which included discriminatory hiring practices, wages, education, and housing. The date was chosen to correlate with both the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit race riots that had left 34 people (mostly African American) dead. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who agreed to lead the march, had by this time become committed to uniting both North and South through his grand vision of achieving racial justice by using non-violent protest.
On the day of the march, about 125,000 people filed down Woodward Avenue, singing freedom songs and carrying signs demanding racial equality. Some 15,000 spectators watched them pass by a 21-block area before turning west down Jefferson Avenue to Cobo Hall. Cobo was filled to capacity to hear the speeches of the march’s leaders while thousands more listened to them on loudspeakers outside. Of the speeches given that day, Dr. King’s was the most memorable. People were riveted while he expressed his vision for the future, sharing a dream that foreshadowed the “I Have a Dream” speech that he would give a few months later at the March on Washington.
Barry Gordy, founder of the Motown Record Corporation, considered Detroit’s Walk to Freedom to be such a historic event that he offered the resources of his Hitsville studio to produce a record album documenting Dr. King’s impassioned words. Gordy heightened the drama of the event by titling the album, “The Great March to Freedom: Reverend Martin Luther King Speaks.” He believed that this record belonged in every home, that it should be required listening for “every child, white or black.” No one realized at the time, including Gordy, that the August March on Washington would become the more remembered event.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams of social justice, voiced at Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, would prove elusive. Despite the fact that Detroit had gained a national reputation for being a “model city” of race relations at the time, in reality the city’s African-American population faced unemployment, housing discrimination, de facto segregation in public schools, and police brutality. Ultimately this disconnect between perception and reality would lead to the violence and civil unrest of July 1967.
For more on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held on August 28, 1963, take a look at this post.
Donna R. Braden is the Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. is truly one of NASCAR’s greatest legends, with a total of 76 career victories and seven NASCAR Cup championships on the way to becoming a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer.
But one victory, 20 years ago today, will always be special. The 1998 Daytona 500 was the race that Dale Earnhardt finally broke through and won “The Great American Race” in his 20th attempt.
Ironically, Earnhardt was considered a Daytona race master. He had won 11 Daytona 500 qualifying races, six Busch Clash races, four IROC all-star races, two 400-mile July races, and seven Grand National (now XFINITY Series) events at the famed 2.5-mile tri-oval.
That’s 30 victories at the track he loved - a place where legend was he could “see the air” in the draft of cars. It was a place where he was feared by the other competitors because he was so good in competition there.
But a series of mishaps in the biggest race of them all – the Daytona 500 – had hampered him in chasing the trophy he wanted most. Once, he won the Daytona 499 ½, cutting a tire going through the final two turns and losing the chance to win. Other times he had the dominant car only to be beaten by fuel strategy. Or he’d come runner-up in a battle to the finish line.
But that was all forgotten on Feb. 15, 1998, when Dale Earnhardt, once again dominant, led 107 of the race’s 200 laps to take his long-awaited victory in the third fastest 500 in history at that time.
The post-race scene was emotional as Earnhardt slowly rolled down pit lane, with every crew member from every team greeting him with high fives and slaps on his black No. 3 Chevrolet.
The streak had been broken and Dale Earnhardt finally got the trophy he always wanted.
Sadly, just three years later, again in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt was killed in a last lap crash in Turn 4 while attempting to block for his team cars of Michael Waltrip and his son Dale Jr., who went on to finish 1-2.
Kevin Kennedy is a guest writer to The Henry Ford.
This statue was designed to reveal Lincoln’s “essential nobility” while the inscription above him was intended to reinforce national unity. THF121596
By the first decade of the 20th century, memories of the real Abraham Lincoln had faded. A new generation of Americans came of age who had only heard the stories, the myths, and the legends. It was this generation who transformed Lincoln the real man into Lincoln the hero.
During the early decades of the 20th century, America was becoming a complex place--an urban-industrial nation, a serious player on the world stage, and a place with an increasingly diversified population of foreign-born residents. Struggling to come to terms with the change and uncertainty of the era, people looked to Abraham Lincoln--the humble, imperfect, self-educated “common man”--for comfort and reassurance. Abraham Lincoln, better than any single individual, seemed to embody the democratic principles upon which the country had been founded. It was during this era that Abraham Lincoln replaced George Washington as America’s most venerated president.
Just about everyone could find something meaningful by invoking his image, his name, or his character.
The Lincoln Centennial
Postcards abounded as popular keepsakes of the Lincoln Centennial, including this German-imported embossed example. THF121598
On February 12, 1909, virtually the entire nation honored Abraham Lincoln on the 100th anniversary of his birth. In city after city, Americans put aside their regional differences and sought national unity by venerating Lincoln as a “man of the people.”
The national celebration was a grassroots effort--mainly the work of local governments, civic organizations, and print media. Even in the old Confederate states, Lincoln’s character was held up as a model of humility and generosity.
Sadly, Jim Crow laws in the South and practices in the North prevented African Americans from taking part in most of these observances. In their own communities, they honored the memory of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.”
The Lincoln Highway
Abraham Lincoln and symbols of national unity are pictured on the front of this 1915 travelogue. THF204498
In 1912, the few “good” roads that existed for automobile travel were dirt-covered--making them bumpy and dusty in dry weather and virtually impassable when it rained. To get anywhere, it was better to take a train than to drive.
Enter Carl Fisher, an automobile headlight entrepreneur who had the ambitious idea of creating a highway that would cross the continent from New York City to San Francisco. He turned to manufacturers of automobiles and automobile accessories for support and financial backing. His biggest advocate became Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company.
It was Joy’s idea to name the road in honor of Abraham Lincoln. Joy was only a year old when Lincoln was assassinated but his father had filled him with stories of the martyred president. He felt that connecting the road with Lincoln would both increase both its patriotic appeal and enhance its symbolism as the road that unified the nation--a fitting parallel to Lincoln’s great achievement of preserving the union.
Abraham Lincoln and World War I
This World War I poster includes an excerpt of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. THF239921
During the First World War, Lincoln’s reputation extended beyond American shores to the international arena. For, who could more perfectly symbolize the international fight for freedom--the fight to make the world safe for democracy--than America’s own Abraham Lincoln? Although Lincoln’s tactics as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War had been questioned during his own time, his policies, decisions, defense of war, and crackdown on obstructionists now seemed to exemplify visionary leadership.
Reviving Lincoln as a symbol of wisdom, courage, and sacrifice during World War I might have been propaganda but it worked its magic on the American public. Northerners and Southerners enlisted in droves and fought alongside each other in battle. African Americans’ loyalty to Lincoln inspired thousands to enlist and bravely serve their country--though largely in segregated units.
This Lincoln Logs set dates from about 1960—the era of TV Westerns and the Davey Crockett craze. THF6627
Beloved by generations of young children, Lincoln Logs have been around since the 1920s. Oddly, their origin had nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln or log cabins. John Lloyd Wright, Lincoln Logs inventor and son of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, claimed that the idea for this sturdy, interlocking “log” playset came to him in Tokyo, Japan in 1916, while visiting the construction site of the hotel designed by his father. The Imperial Hotel, as it was named, was built upon a unique, earthquake-proof foundation of interlocking beams.
By the time Wright patented his invention in 1920, he was calling it a “Toy-Cabin” construction set. In 1924, it came on the market as “Lincoln Logs: America’s National Toy.” Further cementing the connection, a 1928 advertisement claimed that Lincoln Logs provided, “All the romance of the early days of Abraham Lincoln with all the thrill of Pioneer Life.” Lincoln Logs were an instant success--leading to larger and more elaborate play sets that included cowboys, pioneer towns, forts, horses, and livestock.
The Lincoln Memorial
The Greek temple-like design of the Lincoln Memorial symbolizes the democratic principles for which Lincoln stood. THF121594
During the 1909 Lincoln Centennial, Congress found itself in the embarrassing position of having no plans to honor Lincoln in the nation’s capital. So in 1911, a Lincoln Memorial Commission was created. The commissioners saw this Memorial as both a tribute to Lincoln and an important symbol of a reunified nation. They chose to avoid any literal references to Lincoln’s accomplishments as President as well as his role as the “Great Emancipator.” They felt that might offend people, especially Southerners. No, this expression of Lincoln must transcend all that to represent the man who defended democracy and saved the Union. It must idealize Lincoln’s memory and reveal his “essential nobility.”
After delays in the completion of the enormous statue, the Lincoln Memorial was finally dedicated in 1922. In keeping with federal policies on segregation, African American guests to the dedication were seated in a “colored section” off to the side, where they reported rude treatment by military attendants.
Henry Ford and Abraham Lincoln
In this 1934 photograph, Henry Ford poses in front of the Logan County Courthouse with Lincoln portrayer Charles Roscoe Miles. THF121394
In his great admiration for Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford was like many other Americans of his generation. Born two years before Lincoln was assassinated, he had grown up surrounded by Lincoln myths and stories. His Uncle Barney’s regiment--the Union Army’s famed 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry--had even escorted President Lincoln’s casket from the Old State House in downtown Springfield, Illinois, to its final resting place in Oak Ridge Cemetery about two miles away.
As Henry grew from a youth to an enterprising automobile entrepreneur, Lincoln’s lessons were not lost on him. According to the stories, Lincoln’s success had been due to such character traits as honesty, temperance, industry, and pluck. Furthermore, Lincoln embodied the ideals of the “self-made man,” rising up from humble beginnings to make something of himself.
By the 1920s, a now-wealthy Henry Ford began to amass a collection to honor his hero--including the rocker that Lincoln had been sitting in at Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated. When an antique dealer friend told him of a neglected courthouse in Lincoln, Illinois, in which Lincoln had practiced law, Henry Ford knew that this was the key he had been searching for. It would become the centerpiece of an “exhibit” in his Early American Village (now Greenfield Village) depicting the move from slavery to emancipation. The building would also house his Lincoln collection, to serve as a teaching tool for “the application of the practical principles of justice and common sense so often exemplified by Abraham Lincoln in real life.” Ford’s workmen dismantled and reconstructed the courthouse in Greenfield Village in record time for its grand opening on October 21, 1929.
75 Years of Negro Progress Exposition
Lincoln’s image looms large in this poster advertising the nine-day Negro Progress Exposition. THF61510
Abraham Lincoln remained a powerful source of inspiration to African Americans through the early 20th century, as they struggled to realize the promise of emancipation. The image of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” belonged particularly to them. Those who had experienced firsthand Lincoln’s gift of freedom from slavery considered him their savior and they passed down to younger generations the intensely personal love and reverence they felt for him.
Seventy-five years after Lincoln was assassinated, Detroit was host to a nine-day exposition celebrating both past achievements and “new horizons of advancement.” Each day of the Exposition offered a theme, including Business Day, Women’s Day, Race Relations Day, Youth and Athletic Day, and Patriotic Day. Joe Louis, World’s Heavyweight Champion, made an appearance and Dr. George Washington Carver’s laboratory was featured.
In reality, progress for African Americans had been and would continue to be slow. Most of the earlier dreams of freedom and racial equality had failed. Jim Crow laws and practices were very much in effect. Discrimination was widespread, in the North as well as the South. Race riots continued. It would be 15 more years before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a bus, sparking the Civil Rights movement. Later Civil Rights leaders would, in fact, downplay Lincoln’s role in their plight--feeling that reinforcing his image as the “Great Emancipator” diminished their own struggles and African Americans’ own contributions.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.
The 1948 Tucker The Tucker '48 automobile, brainchild of Preston Thomas Tucker and designed by renowned stylist Alex Tremulis, represents one of the most colorful attempts by an independent car maker to break into the high-volume car business. Ultimately, the Big Three would continue to dominate for the next forty years. Preston Tucker was one of the most recognized figures of the late 1940s, as controversial and enigmatic as his namesake automobile. His car was hailed as "the first completely new car in fifty years." Indeed, the advertising promised that it was "the car you have been waiting for." Yet many less complimentary critics saw the car as a fraud and a pipe dream. The Tucker's many innovations were and continue to be surrounded by controversy. Failing before it had a chance to succeed, it died amid bad press and financial scandal after only 51 units were assembled.
Much of the appeal of the Tucker automobile was the man behind it. Six feet tall and always well-dressed, Preston Tucker had an almost manic enthusiasm for the automobile. Born September 21, 1903, in Capac, Michigan, Preston Thomas Tucker spent his childhood around mechanics' garages and used car lots. He worked as an office boy at Cadillac, a policeman in Lincoln Park, and even worked for a time at Ford Motor Company. After attending Cass Technical School in Detroit, Tucker turned to salesmanship, first for Studebaker, then Stutz, Chrysler, and finally as regional manager for Pierce-Arrow.
As a salesman, Tucker crossed paths at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the great engine designer Harry A. Miller, and in 1935 they formed Miller-Tucker, Inc. Their first contract was to build race cars for Henry Ford. The company delivered ten Miller-Ford Indy race cars, but they proved inadequate for Ford and he pulled out of the project.
During World War II, automobile companies' operations were dedicated to the war effort. Denied new car models for four years, by the war's end Americans were eager for a new automobile, any new automobile. The time was right for Tucker to begin his dream. In 1946, he formed Tucker Corporation for the manufacture of automobiles.
He set his sights on the old Dodge plant in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois. Spanning over 475 acres, the plant built B-29 engines during World War II, and its main building, covering 93 acres, was at the time the world's largest under one roof. The War Assets Administration (WAA) leased Tucker the plant provided he could have $15 million dollars capital by March 1 of the following year. In July, Tucker moved in and used any available space to build his prototype while the WAA inventoried the plant and its equipment.
The fledgling company needed immediate money, and Tucker soon discovered that support from businessmen who could underwrite such a venture meant sacrificing some, if not all, control of his company. To Tucker, this was not an option, so he conceived of a clever alternative. He began selling dealer franchises and soon raised $6 million dollars to be held in escrow until his car was delivered. The franchises attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and in September of 1946 it began an investigation, the first of a series that would last for the next three years.
The agreements were rewritten to SEC satisfaction and the franchise sales proceeded. In October, Tucker began another proposal: a $20 million stock issue contingent upon a completed prototype and clearance by the SEC. That same month, Tucker met his first serious obstacle. Wilson Wyatt, head of the National Housing Agency, ordered the WAA to cancel Tucker's lease and turn the plant over to the Lustron Corporation to build prefabricated houses.
Tucker may have been an unfortunate pawn in a bureaucratic war between the housing agency and the WAA, but the battle continued until January of 1947. Franchise sales fell, stock issues were delayed, and Tucker's reputation was severely damaged. In the end, he kept his plant, but the episode made him some real enemies in Washington, including Michigan Senator Homer Ferguson. But Tucker did find some allies. The WAA extended Tucker's $15 million cash deadline to July 1 and Senator George Malone of Nevada began his own investigation of the SEC.
Meanwhile, Tucker still had a prototype to build. During Christmas 1946, he commissioned Alex Tremulis to design his car and ordered the prototype ready in 100 days. The time frame was unheard of, but necessary. Unable to obtain clay for a mock-up, engineers – many from the race car industry – began beating out sheet iron, a ridiculous way to build a car but a phenomenal achievement. The first car, completely hand-made, was affectionately dubbed the "Tin Goose."
Preston Tucker unveils his car, June 19, 1947. THF135047
The Tucker '48 premiered June 19, 1947, in the Tucker plant before the press, dealers, distributors and brokers. Tucker later discarded many of the Tin Goose's features, such as 24-volt electrical system starters to turn over the massive 589-cubic-inch engine. For the premier, workers substituted two 12-volt truck batteries weighing over 150 pounds that caused the Tucker's suspension arms to snap. Speeches dragged on as workers behind the curtain tried feverishly to get the Tin Goose up and running. Finally, before the crowd of 5000, the curtains parted and the Tucker automobile rolled down the ramp from the stage and to its viewing area where it remained for the rest of the evening. Stock finally cleared for sale on July 15.
By the spring of 1948, Tucker had a pilot production line set up but his stock issue had been $5 million short and he again needed immediate money. He began a pre-purchase plan for Tucker automobile accessories such as radios and seat covers. Although he raised $1 million, advanced payment on accessories to a car not yet in production was the final straw for the SEC. On May 28, 1948, the SEC and the Justice Department launched a full-scale investigation. Investigators swarmed the plant and Tucker was forced to stop production and lay off 1,600 workers. Receivership and bankruptcy suits piled up, creditors bolted, and stock plunged.
A Tucker stock certificate for 100 shares, dated May 3, 1948. THF208633
The SEC's case had to show that the Tucker car could not be built, or – if built – would not perform as advertised. But Tucker was building cars. Seven Tuckers performed beautifully at speed trials in Indianapolis that November, consistently making 90 mph lap speed. However, after Thanksgiving, a skeletal crew of workers assembled the last cars thatthe company would ever produce. In January 1949, the plant closed and the company was put under trusteeship.
"Gigantic Tucker Fraud Charged in SEC Report" ran the Detroit News headline in March. The article related an SEC report recommending conspiracy and fraud charges against Preston Tucker. Incensed, Tucker demanded to know how the newspaper had seen the report even before him. SEC Commissioner John McDonald later admitted he delivered the report to the paper in direct violation of the law. Feeling tried and convicted by the press, Tucker wrote an open letter to many newspapers around the country.
On June 10, Tucker and seven of his associates faced a Grand Jury indictment on 31 counts – 25 for mail fraud, 5 for SEC regulation violation, and one on conspiracy to defraud. The trial opened on October 5, 1949, and from the beginning the prosecution based its entire case on the "Tin Goose" prototype. It refused to recognize the 50 production carsand called witness after witness who, under cross-examination, ended up hurting the government's case. In the end, Tucker's defense team merely stated that the government had failed to prove any offense so there was nothing to defend.
On January 22, 1950, the jury found the defendants innocent of any attempt to defraud, but the verdict was a small triumph. The company was already lost. The remaining assets, including the Tucker automobiles, were sold for 18 cents on the dollar. Seeking some recompense, Preston Tucker filed a series of civil suits against news organizations that he believed had defamed him in the months leading up to his trial. His targets included the Detroit News, which he hit with a $3 million libel suit in March 1950.
In preparation for its defense, the Evening News Association – publisher of the Detroit News– acquired Tucker serial number 1016 for examination. But the suit never reached the courtroom. Preston Tucker was diagnosed with lung cancer and died December 26, 1956. The Evening News Association subsequently presented car 1016 to The Henry Ford, where it remains today.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a soft-spoken African-American seamstress, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This led to a city-wide bus boycott by the African-American community that was so successful many consider Rosa Parks’ act to be the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement.
It’s a powerful story: one person’s simple act of courage can change the world. Today it’s difficult to imagine the real risks that Rosa Parks faced and the tremendous amount of courage she possessed in refusing to give up her seat that day. To get a better sense of this, we must explore the nature of segregated travel in the Jim Crow South.
Separate and Unequal Jim Crow laws -- first enacted in the 1880s by angry and resentful Southern whites against freed African Americans -- separated blacks from whites in all aspects of daily life. Favoring whites and repressing blacks, these became an institutionalized form of inequality.
Jim Crow was a character created for a minstrel-show act during the 1830s, the date of this sheet music. The act -- featuring a white actor wearing black makeup -- was meant to demean and make fun of African Americans.THF98689
In the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states had the legal power to require segregation between blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws-now legally enforceable-spread across the South virtually anywhere that the two races might come in contact. Many of these practices lasted into the 1960s, until outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Through separate (and inferior) public facilities like building entrances, elevators, cashier windows, and drinking fountains, African Americans were reminded everywhere of their second-class status. THF13419andTHF13421
Travel in the segregated South was particularly humiliating for African Americans, beginning with railroads back in the 19th century. Traveling in or between southern states by railway, African Americans of all economic classes were generally relegated to primitive, uncomfortable "Jim Crow cars." Located just behind the locomotive, these were also the most dangerous cars should a collision or boiler explosion occur. Any black railway passenger who complained or refused to comply with the rules could be forcibly removed from the train, beaten, or even killed. Conductors in some states were given policing power to enforce the rules or they could summon local police at station stops to back them up.
Southern states established segregated railroad station facilities for blacks, with separate (and often inferior) ticket agent windows and restrooms, and often lacking the eating facilities available to whites. This sign was installed in a Louisville & Nashville Railroad station. THF93445
The coming of affordable automobiles seemed to provide southern blacks with a way to get around the indignities of long-distance rail travel. However, as soon as black motorists stopped along the road, Jim Crow laws returned in force. Service station and roadside restrooms were usually closed to African Americans, so they often resorted to stashing buckets or portable toilets in their trunks. Diners and restaurants regularly turned away black customers, who took to bringing food along with them. Roadside motels often refused to admit blacks, so they had to depend on the hospitality of their own people or chance the discovery of a "Negro" rooming house.
To avoid Jim Crows laws while travelling in the South (and unwritten Jim Crow practices followed in the North), black motorists created their own tourist infrastructure, with specially published guides steering them to safe accommodations. This is the 1949 edition of "The Negro Motorist Green Book," produced by postal employee Victor H. Green, of Harlem, New York, from 1936 until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. THF77183
Physically separating blacks and whites was most difficult on city transit systems. By 1905, every southern state had outlawed blacks from sitting next to whites on trolleys and streetcars, while individual conductors usually ordered black patrons to move from this or that seat. Middle-class blacks were particularly indignant about these laws and organized numerous long-forgotten boycotts and protests. But, like railroad conductors before them, streetcar conductors were given policing power-and even weapons-to enforce the laws. Any blacks who challenged the rules of behavior were dealt with swiftly and harshly.
As buses replaced trolleys and streetcars on city streets, Jim Crow laws continued. Each state and city had different requirements and customs to signal how blacks and whites were to be separated on the buses. But, as with earlier modes of transportation, individual drivers had great latitude in determining where people sat and the power to enforce their decisions.
By the 1950s, as many as 40,000 African Americans regularly rode the city buses in Rosa Parks’ home town of Montgomery, Alabama (compared with about 12,000 whites). Officially, ten seats in the front of each bus were reserved for whites. These spaces were reserved no matter what. Often this meant black riders were jammed in the aisle, standing over empty seats. If the white section filled up and more white riders came in, an entire row of black passengers had to get up and move back. Bus drivers could demand more seats for whites at any time and in any number. Furthermore, drivers often forced African-American riders, once they had paid their fare, to get off the bus and re-enter through the back door-sometimes driving away without them. (Rosa Parks had actually experienced this.) Those who didn’t comply with these rules could be not only verbally abused but also slapped, knocked on the floor, pushed out the door, beaten, or even killed (which did occur in a few little-publicized cases).
A Courageous Act
As stories of abusive drivers and humiliating incidents continued to spread, anger in the black community grew. However, most of the time, the indignities went unchallenged. Expecting African Americans to resist these long-established laws and traditions meant asking them to risk great harm and to summon an extraordinary amount of personal courage.
By 1955, inspired by attempts in other cities, black community leaders in Montgomery explored the idea of a city-wide bus boycott-an organized refusal to use the buses. But they would need the united support of the city's African-American bus riders, a notion that was unprecedented, untested, and likely to fail given past experience. And, after some fits and starts in trying to find an appropriate test case, they realized that a successful boycott would require the determined action of someone who possessed a flawless character and reputation and, at the same time, could ignite the action of an entire community.
That person, it turned out, was Rosa Parks. Her action on December 1, 1955, was unplanned and spontaneous, although her life experiences had undoubtedly prepared her for that moment. She was not the first African American to challenge the segregation laws of the Montgomery city bus system. But her sterling reputation, her quiet strength, and her moral fortitude caused her act to successfully ignite action in others.
This Montgomery city bus, acquired by The Henry Ford in 2001, is the actual bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat back in 1955. It now resides in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation's With Liberty & Justice For All exhibition.THF134576
Sparking a Movement
Rosa Parks’ arrest for defying the Jim Crow law of segregation on Montgomery buses led to an immediate city-wide bus boycott, during which the black community shared rides, walked, or worked out carpools-despite burnings, bombings, gunshots, and arrests. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than one year--381 days to be exact--until the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared segregation on Alabama buses to be unconstitutional.
Rosa Parks' simple, courageous act gave African Americans everywhere a new sense of pride and purpose, and inspired non-violent protests in other cities. Because of this, many consider her singular act of protest on the bus to be the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement.
Unfortunately, the impact of her act took its toll on Rosa Parks herself. She lost her job, her marriage became strained, her quiet life was gone, and she received threatening phone calls and letters. In 1957, she left Montgomery, moving to Detroit and eventually working for Congressman John Conyers.
How did Rosa Parks summon the courage to defy decades of established rules and traditions about segregated travel? A few months after her arrest, she explained it like this:
The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. I had decided that I would have to know, once and for all, what rights I had as a human being, and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.
Rosa Parks was not a civic, political, or religious leader. She was just an ordinary person. And she well knew the risks of her actions. But, through her example, she showed others what was possible. Her uncommon courage shines through as an inspiration to us today.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.