“The Negro Motorist Green Book” was an essential tool for the black motorist in the first half of the 20th century. In the American South, the early decades of motoring overlapped with the region’s most virulently racist “Jim Crow” era. Black motorists were confronted by challenges largely unknown to white travelers, and a slight misreading of the local racial norms could turn the most commonplace activity into one that brought down on them humiliation, brutality, or death. Many black motorists would not take to the roads without their copy of The Green Book; it was their bible for discovering safe places.
Category: Social History
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In 1950, Lee Petty showed up at a stock car event with his race car painted bright blue. The color would become known as “Petty Blue” and would become a signature look for generations of racing Pettys, including Richard and Kyle. In today’s world of intense branding, you would expect such a color to have been carefully designed and maybe even tested in focus groups before appearing in public. In truth, Petty Blue resulted from a random mix of paint remnants by a man who was just trying to help neighbor Lee Petty by making his Plymouth look better for an upcoming Saturday race.
Regulatory speed limits on public roads are not a modern phenomenon, much less a by-product of the automobile. Horses sped, too. But the early-1900s proliferation of autos on our roads – and the terror those noisy, lurching machines inflicted on the animals that had dominated the roads for 300 years – certainly brought a new sense of urgency to requiring people to refrain from “driving furiously.”
America in the 1800s was still a country built around the farm, where the time of day was reckoned in broad terms: sunrise and sunset; daylight and nighttime; breakfast, dinner and supper. In a small town, where stores had business hours, churches scheduled services, and a court might hold session, a stricter calculation of time was more important. But each town kept its own time with little concern for the next town down the dirt road. Then the railroads came, imposing Standard Railroad Time.
When the first horseless carriages appeared on our streets around 1900, Americans had been using animals for work and mobility for some 300 years. There were early adapters who jumped at the chance to own an automobile, but many North Carolinians were comfortable with their animals, and they dismissed the newfangled contraptions as playthings. Our relatively slow transition from horse power to horsepower left beast and machine in an extended period of sometimes fraught coexistence on the roads.
Laying track across the state from Goldsboro to Charlotte in the 1850s was grueling physical work, but when the task was completed, it gave North Carolina a much-needed reason to celebrate. That’s not to say the process of building the North Carolina Railroad was always pretty. It featured unrealistic budget projections; cost overruns; compromises in the quality of work over the objections of the man charged with oversight. The story reads like something on the front page of today’s newspaper.
An old gristmill sits beside a placid millpond, its water wheel rotating at a stately pace. It’s an iconic image of simplicity and serenity. But in their day, mills were complex, high-tech, noisy machines. And although the mill itself was stationary, gristmills were responsible not only for traffic, but for the very roads down which that traffic traveled – then and now. Colonial mills created many of the roads we still drive on today.
In 1849, legislation created The North Carolina Railroad – at least on paper. But before tracks could actually be laid, someone had to decide exactly where the line would run. Some of those decisions were driven by engineering considerations. Some decisions were shaped by demographics. And some decisions – we should not be surprised – were influenced by the voices of those with money and power.
In the 1700s, The Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia to North Carolina was the conduit for one of the great migrations in United States history. German and Scotch-Irish colonists flooded south in search of land to homestead. The legacy of those immigrants from so long ago is is very much a part of who we are as a state today.
In the mid-1700s, German and Scotch-Irish colonists flooded south from Pennsylvania down The Great Wagon Road to North Carolina and beyond. It was a decades-long migration of epic proportions, and it marked a social upheaval that reconfigured the demographics of the colonies in ways that still reverberate today.
An ordinary (which later would be called a “tavern” or “inn”), was a licensed business providing alcoholic beverages, hot meals, and a place to rest for the night. Ordinaries dotted the roads in colonial North Carolina, and they often served as hub around which a new town would accrete. An ordinary could be upscale, but as one traveler reported, they could also be remarkably crude.
Early American rail service reflected the segregation by race and gender that was inherent in society at the time. But for foreigners traveling by rail in the American south, it was the cars reserved for white men that flummoxed them. There these travelers witnessed a rampant spirit of democracy that struck many as inappropriate and possibly dangerous.
In the 1700s, adventurous North Carolinians treked west over the mountains, lured by the promise of a better life. In the early 1800s, those who followed their footsteps were were not lured; they were propelled by an untenable existence in North Carolina. Any life would be preferable to the economic and cultural stagnation of “The Rip Van Winkle State.”