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American Transportation and Black History Month

American Transportation and Black History Month

When most people talk about Black History Month, transportation is probably not the first topic that comes to mind. But being able to move from Point A to Point B is at the very core of our nation’s historical emphasis on mobility—whether social, economic, or geographic.

Access to transportation means access to family and friends, employment, health care, and education. It means access to opportunity.

1973 photo of a Chicago Transit Authority bus
Chicagoans wait to board a CTA bus in 1973.

President Obama recognized the role transportation can play in providing these connections to all Americans when he talked about transportation projects as “ladders of opportunity” in his State of the Union address last month.  We’re working hard at DOT to make sure that more Americans have access to the trains, buses, planes and other forms of transportation they need to pursue their own opportunities. 

Although this wasn’t always the case – many of the marches, freedom rides, and bus boycotts we celebrate during Black History Month remind us that transportation was not always a ladder of opportunity for everyone.  Those marches, rides and boycotts helped bring about much needed change, and modes of transportation played a pivotal role in the way in which African Americans demanded fair and equal treatment.

This is an ongoing effort, even today. Take the community of Beavercreek in Dayton, Ohio for example. A proposal to add to an existing route and extend bus service to a developing community was voted down by the city council by using a loophole in the city ordinance. However, after protests, petitions, marches, and a federal decision that Beavercreek had violated the Civil Rights Act, the citizens of Beavercreek were awarded the new bus route.

Photo of elementary school students with their Garrett Morgan presentation
Elementary school students celebrate the achievements of Garrett Morgan during Black History Month.

During Black History Month, I hope you take a moment to reflect on transportation’s connection to civil rights and the contributions African Americans have made to transportation.

Right here at DOT, our Transportation Walk displays landmark events in transportation and highlights the accomplishment of Garrett Morgan, an African-American inventor who in 1923 was granted the first US patent for a traffic signal to regulate vehicles and pedestrians in urban areas. This invention was one of the first precursors to the red, yellow, green signal light all drivers and pedestrians rely upon for travel.

Photo of US DOT HQ Transportation Walk

In Spencer, The North Carolina Transportation Museum hosts a “Hands on History” map directing visitors to specific exhibits on black inventors, inventions, stories, and individuals.

And if you happen to be in Roanoke, the Virginia Museum of Transportation is currently expanding its exhibit “African-American Heritage on the Norfolk and Western Railroad.” The expansion will include oral histories collected from black rail workers from the 1930s to present, including Norfolk and Western Railroad’s first black machinist and the current Norfolk Southern assistant vice president for diversity and equal opportunity employment.

In Alabama, there’s the Freedom Rides Museum located at the well-known Greyhound Bus Station that was the final destination for the 1961 Freedom Ride where many young black and white, male and female protestors risked their lives to end racial segregation in public transportation.

The history of transportation is a history of connecting people. This month, we at DOT want you to get connected with this rich history. So get out there and take advantage of the many educational opportunities available around the country.

  
Camille Hazeur is Director of the Departmental Office of Civil Rights.

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