Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor’s Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War fills a void in the literature on slavery, citizenship, and Jim Crow-segregation practices in the United States before the Civil War, demonstrating how “free people of color negotiated white hostility in public space” while traveling (2). The enforcement of these early segregated traveling policies to restrict pioneering colored travelers inspired them, in their quest for citizenship, to construct ideas about freedom and respectability and to devise “strategies to resist segregation” (2). The structural decision to restrict the traveling experiences of these middle-class, educated colored activists and travelers who relied on steamships, stagecoaches, and railroads to travel inspired them to fight against slavery and racism, as well as to wage long legal battles for citizenship rights. In examining prevailing racist ideologies that made black mobility a crime, Pryor illustrates how “people such as [Frederick] Douglass, Paul Cuffe, Robert Purvis, Susan Paul, Samuel Cornish, David Ruggles, Charles Remond, William Wells Brown, Elizabeth Jennings, and J. W. C. Pennington were among the first activists to make equal access to public conveyances a central feature of black protest” (3). Additionally, “the most elite of these [travelers and] activists became transatlantic abolitionists and crossed the ocean to visit cities such as Liverpool, London, Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, and Berlin” (2). However, Pryor’s focus on the U.S. domestic scene in the nineteenth century—a period when African American educators, ministers, and social justice activists and leaders were victims of these Jim Crow traveling restrictions and practices, primarily enforced by conductors, and of the verbal racist assaults espoused by white workers and young and adult passengers—illustrates the reason for African American protest and resistance. Drawing on a wealth of information available in U.S. and British newspaper and journal entries, as well as on firsthand traveling accounts by Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs, and on “fully searchable, digital newspaper archives” (189–193), Pryor’s Colored Travelers is well researched. Her bibliography consists of periodicals, British, Canadian, and U.S. newspapers, and a list of credible secondary sources. The content of the book is divided into five chapters and an epilogue. In chapter 1, Pryor examines the etymological use of the word “nigger” and links its emergence to the traveling experiences of middle-class African Americans. Illustrating how “a nigger was a slave” (16) and was used as an epithet by white conductors and travelers as a weapon to humiliate, restrict, and negatively shape “the black experience of mobility” (5), Pryor discovers that among whites “nigger” implied property, blackness, a degraded class of laborer, and the precursor to U.S. Supreme Court ruling by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the 1857 Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford decision. She also explores how “some people of color claimed the word as their own, even as folks such as [David] Walker [in Appeal: To the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829)] and [Hosea] Easton bemoaned its use as a single racialized social class” (17). (Easton was a black minister from Hartford, Connecticut, who was “one of the earliest black intellectuals to write about the word” .) Just as social linguist Geneva Smitherman (Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America ) observed decades ago, Pryor concludes that “as a result of this kind of African and African American cultural adaptation, the word nigger developed with distinctly different meanings depending on the speaker or the conversation” (18). Whereas chapter one tracks the use of the word nigger in public spaces, including in printed cartoons of blackface productions, chapter 2 “traces the dawn of the age of segregation in the United States” between the late 1700s and the mid-1800s among white northerners and southerners “as a method of social control” (6). Using Charles Remond’s “harrowing transatlantic journey to a large audience at London’s Exeter Hall” in 1840 as a delegate to the first World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, Pryor references his speech as he “confessed that his most humiliating experience took place not in Massachusetts or New York but over the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. As he told his abolitionist audience, the captain of an American-owned ship forced him to spend every moment of the three-week transatlantic voyage outside on the exterior deck of the boat” (44). Chapter 3 focuses on the origins of the protest movement led by colored travelers as well as on the campaign to deny them the mobility to freely travel abroad. The 1838 case of David Ruggles, a black activist from the antebellum North who used a “letter [to The Providence Courier] to expose injustice on public conveyances,” illustrates the point. It related the conduct of Boston and Providence Railroad employees who had “swindled and assaulted him during a trip from New York to Boston by way of steamship and railroad via the Stonington (Connecticut) Line” (76). Class and gender served an important role in court cases, as Pryor details for a ruling in favor of a colored female in a February 1855 case involving Elizabeth Jennings, a schoolteacher who had been violently assaulted by a white conductor and was awarded by a New York City court “$225 for damages caused by the Third Avenue railroad” (98). Pryor reveals another incident occurring “a few months after Jennings’s court win” where “J. W. C. Pennington, a black minister from New York, tested the parameters of the verdict” (99). Using the power of the pulpit, Reverend Pennington encouraged his congregation “to demand first-class accommodations on the New York City streetcars” (99). However, when these efforts and calls for action were employed by Pennington and his male congregants “on the Sixth Avenue railway, the conductor assaulted them” (99). When they petitioned in court, “the courts had a different interpretation of justice” (99). In chapter 5, Pryor examines Douglass’s 1845 Atlantic voyage, and the significance for other colored travelers journeying to England. This is followed by an epilogue, where, using the traveling experiences of Douglass, William Wells Brown, and others, such as Ellen Craft, Sarah Parker Remond, and Charles Remond, Pryor concludes by stating that “these activists changed the parameters of respectability by encouraging black people to fight segregation and white vigilantism by putting their own bodies in harm’s way” (159). Colored Travelers expands our understanding about the African American freedom struggle for mobility, white resistance, and the African Americans’ strategic resistance movement to obtain citizenship and comparable traveling conditions during the nineteenth century. It demonstrates how the N-word was used to restrict the traveling experiences of African Americans during the antebellum period. And although the inflammatory word and social forces behind it no longer explicitly permit racial segregation, social customs and codes assigned to African American travelers persist today. Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor is the daughter of the famous comedian and actor Richard Pryor, who as part of his act routinely used the N-word. However, after traveling to Kenya in 1979, he vowed to never utter the word again on or off stage (Derrick Z. Jackson, “The N-Word and Richard Pryor,” New York Times, December 15, 2005). Colored Travelers is highly recommended for professors and students studying African American history, social justice protest, leisure and recreation, and tourism. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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