How the automobile became a symbol of middle-class freedom in the African American community, while also foreshadowing a troubled future.

Lanes to Freedom: Ridin’ Around with No Particular Place to Go

This past August, I ran into my homey Kenny Neeley at the Flight 93 National Memorial, about 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. It’s a place that is more event-in-progress than a location. It’s also a place you must have a car to access. And toll fare.

Running into Kenny was pure serendipity. I hadn’t seen him since I left Pittsburgh almost ten years earlier. Back then Kenny was a photographer for The Pittsburgh Courier, and I was a writer for Pittsburgh City Paper. I had landed a job at the alt-weekly after working for the great media entrepreneur Connie Portis, who took a chance on me as a newbie out of the University of Pittsburgh to help run her Renaissance Publications office on Fifth Avenue. I also arrived there on the strength of freelance work I did for The Pittsburgh Courier under then-news editor Sonya Toler, who got me my first bylines outside the university.

At City Paper, I collaborated with Kenny on a few stories and I think in those moments we both felt, or knew, that we were standing on the shoulders of not giants, but rather ordinary people like Charles “Teenie” Harris who proved himself capable of doing rather extraordinary things. Ascribing supernatural height to Harris just to satisfy the metaphor robs his narrative of all the unique overcoming he had to do to become great from the 1930s to the 1950s: Redlining, white flight, and other blues—and that wasn’t even the half. What a time, back then, for black people to be alive.

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This is the sentiment I read on the African American faces in many of Teenie Harris’s photographs, especially his images of cars. That, and escape—though, not the escape of white flight as practiced by their white peers. We know that the car in the mid-20th century became known, for most Americans, abstractly as a symbol of freedom. Functionally, cars were vessels to get people efficiently, and privately, from point A to point B. Teenie’s photos showed that African Americans recognized the same freedom and functions. Despite all the racial discrimination of the era, we were still going places, and cars were helping us get there.

Bandleader and musician Billy Eckstine posing with Cadillac convertible
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Bandleader and musician Billy Eckstine posing with Cadillac convertible, June 1947. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

Cars allowed some African Americans access to well-paying jobs, which afforded middle-class status previously out of our reach. It must have felt like there was finally a lane clearing toward The American Dream. We were able to expand our notions of leisure through travel to beaches and other cities we’d never been to before, or, perhaps, had only read about through letters and articles from the Black Press. Blues guitarist Howlin’ Wolf bragged about leaving Memphis in his “$4,000 car and $3,900 in [his] pocket,” headed for Chicago as “the onliest one [who] drove out of the South like a gentleman.”

Black athletes and artists conveyed the thrill of their new luxury wheels in their performances. You see the pride high-beaming from the San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mays as he stands by his Buick Limited convertible, primping for Teenie. You see new melody in the face of Billy Eckstine as he poses for Teenie behind the driver’s door of his Cadillac convertible. There’s also this eerie feeling in the portraits that somewhere in the creases of those smiles lay truths that, while we were riding around in our automobiles, we had “no particular place to go,” as the Chuck Berry song follows.

Of course, there’s liberation in the kind of “Cruisin’” Smokey Robinson rhapsodized about. The Isley Brothers sought to bring purpose to it by inviting folk to join the “Caravan of Love.” And then Prince took us over the edge in his “Little Red Corvette.” Hip-hop kept the engine running, with Masta Ace and L.L. Cool J making us notice cars driving by with the boomin’ systems, as if we could ignore them. After letting Dr. Dre ride on The Chronic, he scooped up a few musicians from Pittsburgh—Sam Sneed, Stuart “Stu-B-Doo” Bullard, Stephen “Bud’da” Anderson, Carl “Butch” Small, and Melvin “Mel-Man” Bradford—for an even funkier ride toward The American Dream.

San Francisco Giants baseball player Willie Mays, sales manager Moe Wysocky, and Chicago Cubs baseball player Ernie Banks posed with 1958 Buick Limited convertible car
Charles “Teenie” Harris, San Francisco Giants baseball player Willie Mays, sales manager Moe Wysocky, and Chicago Cubs baseball player Ernie Banks posed with 1958 Buick Limited convertible car, January 1958. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

The ethos through it all: If you didn’t have your own car, there was someone who could help get you there. The black-owned Owl Cab and Peoples Cab companies came through for black folk, as did the underground-railroad system of jitneys when Yellow Cab refused service. We’d still encounter our share of roadblocks, though.

The Chevys and Buicks captured in Teenie’s photos signified, at the very least, the burgeoning black economic mobility and a steady commute out of inner-city blues. But by the end of the century we saw that we could still get pulled over, even in our lanes toward freedom, as evidenced in the March 1991 video of LAPD officers brutally beating Rodney King. Pittsburgh learned the same several years later when police killed Jonny Gammage during a traffic stop in the city’s Brentwood neighborhood, with no officers convicted in the years-long trials that followed. These were signs of despair to come.

Driving while black became the new attempting to vote while black. The message being: You will be stopped; and there’s no guarantee you will come out alive. We have continued to learn this in the 21st century, with the mysterious fatal outcome of Sandra Blake dying while in police custody, and more pointedly with the hair-trigger killing of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati. We’ve been embraced by the term “ride or die” the hard way.

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As Kenny and I stood at the Flight 93 National Memorial, I couldn’t help but notice the emptiness all around us. The main exhibit, a meadow and hemlock grove that absorbed the impact of the hijacked Boeing 757 that crashed there some 14 years ago, is where 40 passengers and crew died, and where fires once consumed the surrounding wilderness. That collision of past and present, such catastrophe punctuated by such unsettling quiet—somewhat reminiscent of Teenie’s photograph of a Buick colliding with a streetcar—was not lost on me. When the September 11 attacks took place, I was working with Connie Portis at Renaissance News. I remember Pittsburgh’s downtown clearing out due to information at the time that one of the hijacked planes was headed our way. The attacks provoked a president to launch a war on terror, because for that president the attacks were a war waged on freedom. But of course many black people were shocked to learn that these wars had only just begun.

Front end of Buick car in collision with streetcar, with passengers on board, on city street on rainy evening
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Front end of Buick car in collision with streetcar, with passengers on board, on city street on rainy evening, ca. 1940–1950. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

Kenny didn’t have his camera at the memorial that day in August and I didn’t have my reporter’s notebook. But I’m not sure what we would have documented. The site of the plane crash is now mostly overgrown with brush, nature slowly mending the scarred earth through the passage of time. I’m thinking now about how owning an automobile was a new height for African Americans in the 1930s to 1950s and how Teenie was there to give this ascent its proper framing. By 2001, we were scaling even higher heights thanks to planes. And yet, we are somehow no safer today than when Teenie first started work at The Pittsburgh Courier nearly a century ago. I didn’t know what else to make of the Flight 93 memorial during my visit, and I still don’t. I can envision, though, Teenie standing beside us surveying the quiet meadow, finding his one shot, and then turning to say, “My, what a time to be alive.”

This is the latest installment in the Teenie Harris Essay Series, Carnegie Museum of Art’s critically acclaimed project that invites writers—including poets, playwrights, and historians—to respond to the social, cultural, and political content of photographs from the Teenie Harris Archive. The exhibition Teenie Harris Photographs: Cars, currently on view in the museum’s Lobby Gallery, runs from April 30, 2015 to January 4, 2016. Image credit (top): Charles “Teenie” Harris, Three men standing in alley, June 1962. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family.