In Jim Crow Terminals. The Desegregation of American Airports, the historian Anke Ortlepp grapples with the familiar subject of racial segregation in transportation, but examines how it played out in air travel. While many scholars have examined movements against segregated transportation on boats, buses, and trains, Ortlepp’s book is the first, full-length study to analyze the contradictions of racial segregation in airports.
Airplanes were developed in the early twentieth century, but commercial flying did not become popular in the United States until the 1950s, and Ortlepp notes that it was in 1960 when the majority of Americans rode airplanes for long-distance travel of more than 500 miles. Not only were airplanes more powerful and efficient but they also evoked modernity, glamour, and wealth. Jim Crow Terminals reminds readers that when commercial flying became popular, it was a vastly different experience than today. Passengers dressed in fine clothes and dined at fine restaurants, not food courts.
It was under these circumstances that airports in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s elected to install racial segregation in their terminals. Racial segregation in airports took many different, idiosyncratic forms, whether it was in separate restrooms or water fountains, segregated waiting areas, difficulties locating transportation out of the terminal, or restaurants that either banned black patrons altogether, or required them to eat in an inferior area. However, in the seating arrangements of aircraft cabins themselves, passengers did not face a color line. Racial segregation was especially complicated because it could differ based upon the business practices of airport terminals, which sometimes clashed with the racial etiquette of individual airlines. Restaurants, in particular, ran into trouble because airlines sometimes issued lunch vouchers for their passengers to eat in an airport restaurant, which coincidentally, barred black customers. Atlanta’s airport was home to Dobbs House Restaurant, Inc., a chain that embodied the mores of white southern nostalgia, complete with a bale of cotton at the entrance, a black man hired to play Uncle Remus and greet the customers, and an all-black wait staff. While Jim Crow was mostly a southern phenomenon, a small number of airports in Northern and Midwestern states, such as Ohio, briefly practiced racial segregation. Ortlepp points to the irony that airport terminals installed systems of racial segregation in the 1950s as other spaces in the United States began the process of racial integration.
There are several reasons why airplanes and terminals had such contested racial politics. First, no other form of transportation in the United States received as much government money as the airlines. In 1946, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Airport Program (FAAP), which offered government subsidies to construct airports across the United States. Although cities and states – and not the federal government – largely controlled the airports, the federal money that flowed into these buildings raised serious questions about government support for racial segregation. Moreover, the federal government regulated the airlines, and the Interstate Commerce Commission prohibited racial segregation on carriers traveling across state lines. Jim Crow Terminals, like many studies of racial segregation, demonstrates the hard and contradictory labor of maintaining and enforcing systems of white supremacy in the United States.
Ortlepp organizes her chapters thematically, focusing on direct action resistance against airport segregation, court cases, federal regulation, and orders from the Department of Justice, which cumulatively led to the end of airport segregation by 1963. Activists affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality staged direct action protests, such as Fly-Ins and Sit-Ins at airport terminals, at the same time that they challenged racial segregation in department stores, lunch counters, and buses. The momentum and tactics of the black freedom struggle waged across the country deeply influenced the struggle in airports. Leaders in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and black congressmen, such as Michigan Representative Charles C. Diggs, Jr., conducted surveys of segregated conditions in airports and supported individuals who waged lawsuits. In 1948, a black woman named Helen Nash sued the owner of the Terrace Dining Room, a restaurant located in the National Airport that served the Washington, D.C. area, after she was refused service. While the case did not result in widespread integration, it prompted the Administrator of the Civil Aeronautics to order the integration of National Airport. Nash’s lawsuit inspired activists to challenge racial segregation in airports in other southern states, including Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana. In 1963, the airport in Shreveport integrated, which brought the era of segregated terminals to a close. Ortlepp argues that segregation was easier to dismantle in airports precisely because the stakes were lower. Comparatively fewer African Americans took airplanes than those that rode buses or dined at lunch counters.
Ortlepp draws heavily on court cases, government documents, organizational records, oral histories, memoirs, and even photographs of airport terminals, which visually depicted the signage of segregation. This book is filled with vivid details that illuminate the day-to-day work of civil rights activities. While most histories of the postwar black freedom struggle offer deep descriptions of protests and mass marches, they rarely consider how iconic figures, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, were able to orchestrate complex, national campaigns across the country. Ortlepp’s book demonstrates that air travel was the vital instrument that enabled King and Height to sustain the momentum of their civil rights campaigns. In addition to civil rights leaders, Ortlepp notes that other black passengers in this era included actors and men and women who jetted off to luxurious vacation destinations. Her discussion of airline advertisements in black publications is excellent, revealing that some companies, such as American Airlines and TWA, worked to cultivate black patronage through strategic advertisements in Ebony that portrayed dignified black passengers.
Jim Crow Terminals is a tight, well-argued monograph that offers a strong contribution to a growing historiography on racial segregation and travel. However, the book does have some analytical gaps. First, Ortlepp could have offered a more extensive discussion of the Cold War context, diplomacy, and travel. While she does acknowledge the poor optics of racial segregation in southern airports during the Cold War, her discussion could be broader. She describes an incident when Indian Ambassador Gaganvihari Lallubhai Mehta experienced segregation at the airport in Houston. But, it is likely that there were other visitors from Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East who faced a color line in southern airports. Moreover, she does not fully connect southern airports with the Sunbelt economy in the 1960s, when cities, such as Atlanta, tried to attract international business. And finally, while she goes into great detail about black passengers in the airlines, she does not critically investigate the white southerners who took airplanes, which would have added more nuance to her study. Despite these criticisms, Jim Crow Terminals will become the definitive history of racial segregation at airports in the United States, and will be of interest to scholars in U.S., African American, and Southern history.