Colored Travelers

Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War

By Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor

240 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 28 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-2857-8
    Published: November 2016
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-2858-5
    Published: October 2016

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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Americans have long regarded the freedom of travel a central tenet of citizenship. Yet, in the United States, freedom of movement has historically been a right reserved for whites. In this book, Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor shows that African Americans fought obstructions to their mobility over 100 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. These were “colored travelers,” activists who relied on steamships, stagecoaches, and railroads to expand their networks and to fight slavery and racism. They refused to ride in "Jim Crow" railroad cars, fought for the right to hold a U.S. passport (and citizenship), and during their transatlantic voyages, demonstrated their radical abolitionism. By focusing on the myriad strategies of black protest, including the assertions of gendered freedom and citizenship, this book tells the story of how the basic act of traveling emerged as a front line in the battle for African American equal rights before the Civil War.

Drawing on exhaustive research from U.S. and British newspapers, journals, narratives, and letters, as well as firsthand accounts of such figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Wells Brown, Pryor illustrates how, in the quest for citizenship, colored travelers constructed ideas about respectability and challenged racist ideologies that made black mobility a crime.

About the Author

Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor is assistant professor of history at Smith College.
For more information about Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, visit the Author Page.


“Contains an unprecedentedly rich trove of evidence about black people’s experiences and understandings of travel before the Civil War.”--New England Quarterly

"Proves once again that there is absolutely no break in American history from before America's founding to the present day when it comes to Civil War and Civil Rights."--Salvatore Cilella, Civil War News

"[A] seminal work. . . . An original contribution to historiography of the 19th century, this work will engage everyone from legal scholars to general readers, and is especially recommended to those interested in the antebellum era and African American history."--Library Journal, Starred Review

“The book’s strength is its comprehension of the civic component of these prolonged public travails. Highly recommended.”--Choice

“In this provocative book, Pryor effectively argues that black Americans, understanding that mobility was essential to citizenship, developed and implemented a host of strategies to resist what would be called Jim Crow on stagecoaches, streetcars, railroads, and transatlantic ships. The evidence from the press and archives is rich, enabling readers to know celebrated figures in new ways and to also meet a host of new figures whose dramatic lives and travels have been impressively reconstructed first in this work. This book’s boldness--combined with its deep immersion in sources--is very rare.”--David Roediger, University of Kansas

“There is a lot of published scholarship that discusses the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel of African Americans, but Colored Travelers is original in that it examines travel itself as a critical site of contestation over antebellum civil rights. If the freedom of mobility is a defining characteristic of social citizenship, Pryor argues, then the formal segregation of space on and in vehicles of transportation—coaches, trains, boats—constituted the earliest institutionalization of policies and practices of racial segregation in the United States and, thus, transformed these spaces into hotbeds for civil rights activism. These are important arguments, and they have never been so thoughtfully and persuasively made.”--Joanne Pope Melish, author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780-1860