COOPERSTOWN – SUNY Oneonta Distinguished Professor Gretchen Sullivan Sorin is a finalist for a 2021 NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work – Non-Fiction for her book “Driving While Black” (W. W. Norton & Company). The 52nd NAACP Image Awards ceremony will air live on BET March 27 at 8 p.m.
“I am tremendously honored and very grateful,” said Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate School in Museum Studies. “I hope that this book in some small way helps to shine a light on the origins of restricted mobility for Black Americans and their relationship with law enforcement and serves as a call to action that will help to end racial profiling.”
COOPERSTOWN – “Driving While Black: Race, Space & Mobility,” based on the book by Gretchen Sorin, Cooperstown Graduate Program director, will be broadcast at 9 p.m. this evening on WSKG-TV. It is also available on the PBS streaming service.
The documentary, directed by Ken Burns’ brother Ric, is based on Sorin’s “Driving While Black: African American Travel & the Road to Civil Rights,” published in 2020. The book grew out of her 2009 thesis.
COOPERSTOWN REFLECTS – 7 p.m. Library Anti-Racism series continues with “Cooperstown Reflects on Racism in Arts and Monuments.” Panel includes Eva Fognell, Thaw Collection of Native American Art, Fenimore Museum; Tom Heitz/Sharon Stuart, Otsego town co-historian; CGP Director Gretchen Sorin, and Glimmerglass Festival Art & General Director Francesca Zambello. Free, registration required. Presented by Friends of the Village Library of Cooperstown. 607-547-8344 or visit www.eventbrite.com/o/friends-of-the-village-library-23034666815
COOPERSTOWN – Whenever Gretchen Sorin does an interview for film “Driving While Black,” she likes to consult her own copy of The Negro Motorist Guide aka The Green Book.
“I like to see if there are any places listed where I’m doing the interview,” she said. “But so few of them are extant.”
In Albany, she found, an entire neighborhood had been hidden, buried underneath the Empire Plaza.
“There was Dorothy’s Restaurant and a barber shop on Van Trumpet. I’d never heard of that street.”
Sorin’s film, “Driving While Black” will be one of the 2020 Glimmerglass Film Days free films, screening 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 6, through 9:59 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 8. The film debuted on PBS in October.
“I’ve gotten an enormous amount of fan mail from people – black and white – sharing their experiences with travel. It’s all so compelling, I could write a whole other book!”
This year’s festival, held online, is themed around “The Road Less Traveled,” and films may be viewed on your device from Thursday, Nov. 5, to Thursday, Nov. 12. You can watch individual films for $4 each, or you can buy a $50 pass and watch all the films.
“There’s been so much upheaval in 2020, so highlighting people who go off the beaten path really has become more relevant,” said Ellen Pope, executive director, Otsego 2000, which puts on the festival. “And since we’re not able to travel, we can still see all these interesting places.”
In addition to Sorin, Otsego County is well-represented in this year’s Glimmer-glass Film Days.
Oneonta native Peter Hutchison returns with “Healing from Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation” which follows reformed white supremacists.
Another film features Cooperstown Graduate Program alumnus and folklorist Henry Glassie.
Both will speak following the films.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Film Days to move to a virtual format, where ticketholders are given a passcode to watch each movie on a streaming device of their choice.
To participate, go to glimmerglassfilmdays.org
The 27 films will be available for 48 hours, starting with the Film Days opening film, “The Seer and the Unseen,” screening from 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5 – Saturday, Nov. 7.
“The downside is that we don’t have a chance to socialize,” said curator and founder Peggy Parsons. “But you do have a chance to see more films.”
There are ways, Pope said, to bring the festival atmosphere home. A “Film Days in a Box” was prepared, containing popcorn, movie-theater candy and local goodies, including a Film Days mask.
“It gives it a fun, festive feeling,” said Pope.
The boxes quickly sold out, but don’t worry if you didn’t get one – Tin Bin Alley is packing up boxes of old-fashioned movie theater candy, and the Green Toad Bookstore will be offering a digital pop-up shop, where you can buy books related to the festival, including “Driving While Black.”
And Alex’s World Bistro and the Hawkeye Grill are offering special themed dinner-for-two menus, including Mexican for “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” and Japanese food for Werner Herzog’s “Family Romance, Inc.”
COOPERSTOWN – There’s a difference between grads and undergrads, said Gretchen Sorin, Cooperstown Graduate Program director.
“The graduate students are adults,” she said. “They know how to behave. The undergrads are less grown-up.”
Following SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras’ announcement Thursday, Sept. 3, that the SUNY Oneonta campus would close for the remainder of the semester, students reached out to Sorin, panicked that they also would be sent home.
This was not the case, however, and classes were allowed to continue.
“We’ve been very careful,” she said. “We’ve really emphasized following the guidelines that SUNY Oneonta gave us.”
Sorin didn’t blame SUNY Oneonta President Barbara Jean Morris for the outbreak that caused 651 students to test positive for COVID-19.
“No one could have expected what happened to happen,” she said. “I was involved with the dean, and I know a lot of planning went into it. I’m sad this happened, but she wasn’t at fault.”
Though CGP classes are being held virtually for the fall semester, students have access to the CGP building, where they can use the printer, scanners, computers and study spaces – but only if they’ve tested negative.
“All of our 47 students have tested negative,” she said.
Students will also be subject to pool testing throughout the semester, and many quarantined even before coming to the county, as well as for 14 days once they arrived.
“So many were afraid that their state would be put on the ‘hot spot’ list, so they went ahead and quarantined at home anyways,” she said. “We sent weekly emails advising students which states were on the list.”
COOPERSTOWN – Gretchen Sorin has a clear memory of how family vacations always started.
“We would get up at 3 a.m. and get on the road,” the director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies remembers. “We wouldn’t stop at a restaurant or a hotel, and my parents only stopped at Esso gas stations.
“We drove straight through from New Jersey to North Carolina, where my mother’s family lived. I thought that was just how people took vacations.”
But as she got older, she realized that they had a reason for driving that way. “It was all about not wanting to be denied service when they stopped.”
Her new book, “Driving While Black” compiles many of these stories, as well as research into how car travel facilitated and aided the Civil Rights movement.
“If you’re boycotting buses, how else are you going to get to work?” she said. “During, for example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, leaders bought fleets of cars and drove people to work. If you were black and you flew into an airport, cabs were segregated, but you could rent a car at the airport.”
Driving gave African Americans freedom that Jim Crow-era buses and trains did not.
“It was accepted that African Americans would be drive trucks or be chauffeurs,” she said. “I heard many stories about black men who would save their money and buy a Cadillac, but would keep a chauffeur’s cap on the seat next to them – if he was pulled over by police, he would show them the cap and say it was his boss’ car.”
The book, which comes out Feb. 11 from Liveright, a W. W. Norton imprint, had its earliest roots in Sorin’s Ph.D. thesis at SUNY Albany, which focused on “The Negro Motorist’s Green Book,” a travel guide for African American travelers.
“I don’t know if my parents had a copy of the Green Book,” she said. “But 90 percent of the people I spoke to said their parents always went to Esso gas stations.”
Esso was a sponsor of the annual Green Book and was known for its policy of opening its gas stations – and just as important, bathrooms – to black travelers.
“A lot of places would be happy to take your money, but wouldn’t let you use a bathroom,” said Sorin. “But Esso was owned by the Rockefellers, who were Baptists, and they did not believe in discrimination.”
But more than the Green Book, her research, which was also used by documentarian Rick Burns, Ken Burns’ brother, for a PBS program, “The Green Book,” delved deep into car culture in the African American community.“
One of the things that was fascinating was that your ethnic group determined what kind of car you bought,” she said. “For instance, Jews didn’t buy Fords, but African Americans did, because Henry Ford employed black workers.”
Most importantly, she said, black families bought cars that were fast, heavy and reliable. “They liked Buicks because you could carry food and water, spare parts, and blankets and pillows,” she said. “They were also too heavy to turn over, and could accelerate fast.”
Speed and weight were crucial, she said, in case you found yourself in a “Sundown Town,” where African Americans were faced with violence if they remained after dark.
“Thurgood Marshall has a story from when he was a lawyer for the NAACP that he was waiting for a train to Shreveport and a man came up to him and said, ‘(Expletive) the last train is at 4 p.m. and you had better be on it, because the sun is never going down on a live (expletive) in this town’,” she said. “So travel guides like The Green Book were crucial to telling you where it was safe to go.”
Sorin will give a reading and do a signing from the book at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12 at Roots Brewing Company.
A one-hour cut of the “Driving While Black,” documentary, meanwhile, has been making the rounds at film festivals, including ones in Martha’s Vineyard and Albany. “It got a very positive reaction,” she said. “We still have an hour’s worth of footage to record to make it a two-hour documentary.”
Cooperstown Graduate Program Director Gretchen Sorin briefs a packed house a few minutes ago on “Driving While Black,” portions of which are being screened for the first time at Glimmerglass Film Days, which began last evening and runs through Monday. With her is Ric Burns, Ken Burns’ brother, who is producing the film for PBS. It is based on Sorin’s 2009 thesis on “The Green Book,” a guide for black tourists and travelers during the Jim Crow Era. At right in inset photo is Otsego 2000 Executive Director Ellen Pope, an organizer of the annual event. Today’s crowd filled all 126 seats in The Fenimore Art Museum Auditorium, and folding chairs lined the aisles and across the front of the room. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com