A San Antonio family will donate a beloved family heirloom, a rare 1932 Ford Model B automobile, to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Oct. 13. The car will be the first Black-owned vehicle in the museum’s collection, and only the second at the Smithsonian. In honoring a promise to family patriarch Delbert McKinney, who used his Pullman Porter wages to purchase the car in the 1930s, the family has selected the museum as the permanent home for the vehicle. Cared for by several generations of the McKinney family, the Model B offers a glimpse into the emergence of the Black middle class against an era of broad racial discrimination.
The McKinney family’s relationship with the car illuminates the history of car ownership and automobility for African Americans at a time when many faced discrimination and violence on common carriers from trains to streetcars and buses. By the 1930s, for those who could afford an automobile, the car offered an option for private transportation. This vehicle made it possible for McKinney and his wife Dottie Sears McKinney to attend labor conventions, community meetings and to enjoy leisure travel in South Texas.
“Cars speak to the American experience in profound ways, and this Model B can tell multiple stories of the ways in which African Americans navigated the not-so ‘open road’ of automobility,” said Kathleen Franz, the chair of the museum’s Work and Industry Division and the collecting curator. “The car was one of few owned by a Black family during the Great Depression and illuminates automobile history at a time when travel was segregated and even dangerous for Black Americans.”
On its own, the car is an example of the rapid model changes at the Ford Motor Co. in the early years of the Great Depression. The Model B had a short production run between 1932 and 1934 and was replaced quickly with the Ford V-8. This Model B is a four-cylinder, two-door sedan with a front windshield that opens. The car has a wheelbase of nearly 9 feet and is approximately 5.5 feet tall.
McKinney’s Ford Model B extends understanding of life as a railroad porter and, more broadly, 20th-century labor history. A porter on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy line) railroad, McKinney worked to organize Black railroad porters to fight discrimination in the travel landscape. Both of the McKinneys’ labor activism was well documented in San Antonio’s Black press. Delbert was elected to leadership positions with the Brotherhood of Pullman Car Porters, and Dottie served as a secretary for the Brotherhood Local No. 3. In 1940, the members of Local No. 3 elected Delbert as president, and he attended the Texas Federation of Labor as one of 19 Black delegates and worked to enact anti-discrimination practices at the convention.
The car tells the story of the McKinney family’s dedication to service: in the military, in their local and religious communities, in advocating for fair labor and to family. McKinney’s youngest son Alonso inherited the car. An Army Air Force veteran with service in Korea and Vietnam, Alonso was a skilled mechanic who cared for the car until his death in 2007. Reflecting on the car’s significance to her family, Delbert’s great-granddaughter Courtney McKinney said, “There is so much pride wrapped up in this Ford Model B—it is a physical manifestation of the human ability to overcome extreme adversity.”
The Model B will be part of the museum’s transportation collections that includes locomotives and railroad objects, including ones related to the Pullman Porter workforce as well as road vehicles that range from coaches, buggies, wagons, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles and automobiles, from the days before the Model T to modern race cars.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open daily except Dec. 25, between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. The doors of the museum are always open online and the public can follow the museum on social media on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For more information, go to https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000. More information is available on the museum’s website.
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Two people stand in front of a train in this faded photograph
Clara de Pablo