A century-old automobile owned by a San Antonio man who worked to organize Black railroad porters and fight discrimination is bound for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The Ford Model B, a car manufactured between 1932 and 1934, was recently donated to the museum in Washington, D.C., by the descendants of Delbert and Dottie McKinney, the car’s original owners. 

The car, which has been stored at their son’s former home on the far East Side for decades, has been transported to a shop in Pennsylvania for restoration and much-needed repairs. It’s expected to be on display at the museum sometime in 2023. 

Museum officials called it a glimpse into the life of a railroad porter, 20th-century labor history and the emergence of the Black middle class against an era of broad racial discrimination. The family heirloom is a valuable symbol of a point in time in U.S. history and in auto manufacturing. 

But the Model B represented something deeper to the family that inherited it, said Courtney McKinney, great-granddaughter of the original owner. Even without yet knowing much of the owners’ history, she felt the car should be preserved for future generations.  

“A lot of people would have gotten rid of this car by now, just by necessity,” McKinney said.

But the large four-cylinder, two-door sedan had become a fixture in the family, having been for many years maintained by Delbert McKinney’s son Alonzo and stored by other family members when Alonzo’s military service took him to Korea and Vietnam. 

That shared commitment elevated its worth to the close-knit family, said McKinney, a California resident whose aunt and cousin still live in San Antonio.

“It was always a family affair, and they knew how much it meant to my grandpa [Alonzo] and so that’s how we were able to keep it,” she said.

A history uncovered 

Now 32, McKinney was 13 years old the last time her grandfather took her for a ride in the car. Her sentimental attachment to the car only grew when she learned from Smithsonian curators that her great-grandfather, who died in 1956, played a pivotal role in the Black labor movement of the 1920s and ‘30s, she said.

McKinney was one of over 20,000 Black men working as Pullman porters and train workers during the railroad’s heydays in the 1920s, according to the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago. 

Delbert and Dottie McKinney
Dottie and Delbert McKinney Credit: Courtesy / McKinney Family

But the Pullman Company required porters to work about 400 hours a month or travel 11,000 miles before they could be paid. The pay averaged about $17 a week, plus tips meant to augment the meager salary of a job that involved loading luggage and parcels and helping passengers.

However, the porters spent most of that tip money on required uniforms and shoe polish, according to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social Welfare History Project.

A porter on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy line) railroad, McKinney worked to organize other porters to fight discrimination. Museum officials uncovered reports of the McKinneys’ labor activism in local newspapers.

With Courtney McKinney’s grandfather gone and her grandmother ailing, her mother needed to find a new home for the car. “It was a pie-in-the-sky thing,” she said of writing a letter to the museum late last year offering to donate the car. 

“I saw the Smithsonian had a [Negro Motorist] Green Book exhibit where they were talking about the Green books that allowed African Americans to travel through the United States and go through friendly towns, and I thought, this is really relevant,” McKinney said.

When the museum’s curator responded with interest, the family was quick to agree to turn over the keys, she said. It’s what her great-grandparents would have wanted — returning the car to the service of the country.

A limited run 

The McKinney family’s 1932 Ford Model B donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy / Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The original Ford Model B had a short production run in the early 1930s. Only about 5,000 of the cars were made before the company transitioned to the Ford V-8 and other models in the early years of the Great Depression. The car would have sold for less than $500.

McKinney’s great-grandfather used the car for joyrides, according to family lore, which was funny to her because the car’s speed topped out at about 40 mph. 

“But they would take it around and he just had so much pride getting the whole family in the car, riding around the neighborhood, and saying hi to people every Sunday,” she said. 

Delbert McKinney’s pride was well-placed. 

“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,” said Kathleen Franz, a San Antonio native and chairwoman of the Smithsonian history museum’s Work and Industry Division and the collecting curator. 

After the porters unionized, McKinney served in leadership positions with the Brotherhood of Pullman Car Porters, and his wife served as a secretary for the Brotherhood Local No. 3, according to a report by the Smithsonian. In 1940, the members of Local No. 3 elected McKinney 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 the McKinneys owned made it possible for the couple to attend labor conventions and community meetings.

The Model B will be part of the National Museum of American History’s transportation collections, which exhibits everything from buggies and locomotives to motorcycles and bicycles used throughout American history.

The McKinney family is looking forward to seeing the car again — on display at the museum.

“We’re all going to go to D.C.,” McKinney said.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...