In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I chose to re-publish this post from last year where I shared one of my personal experiences, as an elder, who lived through Jim Crow. Let us not forget the suffering and indignities Dr. King and other civil rights activists were subjected to in the fight for fair and equal treatment in this country.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and
narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
One of my happiest childhood memories were family summer vacations. Every year, we traveled by car from Chicago to my parents’ hometown in Coahoma, Mississippi. Members of our closely-knit extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins joined us for this thirteen-hour drive. We were journeying home, traveling by night, in a caravan of three to four cars through the states of Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi staying “visibly” connected to each car in the caravan along the way. Why, because of the Jim Crow Laws in the 1950s.
- Reports of racial harassment and intimidation of black people while traveling were common.
- Threats of physical harm, especially vulnerable, were cars with license plates from “up north.”
As a black traveler, you understood the restrictions and limitations under Jim Crow. Black travelers were:
- prohibited from using public facilities — water fountains and bathrooms.
- barred from eating in restaurants or ordering food to go.
- banned from staying in hotels and motels.
The children never questioned. The adults never complained. Why? This was our reality. We bypassed Jim Crow and survived.
- We carried our supply of water, soda, paper plates/cups, napkins and plastic silverware.
- We ate food prepared, with love, by my mother and the other women travelers.
- We dined on homemade rolls, deep-fried pork chops and southern deep-fried chicken.
- We consumed large bowls of macaroni and potato salad chilled on ice in coolers.
- We lunched on ham, bologna and/or salami, placed between slices of white bread lavishly splattered with mustard and wrapped in tinfoil. Along with the sandwich, potato chips, an apple, and cookies were packed in individual small brown paper bags.
- We devoured slices of sweet potato pie, pound cake, coconut cake, and my favorite at the time, caramel cake.
As for using the bathroom, we carried a supply of toilet tissue, found an isolated area adjacent to the highway and the person would relieve themselves in the bushes. However, there were times when the only option for privacy was to have someone stand in front of you.
Many of the inconveniences experienced by my family as black travelers might have been avoided had they known about “The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide.” The Green Book was published by the Victor H. Green & Company annually from 1936 until 1964 when the Civil Rights Law was enacted. An 80-page publication, it was considered as the black man’s guide to traveling.
The purpose of the Green Book is best described by the following statement from the publication:
- “With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable. For many travelers, many places are not available, even though they may have the price, and any traveler to whom they are not available, is thereby faced with many and sometimes difficult problems. The Negro traveler’s inconveniences are many and they are increasing because today so many more are traveling, individually and in groups. There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. The Green Book with its list of hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, barber shops and various other services can most certainly help solve your travel problems.”
In a 2010, New York Times article entitled, “The Open Road Wasn’t Quite Open to All,” Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture stated:
- “The lack of knowledge about the Green Book also tells us about the lack of knowledge many Americans now have on how segregation really worked – how it had impacts dramatic and impacts small. But all the impacts hurt. The more people understand that through the Green Book, the more they’ll understand how things have changed. “
What a blessing it was to travel black, as a child, unaware of the Jim Crow limitations and restrictions. Even though Jim Crow Laws are no longer in existence, my early experiences as a black traveler shaped how I view traveling by car today. My phobia, as an adult, is the emotional and mental stress I may have to cope with as a black traveler on the highway.