I’m a huge fan of Candacy’s work. She’s exploring aspects of specifically ‘black ‘america’, that is central to American culture, that is as American as ‘white america’ is, that has never been written about before. Her work contributes, in equal ways, to the reclaiming of the erased history of black americans, as do the new museum of black american history in Washington D.C., and, the new museum/monument newly opened in Alabama: The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Her work is equally important to both of those efforts because she’s exploring the non-sensational aspects of black oppression, that which occurs in ‘everyday life;’ which is a powerful and justified condemnation of the racism at the heart of American white privilege: the right and pleasure of travel across america. the simple right of mobility every white american assumes is their libertarian right.
THE OVERGROUND RAILROAD
THE GREEN BOOK AND THE ROOTS OF BLACK TRAVEL IN AMERICA
The American road trip is the essence of the American dream. Hitting the open road on a desolate highway symbolizes a pathway to opportunity and easier times. Take Route 66 for example, it was one of the few U.S. highways laid out diagonally, and it cut across the country like a shortcut to freedom.
Although the message of freedom went out to all Americans, it was really only meant for white Americans. Not only were they shut out of pools, parks and beaches, blacks couldn’t eat, sleep, or even get gas at most white-owned businesses. To avoid the humiliation of being turned away, they often traveled with portable toilets, bedding, gas cans, and ice coolers. Even Coca-Cola machines had “White Customers Only” printed on them. In 1930, 44 out of the 89 counties that lined Route 66 were all-white communities also known as “Sundown Towns,” which were places that banned blacks from entering city limits after dark. Some posted signs that read, “N*gger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Understand?”
THE GREEN BOOK
Despite the dangers, millions of black vacationers hit the road and relied on a travel guide called, The Negro Motorist Green Book. Victor H. Green, a black postal worker from Harlem, New York, created this guide and it was published from 1936 until 1967. The “Green Book” featured barbershops, beauty salons, tailors, department stores, taverns, gas stations, garages, and even real-estate offices that were willing to serve blacks. A page inside boasted, “Just What You Have Been Looking For!! NOW WE CAN TRAVEL WITHOUT EMBARRASSMENT.”
Green modeled his guide after Jewish travel guides created for the Borsht Belt in the 1930s. Other black travelers’ guides existed—Hackley and Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers (1930-1931), Travel Guide(1947-1963), and Grayson’s Guide: The Go Guide to Pleasant Motoring (1953-1959)—but the Green Book was published for the longest period of time and had the widest readership. It was promoted by word of mouth, and a national network of postal workers led by Green who solicited advertisers. By 1962, the Green Book reached a circulation of two million people.
The Green Book covered the entire United States and later editions stretched to Canada, Bermuda and the Congo. During the time it was published automobile travel symbolized freedom in America, and the Green Book was a resourceful and innovative solution to a horrific problem. People called it the “Bible of black travel” and a “AAA for blacks,” but it was so much more. It was a powerful tool for blacks to persevere and literally move forward in the face of racism.
During the Great Migration six million blacks hit the road to escape the Jim Crow South, but they quickly learned that Jim Crow had no borders. Segregation was in full force throughout the country. Route 66 was easily the most popular road in America, and out of the eight states along it (Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California), six had official segregation laws as far west as Arizona—and all of these places had unofficial rules about race that changed from county to county. Even once black travelers reached a multiracial city, such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, only six percent of the more than 100 motels along Albuquerque’s slice of Route 66 admitted them. And although there were no formal segregation laws on the books in California, Glendale and Culver City were sundown towns and the sun-kissed beaches of Santa Monica were segregated.
this from the introduction to her new book:
INTRODUCTION: ARE WE THERE YET? [brief excerpt]
“Don’t you dare say a word.” Ron sat in the back seat as his father pulled the car to a stop at the side of the road. His father had told him to be quiet before, but this was the first time Ron felt the words reverberate all the way to the pit of his stomach. Moments later, the Sheriff stood over the well-appointed 1953 Chevy sedan complete with all the modern features you read about in the magazines. “Where did you get this vehicle? What are you doing here? And who are these people with you?” Ron’s father answered, “It’s my employer’s car, officer.” He pointed to his wife, sitting upright and expressionless in the passenger seat. He pretended not to know her and said, “This is my employer’s maid and that is her son in the back. I’m taking them home.” The Sheriff took a long look at Ron’s mother and then angled his eyes to the back seat. A young Ronald sat tight-lipped, too afraid to turn his head, or even take a breath. “Where’s your hat?” the Sheriff barked. “Hanging up. It’s right behind me in the back seat, officer.” The Sheriff waved. “Alright. Move on.”
As they drove north across the Tennessee border a sad, eerie silence hung in the air. The jovial conversation they were having right before the Sheriff pulled them over had stopped. Dead. And although there was no discussion about what had just happened, the gravity of the situation was clear. Ron watched Daddy and Mama exchange knowing glances and Ron turned his head and looked at the black, unassuming hat that had been hanging there ever since he could remember, but it wasn’t until that moment that he realized why he had never seen his father wearing it. Mama wasn’t a maid, and daddy wasn’t a driver. He had a good job with the railroad, and this was their family car. Until that day, Ron never paid attention to that hat, but now he realized that it wasn’t just any hat. This was a chauffeur’s hat. A ruse, a prop — a lifesaver.
During the Jim Crow era, the chauffeur’s hat was the perfect cover for every middle-class black man who was pulled over and harassed by the police. If Ron’s father had told the Sheriff the truth — that he was driving his own car and that they were on vacation — the Sheriff wouldn’t have believed him. He would have assumed that the car was stolen. In the event that the Sheriff did believe it was his car, the rage and jealousy of a black man owning a nicer car than a police officer could afford might trigger a beating, torture or even death. From that day on, Ron saw these hats strategically placed, like unarmed weapons, in the back seat of nearly every black man’s car.
Standing in the kitchen between the sage-speckled countertop and the wall-mounted oven, I listened to Ron’s story, stone-faced. He continued, “Everybody had one, and you always kept it in the car.” And then without any provocation, other stories about growing up in Tennessee tumbled out. Ron talked about his cousin being run out of town in the middle of the night because the Ku Klux Klan was set to lynch him. I listened with a knot in my stomach, trying to swallow my rage and sadness before tears filled my eyes. I didn’t want my emotions to distract him from telling me his story. You see, Ron was my stepfather. I had known this man for over 30 years and this was the first time he shared anything about the pain of growing up in the Jim Crow South. And it’s not that Ron was a quiet man; he loved to talk and he could talk for hours. My mom and my sister and I would try to scoot out of the kitchen before he started in on another one of his long Southern yarns — ones that we had heard before. But it wasn’t until I started this project that he shared these stories with me. It was in that moment, at the age of 46, that I realized I had earned his trust. This was a huge accomplishment, because after what he and most black men of his generation lived through in this country, he felt he couldn’t trust anyone.
I think Ron started to trust me around 2014, soon after I called home asking about the Green Book. I had just seen it for the first time. It was tucked away under glass at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. I never knew such a thing existed. Right after leaving the Autry, I called my parents in Columbus, Ohio and asked Ron if he had used the Green Book. He said, “I’m not sure, probably. There were a few black guides back then.”
He was right. There were at least six other black travel guides, but the Green Book was published for the longest period of time and had the widest readership. From 1937 to 1967, [FN- Although the Green Book was published over a 30-year period, the guide took a hiatus from 1942-1946 due to the second world war, so it was published for a total of 25 years.] Green Book listings blanketed the United States and later editions stretched to Canada, Bermuda, England and the Congo. It grew by word-of-mouth, mail order, black-owned businesses, a savvy media campaign created by Esso gas stations (which operate as Exxon today), and an ambitious grassroots operation of a national network of mailmen led by its creator, a fellow postal worker in Harlem named Victor Hugo Green. This multi-pronged marketing tactic was so successful, by 1962 the Green Book had a circulation of nearly 2 million people.
The Green Book was also in high demand because it was published during a time when car travel symbolized freedom in America. But since racial segregation was in full force throughout the country, the open road wasn’t open to black Americans. “Just What You Have Been Looking For!! NOW WE CAN TRAVEL WITHOUT EMBARRASSMENT,” is what people saw when they opened the Green Book. It was called the AAA guide for black people but it was so much more. The businesses listed in the Green Book were critical sources of refuge placed between America’s long, lonely stretches of perilously empty roads. To stay safe, black folks never left home without a plan, a cover story, and a Green Book.
Given the violence that black folks encountered on the road, the Green Book was an ingenious solution to a horrific problem. It represented the fundamental optimism of a race of people who were facing utter tyranny and terrorism. I was struck that something so simple, and so practical, could be so powerful. It not only showed black travelers where they could go, it was also an effective marketing tool that supported black-owned businesses and celebrated black self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship.
In the early 1930s, right before the Green Book was published, black Americans banned together and created the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign. Once they understood the reach of their collective economic power, the campaign galvanized black communities to picket and boycott businesses that wouldn’t hire them. So when the Green Book came along it was the perfect vehicle to carry this effort because it was practically a Yellow Pages of black-owned businesses.
By 1930, blacks owned approximately 70,000 small businesses, and over the Green Book’s nearly 30-year reign it listed over 9,300 of these businesses, including hotels, restaurants, gas stations, department stores, tailors, nightclubs, drug stores, hair salons, haberdashers, sanitariums, funeral homes, real estate offices, and even a dude ranch. They weren’t randomly scattered across the country; more than 80% were clustered in traditional African-American neighborhoods such as Harlem, South Central and Bronzeville in Chicago. Although most of the businesses in the Green Book were black-owned, white-owned establishments such as Macy’s, Brooks Brothers, the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the Bel Aire Hotel in Los Angeles, and even Disneyland were included.
Although the Green Book was effective in providing safe accommodations for black travelers, this only solved half the problem. Getting to these places could be a dangerous, life-threatening trip. Not only did black motorists navigate a country with thousands of “sundown towns” — which were all-white communities that banned them from entering city limits after dark — blacks couldn’t eat, sleep, or get gas at many white-owned businesses. Even Coca-Cola vending machines had “White Customers Only” printed on them. To avoid the humiliation of being denied basic services, many were forced to travel with ice coolers, bedding, portable toilets and gas cans.