Before #TravelNoire, the Black Travel Movement may have seemed like an upper-class privilege. But in reality, Black people have been traveling this whole time – we’ve just had to maneuver restrictions and prejudice in the process. And that hasn’t always been well-documented.
During Jim Crow, it was dangerous to travel while Black. Laws mandated that public places in the South were strictly separate for whites and Blacks, and racists used lynchings to enforce the law as it was both written and understood. Not only did these laws restrict where Black folks could eat, drink or use the restroom while on the road, it also impacted their actual modes of transportation. Buses and trains were segregated, including meal cars if/when available; and pervasive racial discrimination and poverty limited Black car ownership. Nevertheless, automobiles provided an escape from the discomfort and segregation of public accommodations. And thus, our road trips became the solution to the Jim Crow south and a prejudiced America.
While vacations may have been infrequent, and both work and family-related travel encumbered, we – as always – made our own solutions to life’s challenges. From 1936 to 1966, Victor Hugo-Green, a New York City mailman, published The Negro Motorist Green Book (aka the Negro Travelers’ Green Book or Green Book). The Green Book provided a guide to services and places relatively friendly to African-Americans and eventually expanded to a full-fledged travel agency with each across North America and beyond. So what types of issues did the Green book solve?
- White-owned businesses refusing to serve food to Black patrons
- White-owned businesses refusing to repair Black-owned and/or occupied vehicles
- Black travelers unable to secure overnight accommodation or denied food by white hotel-owners
- Black travelers facing violence and forcible expulsion from whites-only “sundown towns”
….and the list continues.
The Green Book was organized by city and state and also shared information on upcoming conventions, beauty parlors, gas stations, night clubs, and city profiles to entice tourism to particular areas.
If Black Americans opted for trains, though, there was another invention that helped us maneuver racist terrains. Before travel was dominated by airplanes and automobiles, segregated trains made travel uncomfortable for Black passengers: not only did the “colored only” section lack amenities, Black passengers were also prohibited from eating in the dining car, or using many (if any) restaurants and facilities along the route.
Since we couldn’t eat on or off the train, the “shoebox lunch,” was packaged by Black women relatives or community members and full of “foods which traveled well: boiled eggs, a piece of pound cake, pineapple upside down cake or sweet potato pie, a serving of fruit or vegetable, sandwiches, and almost always, fried chicken.” Now that’s some soul food.
As you cross city, state and country lines during these next few months, keep in mind the troubles our ancestors went through to the luxuries that we may take for granted today.