The Grahams, North Dakota, 1970
Everyone please put on your thinking cap. I am going to ask a series of questions and I want you to really think about the answers. Outside of your immediate neighborhood, where have you been? The answers will vary. I understand that. Some answers may lead across the globe, while others may only be miles away. Remember, everything should always be put in perspective. Today I am bummed out, wishing that I were vacationing in Tahiti. Yet, I realized during the filming that I might have traveled to places, say Hawaii, which may have been a dream destination for some readers. It is like that old proverb, "I had no shoes and complained, until I met a man who had no feet." A person’s means and motivation have a lot to do with your answer. Next question: When you have traveled, regardless of distance, what was your plan of action? I imagine, first you decided on the destination and then the mode of transportation and or the route. Had you at any point during this thought process considered whether or not it was safe to travel to this destination, would you be welcomed or not based solely on your appearance?
Restroom sign, collection of the Williams
This notion of a “safe” trip is one of the themes of this documentary, specifically the particular period of time that my grandparents, the Grahams, decided to begin traveling. When I tell people about the Grahams, I am frequently asked if they had any “problems,” which translates into whether or not they faced discrimination. Only a year prior to the Graham’s first trip by trailer, had the Civil Rights Act been signed, which in short, declared that discrimination for any reason on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was illegal in the United States of America (Civil Rights Act 1964). Therefor, this is a realistic question from anyone that knows his or her American History. Until the signing of the of the Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in all public facilities in states of the former Confederate States of America, starting in 1890 with a "separate but equal" status for African Americans. Contrary to the simply worded quote, separate was never equal, the belief that separating groups of individuals is a flawed theory of equivalence.
Fall 1956 The Negro Travelers' Green Book, courtesy of the NYPL
The history of the Civil Rights Movement is far too intricate and I am not an authoritative figure on this subject to use this platform to expound. In fact, I always advise those interested in any subject to do their own research. The purpose of my brief history review was to provide some context for my original question: Had you at any point during this thought process considered whether or not it was safe to travel to this destination, would you be welcomed or not based solely on your appearance? For African Americans before (during and after) 1965, this may have been a question that was asked daily whether for leisurely trips or daily errands. In spite of this, with the introduction of the automobile and the rise of the middle class, African Americans found themselves able to take their destiny into their own hands and elude the “separate but equal” status of public transportation. Needless to say, having your own automobile did not eliminate the possibility of being the victim of discrimination found outside of public transportation during your travels. As a direct result of African Americans having this newfound freedom to travel by car, The Negro Travelers' Green Book was born. This series of publications produced between 1936 and 1966, was the brainchild of Victor Green, a postal worker from Harlem, which served as a directory of places in the United States and Internationally, where African Americans can safely travel.
The Grahams, North Dakota, 1970
Before researching for the documentary, I had never heard of this publication. I just so happened to have learned about it while watching Soul Food Junkies by Byron Hurt (great documentary), but it made perfectly good sense and was quite an ambitious undertaking for Mr. Green and his staff. While talking to the Grahams one day, I asked if they knew about The Negro Travelers' Green Book. Of course their answer was no, they had never heard about it and that the possibility of facing discrimination was not something they considered. A little later in the conversation, they begin to tell me stories about the responses they received while traveling:
Excerpt from interview. (FG) Frances Graham, (BG) Benjamin Graham, (CB) Carla Brown
FG: ... We were in the mall and the lady, during the business of the purchase of the transaction, she says, “You all aren’t from here.” I said, “Why do you say that?” She said, she was white, she says, “The Negros that live around here don’t speak to me, don’t talk to me.” And I think that another thing that we did was that we were just enjoying the trip, we weren’t trying to prove anything or necessarily trying to make friends. We were traveling and if you just happened to come into our world…
BG: I think they all came around, didn’t matter where we went, they all came around to our trailer because I guess they wanted to see it.
CB: Yeah, I am sure they were very curious.
FG: And I gave them something to look at because every time we stopped, I’d set up and we’d have soft lights and flowers: very comfortable looking. In fact one guy says to me one afternoon, “Can I come to your party tonight?”
BG: Oh yeah, he thought we were having a party. We said, “We aren’t having a party. People just congregate around our trailer.” After all, we were a novelty.
I can imagine that the Grahams were nothing short of a novelty. As pragmatic as The Negro Travelers' Green Book was at the time, I am glad that the Grahams chose their destinations by their own free will. The more I research this publication, the more fascinated I am by what my grandparents were able to accomplish as they traveled. The New York Public Library has recently completed digitizing the The Negro Travelers' Green Book. Take a look. See what places are highlighted in your city and state. NYPL The Green Book Digital Collection. Use the “map a trip” feature and identify what places you would have been welcomed as an African American. It is enlightening to see where you have been. NYPL Navigating the Green Book.
*Thank you Anna for the article.