The U.S. is a nation of many illusions–political, economic, and historical. We live by myths taught us by many political, economic, educational leaders. Historically, the leaders at the top have virtually all been elite white men, and today most are still elite white men. By various means they regularly try to tell us, their public, what to think about the most important contours and realities of this society, in regard to its past and present. Among many other strategies, they encourage much ignorance about our real racial history, indeed about much of our history.
( photo credit: jimmywayne)
Recently, significant attention has been paid in some in the liberal/left media to the The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication that guided African American travelers to the relatively few places they could comfortably eat, sleep at, or make gas/pit stops across the country in the Jim Crow segregation era. Wendell Alston writes in the 1949 edition of this important guide:
“The Negro traveler’s inconveniences are many and they are increasing because today so many more are traveling, individually and in groups.”
From 1936 to 1964, Victor H. Green, the publisher, a postal clerk (the much-maligned public employee today) who put out some 15,000 copies of the guide to dealing with Jim Crow segregation. We as a country have forgotten just how extreme this white-generated totalitarianism of Jim Crow actually was. Many Black travelers would travel across the South, daring not to stop in most places — at all, for any reason. Too dangerous.
This totalitarianism also covered all major aspects of African American lives practices in our southern and border states, and numerous northern areas, for many decades before 1936–and in the extreme totalitarian slavery system before that.
Jim Crow also did not die everywhere until the 1970s. And then it was followed by other types of everyday discrimination in public accommodations and many other areas.
For NPR, civil rights leader and former NAACP chair Julian Bond remembered this:
Bond tells NPR’s Neal Conan that he remembers his family using the Green Book to travel in the South, to find out where we could stop to eat, where we could spend the night in a hotel or in somebody’s home.
Few Americans today know this history. And that recalls the comment that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Is this still true?
Train travel from north to south was also effected by unwritten Jim Crow laws during this era. In 1937 as a young child I vividly recall traveling from Boston massachusetts to Athens Georgia via coach. The train I boarded in Boston was the latest in comfortable coach travel at that time. The car had sparkling clean toilet facilities, plush comfortable seats, and well regulated internal climate control.
There were a few black passengers on the train when it left Boston, and several more black people boarded at stops along the way. However when the train pulled into Washington, all of the black passengers, myself included, had to detrain, move across the station concourse. Enroute our group met up with another group of black passengers, and then the combined group was summarily herded by a white conductor along up to a coach on another train. I noticed most curiously that the coach we all boarded was the FIRST coach directly behind the train’s locomotive. Upon boarding I noticed that there were some people already sitting in the coach, and they were also all black.
Simultaneously, I noticed that the blinding smoke from the locomotive’s idling steam engine was blowing through the open doors and flooding the coach compartment. My eyes start to water and my throat was burning from the rapid accumulation of smoke filling the coach. I looked around and other passengers were coughing while some were holding handkerchiefs over their mouths, while others held hats over their faces. Some people asked the black porter who was assigned to our coach to close the coach doors. He said that the trainmaster told him that the doors on the NEGRO coach MUST stay open until the train cleared the terminal. With that the porter rolled his eyes and said if he closed the doors he would get fired.
I tried to make myself comfortable on my wide threadbare worn out seat, but I couldn’t stop coughing. Finally the steam engine started its loud chugging and weezing and the train slowly bumped and weaved its way out of the station. I exhaled a sigh of relief that we were finally moving, but unfortunately this only increased the density of smoke and burnt embers blowing back into our coach. Just before the train exited the station and steamed out into the welcome clear air of the washington summer afternoon, it had to make its way slowly through a long dark tunnel. I slid down from my seat onto the floor desparate to get a little relief from the burning acrid fumes.
Once the train cleared the station it was rolling along at a good clip and everyone opened the windows to exhaust the fumes from the coach. The doors also were still open which allowed a cool soothing high speed breeze to flow through the coach. Our porter came running through the coach telling everyone to close the windows, and then he proceeded to close the coach doors. This was just too much. People jumped up out of their seats and mobbed the porter with threats of physical harm if he attempted to close the coach doors. Fearing for his life the porter ran back out of the coach and didn’t return until the train had made a good 20 miles down rail.
Later in life as I recalled that terrible train ride to Georgia it became clear to me that the racialist trainmaster knew that he was powerless to prevent black people who had purchased a ticket from riding the train south. However, it was the consuming hate in his heart to do everything in his power to made that trip as difficult and unpleasant as possible for his Negro passengers. According to the segregation rules at that time, black people had to ride in segregated coaches. However the trainmaster on his own initive went even further by placing the segregated black coach directly behind the locomotive, knowing that the passengers in this part of the train would be subjected to the heavy unbearable smoke, vibration, and shaking during the entire train ride south.
Like the “Green Book” this train ride was a normal event for traveling American Negroes in the America of my childhood.
Parvenu, thanks for added insights and the detailed look inside the white soul.
A Mexican American friend sent me this comment on this post:
During the fifties when my Dad took his family from Edinburg in the Rio Grande Valley to Corpus Christi, a distance of 144 miles. Then, I knew, though he never told me, that he did not feel comfortable stopping just anywhere. He stopped only where he had a sense that he wouldn’t have an incident. Raza people didn’t have the luxury of a travel book because we’re mainly an oral-culture people and no one seems to have thought of that.
Thank you for sharing what your friend commented on your post showing how Mexican Americans in the Southwest had to be vigilant about their travels during the Jim Crow era too. Most people do not know this history and look at blacks and others of color in an historical vacuum, one that includes judgment and blame for the circumstances in which they suffer rather than respect for the strength and courage that even the simple act of traveling once took–and for those who are undocumented–still takes!