New ebook revisits Green Book, African American travels


COVID-19 has dramatically altered life as we know it. The deaths of more than 136,000 and more than 3.5 million cases in the United States alone is a tragedy of enormous proportion, bringing grief, suffering and loss to so many families. At the other end of the spectrum of COVID’s impact on our daily existence are families’ plans for a summer of fun, travel and vacations. Instead, families find themselves hunkered down, maintaining social distance, wearing masks in public and fearing community outbreak.

Although we don’t know just how long it will be before a vaccine returns our lives to near normal, we do know the day will come when families pile into the family automobile or head for the airport and their favorite summer destination. But consider for a moment what life would be like if a family could never venture out on America’s highways safely for that vacation. Imagine what it would be like if traveling on roads and highways actually endangered the lives of those with the courage to do so.

That’s the way it was in the last century when African-American families took to the nation’s roads only to be pulled over by local law enforcement for the color of their skin. A new book titled, “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America,” takes us back to the mid-20th century when travel for African American families could be life-threatening, and a pandemic had nothing to do with it.

Today, we can hardly imagine what life must have been like for African Americans prior to the passage in the 1960s of major civil rights legislation, which prohibited discrimination in businesses and public accommodations. But there was a time when most public accommodations and businesses along the roads of America were off limits to African Americans. Those who did offer refuge were few and far between.

That’s the reason Victor Green, a full-time letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, published The Green Book. He learned the hard way as he drove his wife from Harlem to her home in Richmond, Virginia, and encountered racism as they were denied access to lodging and restaurants along the way. From 1936 to 1967, the Green Book served the African American community, informing its black readers of safe places to stay, eat and do business along the roadsides of America.

“Overground Railroad” is the creation of award-winning author, photographer and cultural documentarian, Candacy Taylor. Taylor visited more than 4,000 Green Book sites and photographed nearly 200 of them, many of which are displayed in her book. Her quest is personal, learning about African American travel from her stepfather, Ron Burford, who grew up in the Jim Crow South and experienced the challenges of “driving while black,” as she titles her introductory chapter.

Burford spent most of his life in silence about growing up in the Jim Crow South, but in his later years, he opened up and shared with his family how African Americans dealt with deeply ingrained prejudice and hate visited on families traveling the roads of the South. Taylor never understood as a child why her family’s vacation travel was always at night, until Burford told her years later that it was safer to drive at night when law enforcement would be less likely to patrol the roads and harass drivers of color.

Burford also shared an experience as a youth traveling with his family that shows the ingenuity of African Americans in avoiding the abuse and violence of the era. He remembers his father on family vacations traveling with a chauffeur’s hat in the car. The chauffeur’s hat served as cover for middle class black men who might be pulled over by a local sheriff who would take offense at a black man owning a car better than the sheriff. Once when stopped by a local sheriff on a trip, Burford’s father told the sheriff that his wife and son in the car were his employer’s maid and son whom he was driving home, in his employer’s car, of course. The sheriff asked why he wasn’t wearing his chauffeur’s hat and he pulled it out of the back seat to show the sheriff.

Such were the subterfuges created by resourceful African American families to find safe passageways across America. Although these may have been more common in the South, where Jim Crow still lived, many small northern towns were hardly any more enlightened, and Taylor shares the history of “sundown” towns in the North, where African Americans were not allowed on the streets at night. Vacation travel had to be planned very carefully so a day’s drive didn’t end up in a sundown town, a surefire prescription for harassment and possible detainment.

“Overground Railroad” is a perfect companion piece to an earlier work, “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, who chronicles the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the northern cities of New York, Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago and to Los Angeles and Oakland to the west. “Overground Railroad” makes it clear that “The Green Book” was not only a travel guide for middle-class black families on vacation but also a guide for families fleeing the Jim Crow South as part of the Great Migration to escape lynchings and related violence in the South.

The resurgence of white supremacy and George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has caused the nation to reexamine the African American experience and learn how to rectify the sins of the past. Candacy Taylor’s “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America” serves a useful purpose in our quest to learn more about a shameful chapter of American history by filling in the details of segregation, discrimination and violence toward a people trying to escape a legacy of slavery. Watch for an upcoming interview with Candacy Taylor at Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a regular columnist for the Idaho Statesman and a member of the Statesman editorial board. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.

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