307 | ‘A National Story’: Black travel in America evolved with the Civil Rights Movement

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Women prepare for a road trip in 1960s America when the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and Black citizens began to exercise their right to travel the nation’s highways unhindered by the color of their skin. The photo is featured in The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services, which is at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, through March 1.

The history of African Americans’ right to traverse the country free from harm is as significant today as it’s ever been, say historians

Gretchen Sorin, author of “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights,” is a professor of museum studies and director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York.

The book, released in 2020, focuses heavily on how the automobile in the 20th century helped Black Americans break the figurative and literal shackles that prohibited them from traveling throughout the country.

For most Americans, an automobile is more than just a way to get from point A to point B. It’s a major buying decision that impacts our lives in a variety of ways.

Hemmings Motor News in 2019 ran an online article that featured the 1966 film “The Great Love Affair.” The 52-minute documentary highlighted the way the automobile impacted American culture. At one point in the film Steve Smith, a writer, is at a party with race car drivers and other writers when he calls the automobile “society’s great equalizer” and explains owners don’t have to feel inferior to anyone when they’re behind the wheel.

Sorin writes that the automobile was particularly important to Black citizens in mid-century America because it enabled self-directed travel when using public transportation could lead to humiliating and even life-threatening circumstances.

Though the car was emblematic of freedom, Black drivers and their passengers continued to navigate through the treachery of racism while white motorists traversed the roads with nary a thought of trouble, save for a flat tire or an overheated radiator.

Sorin said she learned of The Negro Motorist Green-Book” about 20 years ago while “Driving While Black” was just a seed of an idea. As time went on, it began to dawn on Sorin that a lot of her family’s travel habits she experienced as a child were a direct result of the roadblocks of prejudice they faced as African Americans.

“The more I dug into it, the more I realized that my own story and my own parents’ background were tied up in this story,” she said.

“Their behavior when we traveled was really dictated by the fact that they were African American. The research became kind of a self-discovery for me. It helped me to understand my parents and it helped me to kind of understand the world in which I grew up.”

SAFE PLACES: The Negro Motorist Green Book, right, and Travelguide were two of many directories published to help Black Americans safely navigate through the segregated South and other areas of the country not friendly to people of color. Gretchen Sorin, author of “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights,” provided the photo.

Nearly every chapter in “Driving While Black” features Sorin’s remembrances of traveling with her parents and other family stories of living and working in the segregated South.

When Sorin’s parents would travel with her and her brother from their home in Newark, New Jersey, to her maternal grandparents in Fayetteville, North Carolina, they would not stop at a hotel. They would bypass restaurants and instead eat in their car or stop alongside the road for a picnic lunch with their Coleman cooler filled with food and lemonade.

In her book, Sorin writes that typically Blacks bought large automobiles for good reason. Black drivers could not stop anywhere they pleased to buy gas or eat or use the restroom. They needed a lot of space to pack tools, food, water, pillows, blankets and other supplies white road trippers rarely had to think about.

“There are so many stereotypes about African Americans buying big cars and fancy cars – fancier cars than they have houses,” Sorin said. “Those stereotypes are just wrong because African Americans needed those big cars because of segregation.”

Blacks’ automobiles also had to comfortable because they often doubled as overnight accommodations when Black-owned or desegregated motels and hotels could not be found.

BIG PLANS: A family poses with their car in this photo from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services’ The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition. In the mid-20th century, African American families would often travel in automobiles large enough to accommodate themselves and other items such as food, water, gasoline, tools and blankets in case they could not find desegregated hotels, restaurants and filling stations.

Victor Green’s Guide

There were businesses that welcomed Black travelers but many of them depended on word-of-mouth promotions.

As more African Americans hit the road, these businesses, many of them Black-owned, advertised in Black-owned newspapers and magazines.

And there were regional and interstate travel guides that served African Americans. The most notable guide was The Negro Motorist Green-Book, which listed hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, gas stations, auto repair shops and other establishments that catered to Black customers in the name of safety.

BLACK TRAVEL GUIDE: Victor Hugo Green, a U.S. postal worker from New York City, published The Negro Motorist Green-Book for nearly 30 years. Pictured is a 1940s edition of the Green Book, as most people called it. Though the book was ubiquitous during the era of segregation, original copies are hard to find today, say historians.

The Green Book, as most called it, was published from 1936 to 1967 by Victor Hugo Green and his wife, Alma, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia. The couple lived in Harlem, New York, and Victor was a U.S. postal worker in New Jersey.

In the inaugural issue Green wrote: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.”

While Sorin’s book focuses mostly on the impact of the automobile on African American life, another book titled “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America” by Candacy Taylor digs into the history of the guide and how its content evolved along with the Civil Rights Movement.

Taylor’s work is the foundation of a new exhibit that takes the name of the guide. The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition is curated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services or SITES in Washington, D.C.

It’s apropos that the exhibit is meant to travel. Currently, it’s at the National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis, Tennessee.

TRAVEL IS FREEDOM: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966 stands in the doorway of room 307 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Though President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law two years prior, the Rev. Dr. King continued to travel throughout the South to campaign for racial and economic equality for Black Americans. Episode 307 of Lodging Leaders podcast features interviews with historians who chart the travel history of Blacks in the mid-20th century.

‘Right Story to Tell’

Marquette Folley is director of content at SITES.

The project began several years ago when Taylor proposed it to SITES. Folley calls SITES’ deep-dive into the Green Book “an under-told, hidden story,” and adds it is “the right story to tell” today.

“The Smithsonian tells American stories that we think are very important,” Folley said. “This is a national story.”

“What does it take to travel well? What are the ramifications or implications to our 21st-century reality? How does that actually help us see what’s going on now? And how much of the past that gave birth to the Green Book really does respond to the present?”

No matter where Black Americans lived in the country in the mid-20th century their desire to travel was hampered by the color of their skin. Also snuffed out was their “willingness to believe that you had the right, like all Americans to travel,” Folley said.

“Travel is freedom.”

Prime sponsor of the exhibit is Exxon Mobile, which began in the early 20th century as Sinclair Oil Co., which owned Esso Gas Stations. Sinclair Oil was the first to franchise to African American entrepreneurs. Esso stations were found in just about every state and they were listed in the Green Book.

“Esso in the early, late 1930s, 1940s was the only major business major corporation that actually understood that Black Americans were Americans,” Folley said. “A predominant amount of the Esso station franchises were black-owned and the tradition of seeing and waiting on customers who were Black Americans was part of the philosophy of Esso.”

BLACK-OWNED STATION: The crew at Smitty’s Esso Station in New Jersey poses on opening day, from left, D. Johnson, M. White, Smitty and Lenny Coleman. Esso Gas Stations were the first to franchise to Black Americans. Sinclair Oil Co owned Esso. Today the company is Exxon Mobile and is prime sponsor of The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition, produced by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services. (Photo: SITES)

The concept of safe travel has been shaken and challenged by the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on travel. Meantime, recent events that remind us that Black Americans are still not free to traverse and avoid harassment or death at the hands of their fellow citizens – current events that dovetail with the rollout of the Green Book exhibit.

The phrases “safe travel” and “barriers to travel” are part of The Negro Motorist’s Green Book story for Black Americans, Folley said. “Barriers to travel were part of the rationale that is inherent in using the Green Book.”

Many drivers and their families used the book and other Black-travel guides to cautiously plan road trips.

“There could be quite a distance between safe zone to safe zone. So, charting your way forward is akin to what people do now with the pandemic. You don’t want to go into every restaurant or a public restroom because you have no way of knowing how clean it is in terms of the pandemic.”

So, like Black travelers in the segregated South, “preparation, being aware of the barriers, being aware that safety probably does exist solely in traveling in your car, that’s the Green Book relevance to now,” Folley said. “As a historian, I always believe that we can learn much by not forgetting the past.”

The Green Book not only indicated safe places to stop and shop for Black Americans, it also mapped out the Civil Rights Movement. Many of the establishments, including hotels and restaurants, noted in the book were where civil rights leaders and their cohorts met to strategize their way forward on the road to equality.

Green Book establishments were “sites of activism,” Folley said. They were places where racially integrated groups of people could safely come together.

“The Lorraine Motel, for instance, is the place where in this wonderful city of Memphis, where music is king, where black entertainers, black musicians met and worked and or ate with white entertainers, white musicians.”

It was also among the lodging establishments and restaurants where Civil Rights workers gathered to strategize their next moves.

MOURNERS AT THE MOTEL: A crowd gathers at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, a day after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot on the second-story balcony on April 4, 1968. (Photo: Withers Museum)

While many other Black-owned businesses that thrived during the Green Book era are gone today, the Lorraine Motel still stands. It is part of the National Civil Rights Museum, the first museum in the country dedicated to telling the African American civil rights story.

The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition is at the National Civil Rights Museum, which is attached to the Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

The motel was far from the only lodging establishment that figured in the Civil Rights Movement at that time.

HISTORIC HOTEL: Arthur George Gaston, right, and an unidentified businessman, in July 1957 outside the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama. President Barack Obama in 2017 named the property part of the Birmingham Civil Rights Monument. (Photo: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute)

The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, was developed and owned by Arthur George Gaston, an entrepreneur and businessman. He opened the property in 1954. It had 29 rooms, a coffee shop and restaurant.

The two-story property is where the Rev. Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference set up shop for two months in spring 1963 and planned Operation C, a campaign in which Blacks boycotted retailers in Birmingham and led lunch-counter sit-ins. The meetings stopped in mid-May after a bomb was set off underneath the room where the Rev. Dr. King and his cohorts met.

The National Park Services reports the A.G. Gaston Motel is jointly owned by the National Park Service and the City of Birmingham and is a part of the Birmingham Civil Rights Monument.

Another property that thrived in the segregated South and aided the Civil Rights Movement was the Ben Moore Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama.  It is where Black leaders strategized the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, launched when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.

Noelle Trent, Ph.D., is the museum’s director of interpretation, collections and education.

“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that across the country, there were these hotels that were places of shelter for folks,” said Trent. “There were places everywhere from New York to San Francisco to Denver. These are the places where people were. And so there was almost something like the Lorraine in so many cities across the country that this is where people decided to gather. And this is where they had these conversations.”

Much like today, lodging establishments served many different purposes. And they have their place in African American history.

“There are so many things about the Lorraine that I find fascinating and I learn more and more,” said Trent, who began her role at the museum five years ago.

“One of the things that I really emphasize with people is the Baileys. Walter and Laurie Bailey were the owners of the motel. They bought it in 1945. What a lot of people don’t realize is they were the epitome of a business couple. It was a 50-50 split between the two of them.”

Carol Bailey Champion, daughter of the owners, remembers her parents sharing the work duties of operating a lodging establishment with a restaurant. Her father did most of the cooking while her mother was good at keeping the business’s books.

“They really were visionaries when they bought the motel,” Trent said.

The property was smaller when the Baileys acquired it. After Kemmons Wilson developed the Holiday Inn in Memphis, the Baileys redesigned their property to mimic the modern design of the chain and they added more rooms.

The Baileys were farm-to-table entrepreneurs decades before it was hip. Trent said they owned land in Shelby County on which they grew vegetables used in the restaurant.

The Baileys were also ahead of their time with regard to racial integration. After the Brown vs the Board of Education decision in 1955, Laurie Bailey marketed the motel as a place for guests of all races.

“And so it became this space then for Stax artists to hang out,” Trent said. “It’s kind of known anecdotally if you talk to Booker T and the MGs or Steve Crocker or any of those folks who were at the Stax studios, they would go to the Lorraine, especially when the pool was available and hang out.

“The songs ‘Wait Til The Midnight Hour’ and ‘Knock On Wood’ were actually written in the Lorraine. I’m constantly surprised at the photos we discover – Jackie Robinson, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Satchel Paige, the Staples Singers. All these folks came through this space and that’s just unbelievable. So it has this rich story as being a hub of amazing activity in African-American culture.”

LISTEN: Check out the previous installments of Long Live Lodging’s Black History Month series.

Saving the Lorraine Motel

So much of this history takes a back seat to the fact that the Rev. Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.

When the Rev. Dr. King died, many things died with him, including Black-owned businesses. Some businesses disappeared as racial de-segregation began to become the norm in many areas of the country. Urban redevelopment and gentrification of Black neighborhoods also shifted the landscape. But other businesses, including hotels and motels, fell into disrepair triggered by a miasma of grief.

The Lorraine Motel’s days as a safe haven for African American travelers and a launch site for the civil rights movement were over. But the community would not let it go to ruin.

“After the assassination, the hotel goes into a decline and in the late ’80s, it goes into bankruptcy,” Trent said.

The trend in that era throughout the country was to tear down old structures and construct modern buildings in their place. But the residents of Memphis would not let that happen to the Lorraine Motel. The building is part of America’s story.

Grassroots fundraising efforts almost generated enough money to preserve the motel, Trent said. But the campaigns came up short.

“The state of Tennessee stepped in to help fill that gap,” Trent said. “The property was saved.”

The state still owns the hotel and the agreement with the museum is the hotel can remain in place as long as the museum exists. “It’s an interesting joint, public/private partnership that brought this about. And in 1991, we opened to the public.”

ROOM PRESERVED: A 1960s Cadillac is parked under the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. Walter Bailey, owner of the motel, decided to preserve the room after people left flowers, candles and other items in honor of the civil rights leader. He also preserved a room in memory of his wife and business partner, Laurie Bailey, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 9, 1968.

One of the major features of the Lorraine Motel today is the preservation of room 306, where the Rev. Dr. King was staying when he was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

“The idea of saving the room was not something that happened in 1991,” Trent said. “When Dr. King is assassinated, as soon as the crime scene tape and everything is cleaned up flowers, large floral arrangements, large mementos, are left on the balcony, within a day, less than 12 hours. So people are beginning to make this a hallmark and Walter Bailey foresaw enough to save that room.”

Bailey saved another room as well, Trent said, in memory of his wife.

Laurie Bailey was working the motel switchboard the evening of April 4, 1968, and took the emergency call from the Rev. Dr. King’s companions. Later that night, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died on April 9.

“So for the Bailey family, this is a dual loss. You have the loss of Dr. King and a loss of a wife and mother,” Trent said.

“When you think about the civil rights movement, you cannot exclude the Lorraine Motel.

“Until you’re in that same place and you look out and you can see what Dr. King might’ve seen for the last time, and you see what was lost and how his death from that moment radiated out and affected and change the whole world. That’s a powerful thing.”

The December COVID-19 surge forced the museum to close temporarily. The Green Book exhibit was to move out in early January, but SITES and the museum decided to extend its stay through March 1. It will travel on from there. To find out where it will be next, go online at www.sites.SI.edu.

The collective mission of National Civil Rights Museum and exhibits such as The Negro Motorist Green Book is to make the past count and influence our modern-day sensibilities.

As the Rev. Dr. King said: “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

“One of the things that is great about working at the National Civil Rights Museum is that our mission statement is both historic and present,” Trent said. “We are obligated to interpret and tell the story of the American Civil Rights Movement, and this historical past that provides context for systemic racism and these issues that we’re seeing today.

“We’re also obligated to be a social catalyst. And we’re going to help people understand this fight for civil and human rights, both nationally and internationally. It gives us the ability, both in our programming and in our exhibitions, to walk that line. That is incredibly rare for museums to have that mandated in the mission. But it gives us the leeway to link the past to the present.”

Resources and Links

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FEATURING
  • Noelle Trent

    Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education

    National Civil Rights Museum

    LinkedIn Profile
  • Marquette Folley

    Content Director

    Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services

    Website

  • Gretchen Sorin

    Author

    Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights

    LinkedIn Profile
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