Traveling the open road has always been part of the American dream. But for black Americans living in an era of apartheid, the road was dangerously paved with dangers.
In order for them to navigate safely across the country, many have relied on the “Black Motorists Green Book”.
“He was a guide who saved lives,” said Rodneyna Hart, director of the Louisiana State Museum’s division, during a phone call from Baton Rouge to discuss the exhibit’s services. Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” currently in the Capitol Park Museum through November. 14.
“From 1936 to 1967, most of that time coincided with the Jim Crow era,” she said. “During that time, it was a dangerous environment for black people. And every time you travel you don’t know the lay of the land. You don’t know what dangers exist.”
The guide pointed out to blacks where they could shop, buy gas, eat, rent a room for the night, get their hair done, or any other service they might need that amounted to a quality of life.
“Some of the information we produced highlights different places in Louisiana that were in the Green Book,” she said.
Former central Louisiana businesses that were featured in the green book included the Orient Hotel, formerly on Lee Street in Alexandria; The Greystone Hotel, previously located on Harrison Street; and McClung Tourist Home which was located on Winn Street. None of these exist any more.
Alexandrian artist Morris Taft Thompson, 85, is originally from New Orleans but moved here in the 1960s.
“The Orient was on Lee Street,” he said. “Lee Street was the hub of the Black rally at that time.”
What’s fascinating about this time, Thompson said, is that black people owned almost everything on Lee Street. Hotels, restaurants, hairdressing salons.
Cool Spot Islands, which was located on 3rd Street, was another place black people coming from out of town could find a meal, Thompson said. It was owned by the late David F. Iles, principal of Peabody High School from 1937 to 1972.
“When you had people traveling, one of the things black people had to do, they had to stay at someone’s house because there was only one hotel which was the Orient which I knew was it was still active, where they could actually go and stay, Thompson said.
And the way they would find out where to stay as they traveled was primarily through verbal communication.
“You know here in the South, they’re a lot more outspoken about racism, which makes it look like there’s more of it here than elsewhere, but that’s not true,” Hart said. “It’s just that there were signs. And there were places where you were allowed and not allowed.”
In the North, there has been the same amount of rejection and unease, but there has been no real warning, she said.
“The Green Paper was therefore a necessary guide to knowing how to cross the United States safely,” Hart said. “Where you would face more dignity than embarrassment.”
The exhibit features many photographs and many texts, Hart said, that allow people to feel a kinship with the people they see.
Although the Green Paper was born to ensure the safety of blacks, the exhibition does not linger in despair.
“It’s a very triumphant and joyous show,” Hart said. “Even the images that they chose to use, there are a lot of people smiling. Not exclusively. As if this is definitely the reality of the world, but it’s that people have found a way to find something. joy. And it’s a celebration of that kind of persistence and trying to have the best life possible with all the odds. “
There are a few artifacts in the exhibit, like a plate, which Hart says makes people realize that these objects were not intended for museums. Living, breathing people interacted with these objects just as people do now.
Victor Hugo Green, postal worker at Harlem, was the founder of the Green Book which was distributed to Esso stations across the country.
He partnered up with black Esso executive James “Billboard” Jackson, who has taught Esso entrepreneurship and business ownership to many people across the country, especially blacks, Hart said.
“With these efforts, it was a very successful travel guide,” Hart said. “And that has also led to a lot of entrepreneurial stories that wouldn’t necessarily have happened otherwise.”
The exhibit highlights the women entrepreneurs who featured in the pages of the Green Book, which also included female editors. Many businesses, such as tourist houses, were run by women.
Beauty salons and barbershops are also highlighted as they have shown how innovative people are to support their financial growth.
What has become of the sites listed in the Green Paper today?
“The vast majority no longer exist,” Hart said. There have been a lot of factors that have contributed to this. “
With the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was no longer any legal separation of races in public spaces. Black businesses also had to compete with better funded, politically connected, and politically connected white industries. And a lot of discrimination still existed by custom or by law.
“Just because it wasn’t legal anymore doesn’t mean it stopped happening,” Hart said. “So there has been a lot of systematic deprivation of the franchise from black industries.”
With urban renewal, many thriving black communities have been destroyed to build highways and other things, she said.
“Another really interesting thing that I like to point out when I talk about the exhibit is that there is a quote that says, ‘We got what we wanted, but we lost what we had’ “Hart said.
The exhibit shows that black people’s desire to do things like live well, travel, go to the beach, spend time with family and have fun has not been diminished by a lack of access.
“Where there was no paved road for black Americans to have these kinds of experiences, they made their own paths for it,” she said.
Hart describes the exhibition as a multigenerational experience in which grandparents and grandchildren can participate.
“There are stories that are told in a way that you can only experience in museums,” she said. “But it does spark a conversation that is really, really important for this to happen.”
There isn’t a word to describe the exhibit, Hart said.
“It’s triumphant. It’s exciting. It’s interesting. It’s heartbreaking at one point,” she said. “It’s maddening at times. But eventually you walk away and feel there’s a difference it made.”
While viewers may regret that a guide was needed for the safety of blacks, they will also be proud that such ingenuity existed to find a way to have a good life, Hart said.
“Because we deserve it as humans,” she added.
The Capitol Park Museum in Baton Rouge is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The museum’s PechaKucha night, October 14, will focus on a theme from the Green Book. For PechaKucha Night, 10 speakers will each have 20 slides that will last 20 seconds each. Each speaker will give an intensive 4 minute talk on a topic.