Back It Up (Traveling While Black Part II)

Hospital-interior-300x292Under Jim Crow law:

–White motorists had the right of way at all intersections.

–So-called passenger comfort was ensured by creating “equal but separate” train cars for blacks and whites.

–If a black person rode in a car driven by a white person, the black person sat in the back seat.

And woe be unto you if you traveled while black and got into a bad automobile accident. That’s what happened to entertainer Ethel Waters in Alabama circa 1918, where separate but equal almost cost her a leg.

In 1930, when NAACP leader Walter White’s father—who looked white—was struck by a car, his condition seemed to be stabilized at Atlanta’s clean Caucasian hospital. But when a relative of a darker hue arrived to visit, the criticallyDerricotteresize2 injured George White was summarily sent to the Colored wing. Severely underfunded, it was dirty and rodent infested; White died days later.

In ’31, Juliette Derricotte (right), dean of women at Fisk University, got into an accident in Chattanooga, TN. She and the driver received some emergency care from white doctors, but were refused admittance to the local white hospital, and succumbed by the following morning, causing an uproar around the injustice.

And those are just the bold-face names.

For Waters and many black performers during the Jim Crow era, which lasted from 1877 to the mid-1960s, touring was key to earning a living. Traveling was also a priority for many families whose members were at a distance from one another. (Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a must-read on black migration.)

Victor Hugo Green, a mailman in Hackensack, NJ, stepped into the void with the intention of keeping blacks safer on the road. Around 1913, he came up with the concept for the Negro Motorist Green Book and the Negro Traveler’s Green Book.

“[He] and his wife, the former Alma Duke of Richmond, VA, and their family often made the nearly 700-mile round trip to her hometown during their long marriage,” Calvin Ramsey wrote in a National Writers Union newsletter. Green’s books were issued for 30 years, from the mid-30’s to the mid-60’s.

An 80-page-plusGreen Book guide, it listed Negro hotels, restaurants, and homes where travelers could stay. Services such as beauty and barbershops, doctors and dentists’ offices, as well as restrooms and gas stations could be sourced.

“[His] dream was that one day the Green Book would not be needed because African-Americans would enjoy full accommodations on the open road,” Ramsey asserted. Though Green died in 1960, his daughter kept the publication going several more years, through the passage of the Civil Rights Bills of the mid-sixties.

Those bills, along with federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid, ultimately forced  the last few Jim Crow hospital facilities to integrate. And though he couldn’t save his father, Walter White used his sway as an NAACP exec to get his childhood friend Louis Wright, MD, on the staff of the formerly all-white Harlem Hospital.

Green ultimately moved to Harlem, and his legacy has become a major inspiration to Ramsey, whose children’s novel, Ruth and the Green Book, tells of an 8-year-old going with her mom and dad from Chicago to Selma, ALcalvin-ramsey-1, to see her grandmother in the 1950’s. Along the way, they encounter a host of obstacles—until they get their hands on a Green book.

Ramsey (right) also wrote a play called The Green Book. Staged in Washington, DC, it starred the legendary civil rights activist Julian Bond, who shared with Ramsey that his family always traveled with the book. Attending the performance that night was Ernie Green of the Little Rock (Ark) Nine, who integrated an all white school in 1957. His family also relied on the guide. Musician Wynton Marsalis’ grandfather, who ran an Esso gas station in New Orleans, both advertised in and sold Green’s book.

When he attended the funeral of two dear friends’ son who died in a traffic accident in Atlanta about 15 years ago, Ramsey first learned about Green. It turned out that the grandfather of the child who died had traveled from New York City and happened to ask Ramsey where he might track down a Green Book.

“It was his first time traveling to the South,” says Ramsey, “and he thought it was still needed.”

Photos: Ashville Colored Hospital 1945; (AppalachianHistory.net), Juliette Derricotte (Equal Justice Initiative); The Green Book; Calvin Ramsey.

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4 thoughts on “Back It Up (Traveling While Black Part II)

  1. Interesting article! While I knew that navigating the South was difficult and that we had to find friendly places for lodging and meals I never knew about the Green Book! Thanks for the history lesson!

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