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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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Following in Their Footsteps

One of my flaws is that I get stuck in the past, re-rehashing experiences over and over. But recently it came to me that I’m being led into the pages of black history to help keep it alive.

Langston CollageWhen I resided in Harlem from 1993 to 2000, I often reflected that at any given moment, my foot could be landing on the same spot once touched by the giants of our culture. I imagined the white outlines of Langston Hughes’ steps as I trekked the same streets as he did throughout our Uptown neighborhood, with his landmark home (lower left) located at 127th  Street, while my apartment nearby was at 132nd.

Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier and more launched careers at the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street, and all around nightclubs thumped with the black magic of music legends, who made tracks to gigs in wingtips, slingbacks and peep-toe pumps.ethel black swan collage

In 1921, Ethel Waters (right) recorded for Black Swan Records on 138th Street in Sugar Hill. Pianist/composer Fletcher Henderson said he heard her performing in a Harlem basement one night, and invited her to come record some “sides.”  Label founder Harry Pace claimed that Waters was his discovery, when he happened upon her at a cabaret in Atlantic City, and then sent her a ticket to come up to New York and record “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy.”

Waters maintained yet a third version of the story: “I found Fletcher Henderson sitting behind a desk and looking very prissy and important. … I asked one hundred dollars for making the record. I was still getting only thirty-five dollars a week, so one hundred dollars seemed quite a lump sum to me,” according to redhotjazz.com.

The entertainer aimed for the stars, and never hesitated to give herself a raise, which proved well worth it to Pace, who reported: “I sold 500,000 of these records within six months.”

So you could make art in Harlem, as the Renaissance amply proved, and you could make love:

My future grandparents had their “meet cute” on the steps of the 135th subway station. That’s where Oliver Johnson bumped into Wilma Elliott one fine day when one walkedbaby pamzy 2 up and the other down the steps of the station. The Caribbean immigrants—he from Barbados, she from Antigua—had four kids, including my dad, the baby of the bunch.

My parents met in Harlem, too, on 111th Street, where my mother’s grandparents lived on one side, and my father’s parents on the other. Mom remembers Dad pulling the ribbons in her hair when they were kids. Years later, after a military tour in Germany, they came home to Harlem, my birthplace. Who knew that as my parents rolled my stroller along those fabled streets, before they relocated to L.A. a few months later, that I would grasp Harlem in my tiny, balled fists, and never let it go?