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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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When Walter Met Hattie

Hat and WaltWalter Frances White and Hattie McDaniel (left, center) met only once, but they spent years obsessed with one another.

They shook hands briefly during the summer of ’42, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which Walter headed, held its annual convention in Los Angeles. The Academy Award-winning actress also attended. I have to imagine that they got corralled into the picture by L.A.’s Mayor Bowron (right) because by then Hattie and Walter were on each other’s #*%@ list.

A couple of years ago, I made the trek cross country to the Beinecke Library at Yale to learn more about Walter, whose papers are there. White was light skinned with blond hair and blue eyes, yet his family had black and white roots. (An ancestor was President Harrison, who before he became Commander-in-Chief, fathered children with one of his slaves.) Gutsy, Walter went undercover to investigate lynchings; arranged legal defense for the Scottsboro boys; and leveraged the might of the NAACP to advance black rights on multiple fronts, setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement.

Though it started in 1909, the NAACP didn’t gain momentum until 1915, when chapters began to form around the country to protest Birth of a Nation, which depicted black people as dangerous, ignorant brutes who had no business being free. The film glorified and reignited the Ku Klux Klan, which gave rise to Jim Crow, so the NAACP took the depiction of black people in films seriously from the gate. So when McDaniel won the Academy Award for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind, she popped up on Walter’s radar as the most visible symbol of the kind of stereotypical role he wanted to shut down.

To be fair to Hattie and the black actors who starred in the films of the 30’s and ’40s, neither America, nor Hollywood, was particularly enlightened about race. (I’m sure some of you are thinking, and they still aren’t, but stay with me here…) Hattie grew up in poverty, and struggled to keep her career afloat during the Depression, which lasted well into the 1930’s. She was, as so many were, grateful for steady employment.

I became fascinated by the relationship between Hattie and Walter, in part because of a few lines in one of her biographies, Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel, by Carlton Jackson: “She had a fear of being plunged back into her earlier conditions of indigence… thoughts like these made Hattie feel as thought Walter White was trying to grab the bread right out of her mouth.”

At the Beinecke, researching Walter, I saw a Yale student newspaper, which said something about Dean Kim Goff-Crews. I knew the name: She’s the great niece of Hattie McDaniel. I emailed her, and she told me to stop by. Her great aunt—through Hattie’s older sister, Etta–had died about a decade before Goff-Crews was born, but family memory of the parties Hattie threw; the way she doted on her nephews; and her legendary generosity lived on.

The more I thought about how their energies became enmeshed, the less surprised I was that when I came looking for Walter, I also found Hattie.

Photo: WinkFlash