New exhibit explores the history and dangers of America’s ‘dark journey’

Travel represents the freedom to move around without care or worry. But in Jim Crow times, traveling was risky if you were black. the green papera guide for African American travelers, helped them navigate to welcoming places and establishments.

A Smithsonian Institute exhibit in Tacoma examines how a humble guide became an essential resource for African Americans, enabling them to travel safely for work or vacation.

Black travelers at the end of the Great Depression had to worry about driving safely to their destination, and more.

“You didn’t know if people would be hostile to you,” said Gwen Whiting, senior curator at the Washington State Historical Society.

Whiting said it was common for black travelers to pack what was called a shoebox, a cooler full of food for the trip — not for snacking.

“You didn’t know if anyone would allow you to sit down and eat, or even allow you to go to the gas station and get food or gas for the trip,” said- she explained. “It was that level of discrimination that we’re talking about.”

This is what Victor Green and his wife Alma encountered when they traveled around this time. When he spoke to friends and family, he discovered that they were also discriminated against on the road. So the couple posted the Negro Motorist’s Green Booka guide listing gas stations, hotels and restaurants that were safe places for black travellers.

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When first printed in 1936, the green paper focused on New York. But over the years, it has spread to other states, including Washington.

“I know when people say, ‘My God, Washington State was in the green paper?’ And I’m like, “Yeah, because travelers didn’t know what to expect in Washington State,” said Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, president of the Black Historical Society of Washington State.

Many local businesses listed in the green paper were in Seattle, like Stockard’s Barber Shop on East Madison Street, or The Rocking Chair nightclub on East Yesler Way. You can explore some of the local sites through the Seattle green paper interactive tour.

the green paper was more than a travel guide – it helped get Black-owned businesses off the ground across the country. It also helped young entrepreneurs who opened their homes to travelers for a night’s rest and a meal, Johnson-Toliver said. They were known as tourist houses and they were popular.

“It was a time [when] you couldn’t get a reservation, you couldn’t call them and say… “I’d like to be there on such a day, and will my room be ready?” Johnson-Toliver said. “You came by car, you knocked on the door, you were invited in… there was a lot of confidence in the tourist houses.”

The latest edition of green paper was released in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson-Toliver said the security concerns surrounding black travel haven’t changed much and remain relevant today.

“Here we are, still having this discussion about being on the road and being Black, and having to look in your rearview mirror to see who’s behind you, and do you need to slow down, speed up or stop?”

the green paper exhibition runs from March 19 to June 12 at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.

A modern version of green paper

Anthony and Marlie Love produce the YouTube series Traveling Black in Seattle. They also rate their experiences as black people exploring the Puget Sound region.

“Some of the same ideologies that were the basis of Jim Crow, and the same mindset, still exist,” Anthony said. “If anyone understands why the green paper was created, they can understand why we are doing our show today.

The Loves moved to Seattle from St. Louis, Missouri in 2019. At first, the series was a way to get out and explore the area on those cold, gray days. But then they decided to do more than gauge how fun the place was.

“One question we had asked here was how is it really…the experience for a black person to walk in there?” Anthony Love said. “And as we moved forward, we couldn’t find the resources that spoke to that.”

It’s something that’s always on their minds, Marlie Love said.

“As a person of color, I think people don’t realize there’s this anxiety that we have…are we going to be seated, are we going to be served, are we going to have a nice hotel room, or are we going to get a shitty hotel room You don’t want to spend your money somewhere where you are going to have a bad experience.

Marlie and Anthony Love said these concerns may be constant, but they haven’t dampened their enthusiasm for exploring the area and trying new experiences. Much like their traveling companions decades ago, they find a way to overcome these constraints.

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