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Green’s Guide to Safe Refuge

For African-Americans, travel by car through Lexington and across the USA during the Jim Crow era was a harrowing experience. Some whites, like Lexington’s Joe Duff and his father and brother, welcomed motoring blacks to pull over, rest, refresh and fortify. But the Negro Motorists’ Green Book was a coast-to-coast Godsend. Here is its story.

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For much of the nation’s history “the democratic idea of getting out on the open road, finding yourself, heading for distant horizons was only a privilege for white people,” observed Cotton Seiler in Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America.

For traveling Americans who happened to be black, relying on the kindness of strangers was risk with a capital R.

Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Lib. of Cong

Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

The Kentucky Civil Rights Act enacted in 1966 prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on race, color, disability, religion, or national origin. But before ’66 and prior to the 1964 passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act, the tripwires of racial segregation in Lexington and most everywhere else in America were strung taut across the country’s landscape.

A Washington Post account of the Green Book notes that “Jim Crow laws across the South mandated that restaurants, hotels, pool halls and parks strictly separate whites and blacks. Lynchings kept blacks in fear of mob violence. And there were  thousands of so-called ‘sundown towns,’ including in northern states like Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, which barred blacks after dark, an unofficial rule reinforced by the threat of violence.”

Green Books were sold at Esso service stations, one of the few gas station chains that served African Americans.

At the time, as today’s Baby Boomers were in their formative years, Joe Duff worked for his dad at the family service station on the corner of North Broadway and the newly constructed New Circle Road in Lexington, Kentucky.

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The year was 1954. There was a Jerry’s Restaurant across the street. It was for whites only. But the word was circulating among traveling African-Americans that although Duff’s was not an Esso station, Joe’s father was a kind and accommodating man…

For African-Americans increasingly on the move for work, play and family visits, there was a premium on reliable information about places of refuge like Duff’s Service Station in Lexington, Kentucky – knowing where to and where not to make a rest stop, let road-weary and irritable kids out of the car to stretch their legs, find a decent meal, relieve a bursting bladder or refresh with a good night’s sleep.

Eighteen years earlier, when Joe Duff was only a toddler, Harlem postal employee and civic leader Victor H. Green had heard one too many accounts of humiliation or violence against blacks traveling across their own nation and was inspired to come up with a credible improvement to often fatefully inaccurate word-of-mouth.  

'40 Edition - GreenBook_AOTM

The Negro Motorist Green Book organized by state and city places along the nation’s highways where it was safe and welcoming to make a rest or overnight stop.

An introduction in the 1937 edition states: “The idea of ‘The Green Book’ is to compile facts and information connected with motoring, which the Negro Motorist can use and depend upon. We are appealing to the Motorist and Business places for their whole-hearted cooperation to help us in our endeavor, by contributing ideas, suggestions, travel information and articles of interest.” It concludes with the appeal: “Let’s all get together and make motoring better.”

The guide listed cities and places across the country where black motorists were welcome to make a pit stop, check into a motel for the night and have a meal and even in some places like Lexington, enjoy some live music – if not much else.

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Soon, those who needed to know about “The Green Book,” had become well aware of it. To much of the rest of America, the “Go Guide” as some readers referred to it, was virtually unknown. The guide was in limited supply with no more than 15,000 printed annually.

And despite Green’s efforts to develop a network of correspondents across the country, there were gaps in the information that left travelers passing through places like Lexington continuing to count on the grapevine. Duff’s service station, for example, never appeared in its pages.

In an interview with NPR’s Neal Conan, the late social activist and civil rights leader Julian Bond recalled how his family relied on Green’s handy guide, by then tucked into the glove boxes of many black-owned vehicles from family cars to musician and baseball team tour buses. “It didn’t matter where you went, Jim Crow was everywhere then, and black travelers needed this badly,” he said.

Washington Post staff writer Courtland Milloy began his own account of a family road trip to the American south by recalling fidgeting in the back seat of his father’s Buick Special for the long drive to Grandma’s house. “The trip started with gaiety in the dark hours of the morning, but as the day wears on it becomes a nightmare. It is 1958. I am almost eight years old, quenching my thirst with bladder-busting cold drinks while riding through the hot, dusty South in an unairconditioned car with my two younger sisters.

Mom is seated attentively next to Dad. He is usually all-powerful and in control, but today, for some reason, he is uptight.”

“The Green Book tried to provide a tool to deal with those situations,” noted Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in an interview with the New York Times. “It also allowed families to protect their children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which they might be thrown out or not permitted to sit somewhere. It was both a defensive and a proactive mechanism.”

In the parallel universes of a racially segregated society, what had become a staple to some was virtually unknown to many. Green ceased publication in 1964 with passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act and its prohibition of discrimination in public accommodations. In theory, at least, selective “No Vacancy” had been outlawed. That’s not to suggest that bigotry at the lunch counter or registration desk magically disappeared. It takes quite a long time to bring about change of such magnitude. Vestiges of Jim Crow linger in America to this day.

Writers, artists, academics and the just plain curious have been dusting off Victor Green’s publishing legacy and finding within its pages a nuanced context for how things once were and what informs and influences the perspectives of today.

The reason Courtney Milloy’s father and so many like him steeled themselves when behind the wheel is illuminated in Candacy Taylor’s video, “The Negro Motorist Green Book Project: Documenting Sites of Sanctuary. Taylortravels-while-black” one of America’s most iconic highways, offering an eye-opening reminder of how the road trip, so readily taken for granted by many Americans, was for some fraught with gut-churning dangers of all sorts, mile after mile.

The guide, now reemerging from history’s shadows, is the focus of The Green Book Chronicles. A film crew led by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, author of the children’s book Ruth and the Green Book, and Becky Wible Searles, an animation professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus have interviewed some of Mr. Green’s relatives and have tracked down families who owned sites mentioned in the books or who relied on it for travel suggestions.

Ramsey discussed the Green Book in an interview with public radio’s Rick Steves.

The Green Book is a central fixture in the 2015 film 100 Miles to Lordsburg, set in 1961, the fictional story of Jack and Martha, a young, African-American couple, traveling across the country for a new job opportunity in California.

The Dresser Trunk Project, a traveling exhibition organized in 2007 by William Daryl Williams, then an Associate in the University of Virginia School of Architecture and now director of the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati, used the Green Book to inform the designs of boxes based on a dresser trunk — the case musicians used to carry their clothing and gear — to tell the stories of African-American artists who traveled along the Southern Crescent train line. The trunks feature stories, photographs, maps, and computer-generated models documenting the clubs, hotels, boarding houses and other places that accommodated black musicians in eleven cities along the Crescent line (currently the Amtrak service connecting New Orleans and New York).

A dresser trunk created by artist Lisa Henry-Benham for the Carver Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia -- later demolished for the expansion of a street -- which was the only hotel listed for black travelers in the "Negro Motorist" Travelers Guide. Photo by Lisa Henry-Benham.

A dresser trunk created by artist Lisa Henry-Benham for the Carver Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia — later demolished for the expansion of a street — which was the only hotel listed for black travelers in the “Negro Motorist” Travelers Guide. Photo by Lisa Henry-Benham.

As the pages of the Green Book indicate, the Lexington of the 1950s didn’t offer much at all to the traveling African-American. Still, there were people like the Duff brothers and their dad, letting it be known that some empathy and accommodation could be found on one corner of North Broadway and New Circle Road.

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Duff, now 82, has had a lot time since those days to reflect and observe the people who pull up to his gas pumps or bring their vehicles to his service bays…

~O~

UnderMain articles by Tom Martin:

Post Truth or Post Trust?

In Search of Another Way

Friendship in Troubling Times

The Wedding Day Kiss

Arts

Insight in the Details

Walking into Louisville’s Zephyr Gallery for Project 7, curated by Julien Robson, one is immediately met with a shelving system of black notebook binders, arranged in such a way that they form a wall framing a single doorway. It is here, by stepping through the annals of the artist, that one enters the Archive. This collection allows the viewer a glimpse into the art and artifacts of Louis Zoellar Bickett, a well accomplished Lexington-based artist who has been collecting and cataloguing so-called ‘mundane’ yet fascinating objects from his daily existence since 1972. He calls us to reconsider the notions of voyeur and collector through the presentation of his Archive.

In the liminal space past the bank of binders, the viewer stands face-to-face with a screen showing the artist’s head. Here, Bickett’s mouth slowly opens and closes, silently screaming the names of 9/11 victims (9:11, 2007). A sobering moment, this piece also serves another purpose: it is an orifice that swallows the visitor deeper into a more personal and revealing space of the artist. For it is past this screen, the viewer may either climb the stairs to a room filled with self-portraits and collected specimens, or advance past the screen wall to Daddy’s Bedroom (2001-present). Both paths proceed to place the viewer in a role of voyeur. For now, let us climb upward. At the top of the stairs, 10,000 selfies lie hidden away within an iPad, exposed to the gaze of the viewer one at a time, and under the viewer’s control as one flips through them, ad infinitum. These intimate headshots, showing varying degrees of severity and levity, bring to mind a statement regarding voyeurism by Annette Messager, “I want the viewer to have the impression of discovering terrible secrets when what is involved is a ridiculous image, even if this image always touches us in the end.” We are indeed touched, and intrigued, and encouraged to continue to explore. (At the same time, does this work not challenge us to question popular reality tv, over-sharing via social media, and how we view ourselves and others?)

The adjoining upstairs chamber reveals larger, almost overwhelming self-portraits on facing walls and specimens to either side. The images maintain an ever-consistent pose on the part of the artist, yet with interchanging hats (Every Hat I Own, July 31, 2008) and religious texts (What I Read – The Holy Bible, What I Read – The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, January 4, 2008). The specimens, located on the two remaining sides of the room, encompass both personal and environmental documentation. The eye-catching Backbar (A Piss a Day in 2003) brings to mind Duchamp with a Kentucky twist. Within 365 liquor bottles, many of them bourbon-branded, is encased urine of the artist, all with varying degrees of color, teasing the viewer that the liquid might be potable. The Archive boxes which housed these bottles surround them, an ever-present reminder of the catalogued nature of the items. Across the room is a cabinet with glass doors, filled with glass jars, reminiscent of a wunderkammer, or cabinet of wonders. Hermetically sealed yet allowing transparency for easy observation, the Roman red wax-sealed jars hold soil and water samples from places such as Eudora Welty’s grave, the Appomattox County Courthouse (VA), and the Gulf of Mexico. Is it not through both introspection of self and of experience with the outside world that one constructs identity? Louis’ Archive certainly addresses both of these perspectives – in this room and in the bedroom below.

Returning to the moment in which we were swallowed by the artist via the screen in 9:11, we now continue into Daddy’s Bedroom. One cannot help but be enthralled by the ‘curiosities’ that fill this room, creating a sense of intense intimacy and social critique. Who is this ‘Daddy’? The term is called into question as signifying both a father-figure and an older man in a gay relationship. The visually depicted definitions coexist and overlap in layers of constructed meaning through the objects collected. But let us take a step back and look at the room as a whole – there is a 1940s red twin-sized bed, a nightstand, a desk, a bookcase, a small curio cabinet, a dresser with hutch, six chairs of varying sizes, multitudinous framed pictures, books, more jars of environmental specimens, and assorted artifacts such as prescription bottles, garbage contents, trophies, and the ashes of a beloved dog; all belonging to or related to ‘Daddy’ and all carrying specifying tags of the Archive. Through the readymade items themselves, subtle details construct identity, whether through a book of Mapplethorpe, a soil sample from Oxford, Mississippi, a drawing of David Bowie, or a pair of glasses labeled, “becoming someone else.” Some items are noted as “momento mori” such as an etched mirror and photographs. Other photographs have slang terms written across the lips of the subject, serving to challenge speech acts of racism and homophobia. The collective result of all of these items is to place the viewer in the place of voyeur and to challenge societal prejudices, all while documenting the experience of life from an individual perspective which is at once transparent and varied, personal and historical.

Louis Zoellar Bickett has encompassed three main areas in his work: it is at the same time autobiographical, a document of history, and social critique. Depicting both an introspective perspective and objects from one’s surrounding environment, history is documented from Louis’ lens. But what is the documentation of history besides a subjective recording of events anyway? No human can ever be purely objective. Here, we are seeing history through both Louis’ lens and our own, layering our own perspectives and better seeing his as well.

So what of a collection such as the Archive? It is an ever-growing, ever-developing being; it is also a means to create a presence beyond one’s mortality. As Annette Messager noted, “Collecting is a way of struggling against death. A collection is always more and more beautiful, bigger and bigger, always incomplete.”

Louis is indeed a collector, an archivist, and a preservationist of experience. Most importantly, however, through these roles he a catalyst for us all to rethink how personal and societal identity is constructed.