Travel Tuesdays - Resources for Black Travelers

Welcome to “Travel Tuesdays,” a resource for those whose plans have been deferred and a distraction for people who enjoy armchair travel.  Each week we’ll suggest a virtual destination for you to visit.

All of these ideas are curated and brought to you by Lorraine Rubinacci!

To read Lorraine's archived posts, visit this page.


Travel Tuesdays, June 8, 2021 - "Resources for Black Travelers"

Since early in 2020, COVID-19 has placed serious limitations on travel, much to the dismay of those pining for new experiences.  While this situation is improving, at least domestically, it would be good to remember that some travelers have faced barriers all along:  language barriers, lack of financial resources, difficulty obtaining a passport, physical challenges, and intolerance.  One group, Black American travelers, faced incredible obstacles throughout the twentieth century.  Some of you may have become familiar with The Negro Motorist Green Book through the recent Hollywood film starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen which depicts the experiences of concert pianist, Dr. Don Shirley and his driver/bodyguard, Tony Vallelonga as they travel through the South during a 1962 tour.  Despite its controversies, the film succeeds in calling attention to Shirley’s musical genius and to the highly-influential book for which it is named.


Several editions of The Green Book are available through the SAILS network.  One that I would recommend has this lengthy title:  The Negro motorist green book compendium : a compilation of four volumes of the classic Jim Crow-era travel guide for African Americans covering all four decades during which the series was published from the 1930s to the 1960s.  The compendium illustrates change in both the guide and the culture in which it was produced.


Begun in 1936 with an emphasis on New York City, The Negro Motorist Green Book of 1938 listed only two Massachusetts lodgings, both in Boston.  By 1947, several tourist homes in Southeastern Massachusetts made the list -- in Attleboro, Plymouth, and South Hanson -- along with a restaurant, Mary Lee Chicken Shack, in Randolph.  The paucity of listings throughout most of the country speaks volumes.  The guide proved invaluable for the Black traveler’s safety and dignity.  In addition to the listings, it contained ads for restaurants, cleaners, entertainment and more.   Esso, a corporate sponsor who helped distribute the guide, advertised its welcoming service stations as well.  There were tips for driving and packing, car reviews, and in later editions, articles on air travel and international destinations.

A documentary entitled The Green Book:  Guide to Freedom, aired on the Smithsonian Channel shortly after the release of the Hollywood film.  This film, which features home movies of African American families, brings their experiences of the mid 20th century to life.  Interestingly, it highlights the resourcefulness of not only the travelers, but also the businesses that supported them.


Marquette Folley of the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service believes that The Green Book, the travelers who used it, and the businesses listed within it are reminders of a country, “almost a parallel country, where people lived and thrived and created and grew opportunities of appreciation for themselves and for their community.”  The Smithsonian Channel’s trailer to the film proposes that, by the end of its publication, The Green Book “had become a road map to some of the most significant people, successful businesses, and most important political milestones of the twentieth century.”  Hint:  Here is a ready-made travel itinerary.  Unfortunately, many of the sites have been razed or are in serious decline.   According to architectural historian Brent Leggs, “. . . when you talk about [Black] entrepreneurship, it is an untold part of American history.”  He and others are working to preserve these businesses and their accomplishments as an important part of the American story and as anchors to vibrant communities.  The documentary may be streamed on Amazon or accessed via the Smithsonian Channel.  Depending on the method, there may be a small fee for watching.

For those with a stronger interest in history, I’d suggest the new book, Driving While Black:  African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights which is available, of course, at the Ames Free Library.  The author, Gretchen Sorin, explores the transformative role of the automobile to Black travelers during the Jim Crow era.  Car ownership enabled travelers to see other places and how other Black citizens lived; it allowed them to travel free of the indignities of segregated buses and trains; and it provided opportunities to enjoy middle class pleasures such as vacations, resorts, dining out, and nightclubs.


Sorin explains that Black Americans preferred large, well-built cars for their safety in hostile communities and for their potential to afford emergency lodging. She also describes her own parent’s ritual of packing every conceivable supply in case services were denied . . . and of driving through the night to avoid confrontations.  There are sections on racism in the North and “sundown towns” which forbade non-whites from being within town limits after dark.  And, like the Smithsonian documentary, this book describes the expansion of Black-owned businesses that provided safe havens and services to travelers.

Today, Black travel has greatly expanded; indeed, it is big business.  According to the report, The Black Traveler:  Insights, Opportunities & Priorities, “Black U.S. Leisure Travelers Spent $129.6 Billion on Domestic and International Travel in 2019.”  One segment of the group is showing particularly strong interest:  families with young children.  In “Families are leading a new wave in Black travel,” parents describe the many reasons for taking trips with their kids. Some apply to all travelers; others have stronger meaning for African Americans. They include:

  • Having fun together
  • Exploring aspects of American history that aren’t included in textbooks
  • Exposing their kids to a variety of people, including Black people living in other countries
  • Showing their children different lifestyles and opportunities
  • Having experiences outside of their “normal day-to-day”

Parents seeking opportunities to share their heritage now have more formal resources including several recently-opened cultural sites. The National Museum of African American Culture and History in D.C., The National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, and The U.S. Civil Rights Trail are just a few examples.

Blues Gallery, The National Museum of African American Music

There are also websites dedicated to family travel such as The Spring Break Family.  On this site, one will find travel advice based on first-hand experience and with children in mind.  Whether your destination is an enjoyable staycation or an international trip, this Texas family offers enthusiastic encouragement and commonsense suggestions such as “Let your budget choose the destination.”

Milan with Kids

Credit:  The Spring Break Family

Black hikers and outdoor sports enthusiasts have new resources available to them in the form of websites and social groups.  Outdoor Afro, “Where Black People & Nature Meet,” is an organization with members nationwide.  It is helping to lead the way “for inclusion in outdoor recreation, nature, and conservation for all.”  Participants join meetup groups in their region; leadership training is also offered.  Past events in the greater Boston area included an impressive range of activities including rock climbing, fishing, mushroom foraging, birding, snow tubing, orienteering, camping, yoga, skating, and much more.  I am impressed with their emphasis on “accessible” outdoor experiences and developing the leadership skills of “ordinary people.”

Members of Vibe Tribe Adventures Hike Through Bear Creek Regional Park

Credit: Kevin Mohatt for KHN (Kaiser Health News) via NPR

Similarly, the nonprofit Vibe Tribe Adventures offers a “Black Girls Hike” program. Currently twelve chapters, mostly in the western US, offer events.  It emphasizes environmental education, health & wellness, and a supportive environment for personal development and connections.  A supportive environment is fundamental to all the Black outdoor organizations that I encountered.  Consider Color Outside, an organization that offers outdoor adventures, retreats, and life coaching to entrepreneurial women of color.  Its four-day retreat in Moab mixed outdoor activities with creature comforts “in a supportive environment” that promotes clarity, renewed passion, and an action plan for achieving goals.” Another group, The BlackOutdoors, “is here to support you every step of the way - through representation, advocacy for, and support of people of color engaging the natural world and taking advantage of all things planet Earth offers.”

I’d be the last person to question the value of a supportive environment.  Yet, the heavy emphasis on its importance makes me a little sad.  The message is clear:  most of their participants don’t anticipate supportive environments.  This reminds me of Idlewild, a Michigan resort that was showcased in The Green Book:  Guide to Freedom documentary.  As one of the few resorts that welcomed African American vacationers, Idlewild became extremely popular from the 1920s through the 1960s, some summers attracting over 25,000 visitors.  Located within the Manistee National Forest and possessing an attractive lake, the resort was no doubt beautiful, but its special offering was psychological safety, the opportunity to let down one’s guard amidst the camaraderie of fellow Black vacationers.

Paradise Club--Paradise Gardens, Idlewild, Mich.

UpNorth Memories/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Victor Green hoped that Black travelers wouldn’t need a special guide.  In the 1948 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, he stated, “It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”  If the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made travel legal for Blacks, it didn’t ensure acceptance or a welcoming environment.  It is sobering to realize that some Black families are still reluctant to travel in areas where they are not well represented, for fear of being harassed.  Just a few months ago, a National Geographic article included this observation:

“We avoid most small towns unless we’ve done extensive research on the population there (how many are people of color, what does their police department look like, any negative stories in the news, etc.),” says Montoya Hudson, the chief writer at The Spring Break Family, via email. “If we’re unsure, we don’t go.”

Montoya is hardly alone in her view.  According to a recent study of Black travelers by the marketing firm, MMGY Global, “Seventy-one percent of U.S. and Canadian respondents felt safety was extremely or very influential to their decision.”

Another step towards improving the traveler’s experience involves supporting Black travel writers. The Black Travel Alliance is a nonprofit that advocates for travel communicators:   authors, bloggers, podcasters, social media influencers, photographers, and others.  The group strives “to create a world where Black people are supported and accurately represented in the travel industry.”  The opportunity to tell one’s own story or share one’s perspective of the world has an impact:  on business, on readers, and on the assumptions made by society.  As readers, we know the power of stories.  Thus, I’ll leave you, in typical library fashion, with a list of books.  “7 Great Travel Books by Black Authors is a list compiled by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates for TripAdvisor.  Read her synopses in the article.  All of the titles are available through SAILS or the Commonwealth Catalog.  Simply click on the linked book covers. Wishing safe and rewarding travels to all.


Afropean by Johny Pitts

*This title can be requested through ComCat*

Ayiti by Roxane Gay  The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper       From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain by Lori L. Tharps 'Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma        

No Place Like Home: A Black Briton's Journey through the American South by Gary Younge

*This title can be requested through ComCat*

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