Past Matters Winter 2023; posted on 02/27/2023
During the Jim Crow era, African Americans endured discriminatory hazards while traveling around the country. To circumnavigate these unwelcome situations, they used various travel guides to locate where they could purchase gas, get a haircut, buy a meal, sleep for the night, or enjoy some entertainment. These travel guides were published from the early 1930s up to the late 1960s and provided information that would keep the African American traveler “from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.” Probably the most well-known one is The Negro Motorist Green Book, more commonly known simply as the Green Book.
This travel guide topic surfaced during the Bankhead Highway Survey Project in 2014. THC’s Historic Resources Survey Coordinator Leslie Wolfenden has been researching and documenting these sites across the state since kicking the project off in 2019. Based on 34 African American travel guides in the THC’s files, over 780 individual travel guide sites were listed in 43 communities across the state. The types of resources run the gamut, including restaurants and barbecue stands, barber shops and beauty salons, YMCAs and YWCAs, service stations and garages, hotels and boarding rooms, doctors and dentist offices, lawyers and NAACP representatives, taverns and liquor stores, theaters and night clubs, and colleges.
Throughout this project, Preservation Scholars and THC interns have assisted Leslie in conducting in-depth research. They have then transformed their research into visually attractive posters. In summer 2022, Daniele Dixon pursued a thematic topic of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and created multiple webpages for fifteen African American colleges that were listed in the various travel guides.
By working with Preservation Scholars, the African American Travel Guide Survey Project has moved forward as a win-win situation for both Leslie and the students. Students learn how to conduct research and hone writing and design skills for a real project that can be used on their résumés, while Leslie gains different perspectives from the students. For example, historical images are used on posters and webpages. As an architectural historian, Leslie tends to select photos of buildings. Daniele consistently chose photos showing people. When asked about this, Daniele replied that she needed to see historical images of people who looked like her and show that her ancestors did indeed have a place in American history. From now on, Leslie will be sure to include images of people with any of her projects, especially this one.
As this project is ongoing, Leslie is seeking more interns, whether for researching individual communities, developing thematic topics, or potentially other avenues, such as recording and transcribing oral histories, depending on the interests and skills of the intern.