Before the Civil Rights movement in the mid-20th century, the African American middle class was growing and many families were able to purchase automobiles and plan vacations. However, Jim Crow laws were still in force in many parts of the country, and black travelers, including famed athletes, actors and businessmen, could face denial of access to restaurants, gas stations and hotels (or worse) if they weren’t in the know about which businesses would accommodate them.
Victor Hugo Green, a New York City postal worker, launched the first edition of The Negro Traveler’s Green Book in 1936 to enable black travelers to enjoy a safer passage across the country. It had a 33-year run before falling into obscurity with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There’s now a renewed interest in the book, as well as a golden opportunity for parents of all backgrounds to build a vacation into a teachable moment about lesser-known but significant places in American history. During Black History Month, or any time of year, discussion about this book and visits to relevant sites can provide an appreciation of what earlier generations had to endure in travel and, on a broader scale, their day-to-day lives.
In Greenville, S.C., the Greenville Cultural Exchange Center could be a base camp for this kind of enlightening journey. The African American history museum and culture center features rooms full of biographical sketches, news articles, tape recordings, photographs and letters of prominent African Americans. Just up the road, the John Wesley United Methodist Church, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was organized 1866 by a former slave and gained recognition as the first separate African American congregation established in South Carolina after the Civil War.
The city’s present-day public art initiative captures the resilience of more key figures as well as everyday people, including the Sterling High School Students statue and the Peg Leg Bates statue in the city’s downtown. Although, well more than 100 eateries along a mile and a half stretch of Main Street helped establish Greenville, locals will steer visitors towards the down-home Southern comfort food of OJ’s Diner (famed for its crispy fried chicken and warm homemade cobbler) and Grandma’s Kitchen for family-style meals based on recipes passed down through generations of residents.
In Charleston, S.C., numerous plantation tours provide fascinating explorations into pre-Civil War History. Drayton Hall, the Joseph Manigault House, Nathaniel Russell House and the Aiken-Rhett House provide differing glimpses into the lives, work, culture and spiritual beliefs of slaves through various artifacts, tools and other displays. The back lot of the Aiken-Rhett House constitutes the original outbuildings, living quarters and work areas of the slaves, and they probably took their meals communally in the kitchen. A unique site, the Aiken-Rhett House retains both original outbuildings. Some of the rooms had fireplaces, and paint evidence suggests these rooms were painted vibrant colors.
Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art, the South’s oldest museum building, houses a prolific collection of American and African American Art from the 18th century to the present adding extra insight into the various sites around town.
Richmond, Va., is also home to significant Black History sites including the Richmond Slave Trail and Museum, which chronicles the history of the trade of enslaved Africans from Africa, and the
Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, celebrating the life, public service and achievements of Walker in civil rights advancement, economic empowerment and educational opportunities for Jim Crow-era African Americans and women. Over the course of her 70 years, she was a bank president and founder, newspaper editor and fraternal leader.
Other points of interest include the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts — African Art.