Cataloging the Black travel experience

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Maya Angelou once said, "You can't really know where you're going until you know where you've been."

Patricia King, left, is a member of the Black Travel Alliance board of directors. She is an experienced content creator and a former journalist with a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Martinique Lewis, right, is an award-winning diversity in travel consultant, president of the Black Travel Alliance and the creator of "The ABC Travel Greenbook."

It's a simple statement that doesn't apply to all. You see, for the Black traveler, it's hard to know where you've been when your history wasn't taught in textbooks. 

It's hard to know where you've been when your history isn't featured in exhibits or written about in travel publications.

And it's hard to know where you've been when movies like 2018's "Green Book" invoke a critical Black travel narrative in name only but never discusses unsung heroes like Victor Hugo Green, the U.S. postal worker who saved millions of Black travelers' lives between 1936 and 1967 with his brilliant resource, "The Negro Motorist Green Book." 

Travel for African Americans is a testimony to resilience and perseverance. We traveled for survival. We traveled to advance our lot in life. Eventually, we were able to travel for pleasure and enlightenment.

From the establishment of Fort Mose near St. Augustine, Fla., in 1738, where Spain granted freedom to escaped Africans who joined the militia and converted to Catholicism, and culminating in more than 1,000 Black communities by the early 1930s, escaped slaves, then freedpeople after the Civil War, traveled mainly to the West and North so that they could live lives of dignity and independence, which these communities offered.

Millions of African Americans also left the oppression of the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration to build new lives and families in Northern and Western cities from 1910 to 1970. 

Long before the interstate and common air travel, train travel was the norm.

Jim Crow-era train travel was separate and unequal for Black passengers. Train travel was one indignity after another. Black passengers couldn't eat in the dining car or get carryout. They had to use separate bathrooms and water fountains and sit in a separate station waiting room that was often smaller and less comfortable than those reserved for white passengers.

Without fans or air conditioning, they would be exposed to smoke and soot in their seats in cars positioned right behind the locomotive.

Part of the extensive timeline at the History of Black Travel website.
Part of the extensive timeline at the History of Black Travel website. Photo Credit: Courtesy of History of Black Travel

Some of us can still recall taking the train down South for trips and having to carry our "shoebox lunches," which always included food that traveled well on long journeys: sandwiches; fried chicken or pork chops; and pound cake or sweet potato pie. They were wrapped securely in a waxed paper-lined shoebox tied with string, or paper bags. It saved us money, and we saved our dignity.

Once we got to any of the stations along the Mason-Dixon Line, in places like Cincinnati, Washington or Cairo, Ill., Black passengers were forced to move from regular seats to seats within the Jim Crow cars at the back of the train. The same thing applied to bus passengers.

Later, the family took cross-country pleasure trips in our station wagon in the 1960s, just like millions of Americans in the iconic post-war automobile culture. We still faced discrimination, like not being served at most restaurants and sometimes not being allowed to use the restrooms at gas stations.

We still had our "shoebox food," now in a cooler full of cold drinks and other provisions. Thanks to drive-in restaurants and carhops, getting served our burgers, shakes and fries was a lot easier and exciting for us kids.

Driving usually involved a "nonstop trip," because hotels and motels that accepted Black guests were almost impossible to find. Cross-country travel for us meant rarely staying in motels or dining in sit-down restaurants, but that is where the Green Book saved the day.

Now, for the first time, because of the History of Black Travel Timeline, Black travelers can know where we've been and learn about the critical events that have shaped our travel community from the Americas to Antarctica. We created the History of Black Travel Timeline website, in partnership with Tourism Reset as a way to celebrate, educate and inform the world of the untold stories that deserve recognition and attention by the industry.

A timeline like none other, it is an outstanding project that tells the story of how Black travel pioneers, events, major migrations and leisure travel developments have shaped the Black travel industry into what it is today.

With Black travelers in the U.S. spending $129.6 billion annually on both domestic and international travel, this information is timely and smashes negative stereotypes that Black travelers aren't pioneers, swimmers, pilots, accommodation owners ... the list goes on and on.

Black travelers aren't a monolith, and this timeline tracks some of the most exclusive information and insights into our community. 

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