Movement, the National Civil Rights Museum’s Noelle Trent said, is supposed to be free. That’s the idea behind “The Negro Motorist Green Book” exhibit, a traveling Smithsonian exhibition debuting in Memphis Saturday.
The Green Book, created in 1936 by Harlem postman Victor Green, was an annual travel guide published until 1967 that listed businesses that were Black-owned or served Black travelers. The sites were refuges in an era when Jim Crow laws and segregation could make traveling across the United States dangerous for Black people.
What happened in spite of the circumstances Black people were forced into, exhibition leaders said Friday, is what makes the simplicity of a travel guide something extraordinary.
The exhibit, spread across the main museum (Lorraine Building) and the boarding house (Legacy Building), puts a collection of seemingly everyday travel artifacts — dish ware, a hotel uniform, building sign, home video footage — into the context of the necessity of The Green Book for Black families.
Trent, director of interpretation, collections and education at the Memphis museum, assisted in the curation of the exhibit, which honors The Green Book and its 10,000 institutions and associations. Only 5% of those places — the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, among them — are still operating today, said Candacy Taylor, the researcher and curator of the exhibit.
Noelle Trent, Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education leads a tour at the new traveling exhibit, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” on October 2nd, 2020 at the Civil Rights Museum. (Photo: Commercial Appeal)
“I can’t think of a more perfect venue to open this exhibition, the National Civil Rights Museum, because…it was a Green Book site, which is a very rare and beautiful thing,” Taylor said at a press event Friday. She was video-conferenced in to the in-person press event at the museum.
Taylor and Trent spoke in conversation with Terri Lee Freeman, president of the Civil Rights Museum.Marquette Folley, traveling exhibit services content director at the Smithsonian who worked with the exhibition, also videoed in.
“These communities, when they were thriving and alive in The Green Book, were so rich,” Taylor said. She wanted to show that richness in the exhibit, she said. Part of the beauty of the Green book, she said, is that the book itself “wasn’t a complicated thing.”
Traveling by The Green Book imparted traditions to future generations, who eventually didn’t use the guide or, now, are using other social media communities to find Black-owned businesses or Black travel groups that still point out places that are safe to stay.
Travel was always by car, said Freeman, a couple generations removed from The Green Book, and her family always packed food to cut down on the number of stops. Trent’s family planned out stops before getting on the road, and they always drove in daylight. An interactive with the exhibit reminds viewers that a pillow and blanket were travel necessities, as well as an empty can, in the case there weren’t safe restrooms along the route.
Taylor heard many stories from her relatives before working on the project, but not ones about travel and race. Those didn’t come until after she started her Green Book research, she said. Bringing that travel guide to the forefront should allow people to reveal any scars associated with using the book, she said, but also allow for celebration of the prosperity of the Black businesses held within the travel guide’s pages.
In Memphis, besides the Lorraine Motel, The Four Way Grill was also a Green Book site. The exhibit points out Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans and The Savoy in Harlem, among others, some of which are still standing, but most of which are not.
Even before the pandemic’s financial blow to businesses, gentrification, red-lining, urban renewal and other factors, like natural disasters, have pushed Green Book sites to close, Taylor said, which is all the more reason to celebrate the ones still standing.
Said Folley: “Too often when talk about certain aspects of the African American story in the American story, it’s relegated to little slivers, usually victimized slivers, of a presence. This exhibition says: ‘Here’s evidence. Americans who were African American, Black people, lived and thrived and survived in spite of the Jim Crow.’ Until we actually as a country can open our arms internally…we will always be just a little bit more blind than we need to be.”
The exhibition is in Memphis until Jan. 3, 2021. Visit civilrightsmuseum.org for ticket information and COVID-19 safety protocols.
Laura Testino covers education and children’s issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at [email protected] or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino
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