From the Green Book to Sundown Towns: Here's How Road Tripping While Black in the U.S. Has Changed (Or Not)
Corrita Lewis, 32, says aside from family reunions, her family didn't take many road trips. But she will never forget a traumatic childhood road trip to visit her maternal relatives. "I remember an instance where we were pulled over by the police and we all had to get out of the car. And we were all lying on the ground and there was so much screaming," she says, noting the discomfort and trauma of experiencing that as a child who wasn't old enough to fully grasp what was happening.
Still, she refuses to allow those early stories to prevent her from living out her desire to travel, now, with her wife and son who live nomadically. This Black family and numerous others see road trips as a chance to experience the world on the open road. But stories of Black communities navigating the complexity of taking road trips leave Black communities asking, "Is any mode of travel free of risk for discrimination and racial mistreatment?"
Sundown Towns and a History of Fear on the Road
Dr. Kimberly Brown Pellum, assistant professor of history at Florida A&M University, believes Black communities have always known the importance of travel from pre-enslavement to the present, even as the rise of Jim Crow brought a host of restrictions into Black life and the travel experience. That didn't stop the Great Migration, as six million Black Americans left the Southern United States for the Urban Northwest, seeking—but not necessarily finding—work to escape poverty, education, and refuge from the racism of Jim Crow restrictions from the 1910s to the 1970s.
"The rise of the automobile provided alternatives for Black sojourners but did not fully protect them from the dangers of segregation," says Kalyn McCall, a PhD candidate in history at Harvard whose work interrogates the social and cultural history of Orange County, California. By 1950, nearly half a million Black families owned a car, establishing the rise of the automobile as a welcome alternative to the discrimination of public transportation. But McCall says, "At a moment's notice, Black travelers could be denied food, gas, repairs, or overnight accommodation. Being caught unaware in unfriendly environments could also lead to real violence. Across America's landscape, sundown towns strictly enforced segregation, in many instances expelling Black travelers when under threat of harm."
Lewis says road tripping as a Black family, today, is a double-edged sword. "It gives you the opportunity to spend time together as a family and is a great bonding experience. But it's also anxiety inducing," she says describing a recent road trip to Sesame Place in Philadelphia when she was pulled over for speeding that reignited a familiar anxiety from that negative childhood experience. "Just being a Black family in America right now and how scared you are to be pulled over for something as simple as speeding has an impact on Black families."
Brown Pellum says the feeling of fear can be linked to specific historical locations. "That history of discomfort has deep roots in things like 'sundown towns' which dictated that African Americans be out of sight before dark or face violent consequences," Brown Pellum says. She notes the racial caste system known as Jim Crow made travel dangerous, but not impossible.
Brown Pellum points towards business tycoon and hotel owner AG Gatson, educator and political advisor Mary McLeod Bethune, and Maggy Lena Walker who created venues and used their homes to ensure Black travelers had places to stay, demonstrating the ingenuity of Black community members. She even reflects on everyday efforts to preserve dignity, like the classy picnics her mother had.
On the Road Again With a New Kind of Green Book
The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guided directory developed by postal carrier Victor Green included businesses and amenities, which were often Black-owned and safe for Black vacationers as they traveled across the US. It's the most widely referenced effort to ensure Black travelers knew where to locate food, clothing, and shelter amid discrimination and segregation and was published from 1937 to 1967.
Even as a new generation of Green Book-inspired resources have emerged to address this by highlighting Black owned businesses and venues for historic sites, national and international travel, and even cuisine and outdoor spaces in a way that prioritized the Black experience, McCall says this history lingers.
"While the road has been synonymous with freedom in American history and culture, the history of Black motorists shows that this has not been the case for everyone," she says. "Former sundown towns often still lack large Black populations or permanent Black residents. This idea that America is still filled with places where Black people are not welcomed lingers and may shape Black perceptions of road travel today." This is reinforced when we hear stories about discrimination at AirBnBs , the continued racial profiling of Black motorists, and discrimination enacted by police officers, hospitality workers, or residents who seem uncomfortable with the presence of Black people.
Theo Edwards-Butler, Founder and CEO of The Modern Green Book a Black owned business directory anchored in the legacy of the Nergro Motorist Green Book, says her parents made sure to highlight or or visit historical locations anytime they traveled. This paired with her love of history, travel and food, prompted her to create the resource. "It was during the time when the Black Lives Matter Movement was at an all-time high," she says. "I had tons of friends and family wondering what they could do to help and I thought this was the perfect way to support the Black community by supporting the businesses and organizations that pour so much into it."
McCall says contemporary efforts like these—including Nomadness, Noirbnb, and social media show Black communities embracing preparation and relying on the community for information. It is also an embrace of the spirit of defiance embodied by Black sojourners and their families who traveled during Jim Crow.
"Like those of the past, rather than accept this reality and give up travel, many Black travelers are using the past as guide, even going so far as to making their own guides and contemporary Green Books," she says. "Black families have mirrored the past by finding their own paths so that they, too, can celebrate joy. By asserting Black freedom through travel, Black sojourners mirror and resurrect the past."
Road trips can still present wonderful opportunities for Black families. Nomad Corrita Lewis recalls the road trip from San Diego to Colorado Springs that marked their decision to embrace a nomad lifestyle. "We went through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado," says Lewis, noting wonderous sites like the Royal Gorge. "We stopped at children's museums to play, and art museums in New Mexico, which were amazing, and that was the first time our son had ever seen snow."
Black families continue to road trip, in spite of historical obstacles and contemporary risks. "When you take road trips, you have these spontaneous moments that turn into amazing memories that you could never plan," says Lewis.