OVERGROUND RAILROAD

CULTURAL DOCUMENTARIAN CANDACY TAYLOR TELLS REAL STORY BEHIND THE


 

CANDACY TAYLOR REMEMBERS BEING enraged and saddened by her stepfather’s story.

As a little boy, Ron Burford was traveling with his mother and father in Tennessee when a white sheriff stopped their car.

“Where did you get this vehicle? What are you doing here? And who are these people with you?” he demanded.

Ron’s father, who was driving, told him it was his employer’s car, and that he was taking their maid and her son home.

The sheriff then asked where his chauffeur’s hat was.

Ron’s father told him it was hanging up behind his back seat. And it was.

The sheriff let them go.

The truth would have been too dangerous: it was his car, he had a good job with the railroad, and they were on vacation.

Afterwards, Ron noticed similar caps in other black family’s cars. It was a prop, a ruse to help black families travel safely.

“Everybody had one,” he told his stepdaughter decades later. “And you always kept it in the car.”

Candacy Taylor is a cultural documentarian, author and photographer. Her book “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America” ($35, Abrams Press), released in January, was named one of AARP’s Top 5 Books to Read and made the New York Times Editor’s Top Choice list. COURTESY PHOTO

Candacy Taylor is a cultural documentarian, author and photographer. Her book “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America” ($35, Abrams Press), released in January, was named one of AARP’s Top 5 Books to Read and made the New York Times Editor’s Top Choice list. COURTESY PHOTO

Ms. Taylor, a cultural documentarian, author and photographer, opens her latest book with that family story. “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America” ($35, Abrams Press), released in January, was named one of AARP’s Top 5 Books to Read and made the New York Times Editor’s Top Choice list.

Driving while black has always been a dangerous activity.

Being pulled over, simply for being a person of color, can lead to humiliation, violence or death.

And in the Jim Crow South, as well as in other regions of the country, black people weren’t welcome at restaurants, hotels or gas stations. Some all-white towns were called Sundown Towns, because people of color had to leave the town limits before the sunset.

So in preparation for travel, or a vacation, black families would pack meals, cans of gasoline, and even bedding.

Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker who lived in Harlem, was aware of this. In 1936 he created the first issue of “The Green Book,” a guide that lists black-owned and black-friendly businesses. The book, initially called “The Negro Motorist Green Book” changed its title in 1952 to “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book,” after the previous year’s focus and inclusion of railroad travel.

 

The first issue, a slim pamphlet, cost 25 cents. The price in the ’60s rose to $1.95.

“By 1930,” Ms. Taylor write in her introduction, “blacks in the United States owned approximately 70,000 small businesses, and over the ‘Green Book’s’ nearly 30-year reign, it listed more than 9,500 of these, including hotels, restaurants, gas stations, department stores, tailors, nightclubs, drugstores, hair salons, haberdashers, sanitariums, funeral homes, real estate offices, and even a dude ranch.

“More than 80 percent of the listings were clustered in traditional African American neighborhoods such as Harlem, South Central Los Angeles, and Bronzeville in Chicago. The majority were black-owned, but there were also black-friendly white-owned establishments, such as Macy’s, Brooks Brothers, the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, and even Disneyland.”

 

“The Green Book” came on the heels of the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign of the early ’30s, when black people boycotted businesses that refused to hire people of color.

It’s said Mr. Green was influenced by the guides for Jewish people that suggested places to stay and where they could get kosher meals. It’s also thought that hearing stories of traveling black musicians on the road also influenced him to create his “Green Book.”

Ms. Taylor saw her first copy when she was doing research for “Route 66 Road Trip,” a book she’d been commissioned to write.

“I was doing research on that, and concerned that most of the books written about Route 66 were primarily written by white males, and the language was, ‘Let’s get back to the good old days.’ I thought: where were the black people? What was their experience? I was asking those questions when I happened upon ‘The Green Book’ in the Autry Museum of the American West, in Los Angeles. It was tucked away under glass.

Pages from “The Travelers’ Green Book” from 1960 show stops in Florida. VICTOR H. GREEN & CO. / COURTESY IMAGES

Pages from “The Travelers’ Green Book” from 1960 show stops in Florida. VICTOR H. GREEN & CO. / COURTESY IMAGES

“I didn’t know such a thing existed. I called my parents. My mother didn’t know about it, but my stepfather did. That was how I was introduced to ‘The Green Book.’”

When she discovered it, she realized: “This is my project. I finished the book I’d been commissioned to do.”

And then she started researching “The Green Book” and its history.

It was serendipity.

“I found this project, I stumbled my way into what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says.

As she writes in her book, “When I first saw it, I was struck that something so simple, and so practical, could be so powerful. Not only did it show black travelers where they could go but it was also a compelling marketing tool that supported black-owned businesses and celebrated black self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship.”

Wonderland Liquor, a former Green Book site in Baltimore, Maryland. CANDACY TAYLOR / COURTESY PHOTO

Wonderland Liquor, a former Green Book site in Baltimore, Maryland. CANDACY TAYLOR / COURTESY PHOTO

“The Green Book” was one of maybe a dozen similar books of its type, but it was the longest-lasting and the most widely read, selling 2 million copies in the ’60s.

Beginning in 2013, Ms. Taylor began researching “The Green Book” and how it fit into the history of black Americans and travel in the 20th century.

She traveled more than 50,000 miles in three years, visiting more than 5,000 “Green Book” sites.

More than 75% of them were gone, and fewer than 5% were still in operation. She took photos of what she saw, many of them printed in her book, “Overground Railroad.” The book is rich with images, not only Ms. Taylor’s, but historic photos of businesses and places mentioned in “The Green Book,” listings and ads from its pages, as well as images of all its covers.

Some, like the Hampton House in Miami, fell into decline and then were renovated. The motel, originally called the Booker T. Washington, was owned by a white Jewish couple who opened its doors to blacks.

VICTOR H. GREEN & CO. / COURTESY PHOTO Victor Hugo Green, date unknown.

VICTOR H. GREEN & CO. / COURTESY PHOTO Victor Hugo Green, date unknown.

Performers such as Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr. would perform in Miami Beach, but weren’t allowed to stay at its hotels. So they stayed at the Hampton House, where they would often perform.

Others, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali also stayed at the motel.

It is at the hotel that Muhammad Ali first met Malcolm X, and, according to legend, this was the meeting that caused him to convert to Islam. It was also the place where Dr. King rehearsed his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Dr. Enid Pinkney was the woman who spearheaded the campaign to save this mid-century modern motel from demolition and be renovated.

But other businesses formerly listed in “The Green Book” weren’t as fortunate.

“I saw that literally about 80% at least, of nearly 10,000 sites that I cataloged, were located in traditional black neighborhoods,” Ms. Taylor says. “Going there today, seeing the state that many of them are in, was hard and heartbreaking, because of the level of poverty and violence, and just desperation. I’ve been doing this kind of work for 20 years, and most of it is field researched. I’ve gone to these small subcultures of America ‘off the beaten track,’ but never saw this level of poverty. And I think most Americans haven’t seen it or experienced it. It was tragic,

The Rossonian, a former Green Book hotel and nightclub in Denver, Colorado. CANDACY TAYLOR / COURTESY PHOTO

The Rossonian, a former Green Book hotel and nightclub in Denver, Colorado. CANDACY TAYLOR / COURTESY PHOTO

“These were once-thriving communities, self–sufficient, black-owned businesses.

“Because of segregation, all different incomes were living there. It was a place that there were always poor black folks, struggling, but it took care of itself. Wealthier black people weren’t allowed to live anywhere else anyway. But once they could leave, with integration, after a generation, those who were left there who couldn’t afford the basics, (things went downhill.)”

 

She blames poverty, crime and numerous state and federal actions, including Nixon’s “Law and order,” Reaganomics, stop-and-frisk practices and Clinton’s crime bills.

“These government policies created this situation, where not only were poor folks criminalized for being poor or being addicts, they were institutionalized. You can’t undo that kind of trauma to that many Americans,” she says. “It was replicated in every state I went to, not just the big major cities. It was the most heartbreaking; we need to stop the lition and be renovated.

But other businesses formerly listed in “The Green Book” weren’t as fortunate.

“I saw that literally about 80% at least, of nearly 10,000 sites that I cataloged, were located in traditional black neighborhoods,” Ms. Taylor says. “Going there today, seeing the state that many of them are in, was hard and heartbreaking, because of the level of poverty and violence, and just desperation. I’ve been doing this kind of work for 20 years, and most of it is field researched. I’ve gone to these small subcultures of America ‘off the beaten track,’ but never saw this level of poverty. And I think most Americans haven’t seen it or experienced it. It was tragic,

 

“These were once-thriving communities, self–sufficient, black-owned businesses.

“Because of segregation, all different incomes were living there. It was a place that there were always poor black folks, struggling, but it took care of itself. Wealthier black people weren’t allowed to live anywhere else anyway. But once they could leave, with integration, after a generation, those who were left there who couldn’t afford the basics, (things went downhill.)”

She blames poverty, crime and numerous state and federal actions, including Nixon’s “Law and order,” Reaganomics, stop-and-frisk practices and Clinton’s crime bills.

Pages from “The Travelers’ Green Book” from 1960. VICTOR H. GREEN & CO. / COURTESY IMAGES

Pages from “The Travelers’ Green Book” from 1960. VICTOR H. GREEN & CO. / COURTESY IMAGES

“These government policies created this situation, where not only were poor folks criminalized for being poor or being addicts, they were institutionalized. You can’t undo that kind of trauma to that many Americans,” she says. “It was replicated in every state I went to, not just the big major cities. It was the most heartbreaking; we need to stop the bleeding and stop hurting these communities.”

Integration in the ’60s was a double-edged sword, Ms. Taylor says. Black-owned businesses lost customers when blacks could go to white-owned stores, restaurants and hotels. Wealthy blacks moved out of black neighborhoods and into white ones.

“We got what we wanted, but we lost what we had,” she says.

The book, by the way, has nothing to do with the movie “Green Book,” which she calls “a buddy movie” and some have dubbed a white savior movie.

The director “misinterpreted ‘The Green Book’ in the film,” she says. “He shows downtrodden places, which was not true. It was all different kinds of places. How it’s presented in the movie is just a sliver of what it was. It’s unfortunate. It was a buddy film, and some of the performances were great. But it wasn’t about ‘The Green Book.’ I’m glad we get to provide something that people can learn what it really was.”

 

Ms. Taylor is working on a children’s book about “The Green Book,” for middle school kids ages 9-12, slated to come out next year. And she’s also working on creating a board game about the travelers’ guide.

She’s the curator and content specialist for an accompanying Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition scheduled to travel around the country for three years. (Slated to open in June, it’s been put on hold temporarily, due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

And through a grant from National Geographic, Ms. Taylor is also working on an interactive map, showing various “Green Book” sites and the stories, photos and artifacts behind them. A short National Geographic video can be seen on Ms. Taylor’s website, www.taylormadeculture.com.

“The project is taking so many different shapes, all these listings you see (in the book), behind each listing is a story. I’ve been approached by many producers about doing a television project. The book is just one part of it.”

She wants to recapture the stories, she says, allow people to be able to see the buildings, even if they may not exist now, “see what the old menus look like, or re-create those experiences through film,” she says. “There are so many points to re-engage with this history, which is exciting. It’s couched in this idea of this is when we were valued in terms of what we had to share each other, and this is who we were as a people.” ¦

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