Traveling while black

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She poses in front of a 1959 Dodge Custom Royal, a top-end two-color hardtop.Her dress, a black-and-white checked sheath dress with a filmy scarf and black belt, matches the two-tone paint job of the car behind her. The sharp fins on the rear of the car echo the flare of her scarf and the line of her collar. She stands, confident, posing for the beloved photographer.

The Dodge Custom Royal was the princeling of the American automobile industry. Over the top, lush, silly. And extraordinary car. It cost almost $2700 ($23,000 in today’s dollars). The car, produced from 1955 to 1959, was a dashing graphic-art design project on wheels. (image from Velocity Automotive Journal)

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The giveaway here are the rear lights with their bold red tips extending from silver cups. Earlier years the rear lights were stacked with one rounded and one sliced off at the tip. These were automobiles for those with style. These were automobiles for those unafraid of drawing attention to themselves, to success, to daring to be different.

Travelling while black in the first half of the twentieth century was a mixture of danger and banal inconvenience. In 1936 Victor Green, a postal worker (civil service was one of the best ways for African Americans to gain a foothold in the American economy), wrote his first Green Book, a motoring guide for black travelers in the United States. It was needed. Not only were Southern restaurants, hotels, rest rooms, and other public businesses segregated, Northern cities had similar practices. And hundreds of small towns across the midwest and north had sundown laws that made it illegal to be black and in town ‘past sundown’. For more information on the Green Book, the University of South Carolina Libraries have a fully digitized 1956 edition, an interactive map of services provided, and more at http://library.sc.edu/digital/collections/greenbook.html. The Green Book ceased publication two years after the Civil Rights Act was enacted July 2, 1964.

When Mr. Green started publishing his guide the U.S. Highway system had settled into a numbered system, paved roads, standardized markings, and even nationalized signage by the late 1930s. Tourism — especially auto touring —  was very popular, and for civil service workers like Mr. Green, a paid two-week vacation, a new perk for middle-class and working-class unionized workers, meant time to travel and see the country.

By the mid-1950s, African Americans traveled throughout the segregated South and the racist North, armed with the Green Book, which pointed them to black-friendly hotels, private residences who put people for the night (like airbnb in a way), and restaurants, gas stations, and restroom facilities, hairdressers and dozens of other businesses. It was a map to the black American economy.

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In this photograph, our lady from the first image is now posed on the left in a sweet sundress, straw hat in hand and her black patent leather handbag on her lap. Her friend wears an adorable “cold shoulder” styled dress, with off the shoulder cuffs and narrow straps over her shoulders. The jacket over her arm matches her dress. Both ladies know damn well they look good. The automobile looks a bit dowdy from this angle, but is a Chevrolet Deluxe Coupe from the early 1950s. Here’s an image of a refurbished Coupe, a near match to our ladies’ vehicle.

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The Chevrolet bow-tie emblem with the long dash of aluminum helps date the year, although there’s a slight difference between the two. The handmade license of cardboard 550 BE was a license-plate numbering style used in Ohio from 1955 to 1956.  The car is certainly not new: look at the row of destination stickers rimming the lower edge of the rear view window! These were people who traveled, saw the world around them.

The style with which these women traveled — the wonderful cars, the outfits chosen with an eye towards flattering lines, stylish statements, and insouciance. How one moved through the world was, in these photographs, what lasted. The stupidities, the racism, the cruelty of segregationist white America? That was there, yes, but so too was a deeply American right to move about in the world with style and grace.

Note on the images: two years ago I bought a large ziploc bag of photographs torn out of at least three scrapbooks. These are part of a collection from the woman to the left — she appears in about a dozen photographs. Over the next few months, I’ll post most of her images, as the lady had style, grace, and a lovely derring-do attitude!

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