My Flexible Route & the Green Book

It’s deeper (South) than “Go East Young Man” + a story from my past life

TL;DR — I’m wandering through the South, through small towns and byways, all the way up to PA where I spent childhood. I’m using a 1956 edition of The Green Book — a directory of safe stops for traveling African-Americans — as a carefully-borrowed and respected reference. It will take me to places I would have never seen otherwise. Here’s the active route, which will change as I go.
Through the South on up to New England, and back down via the Deep South
I trace my finger across the map and read off the strange and compelling names — towns and creeks and valleys named after the cultures and families, and features of the land they cross.
My excitement for the parts in-between is palpable, right now as I imagine.

In between the big city stops — I’m wandering off the beaten paths of high-speed highways to find the forgotten smaller towns. Who are the humans and homes we never see on the news or in our feeds?

Pit stop for a cold Stoney’s after a long leg.
It makes me smile. Off runs my imagination. Up comes the wonder I felt looking out the side mirror as a boy on co-pilot duty.
I can almost taste the new experiences. They might taste like Stoney’s beer, or buttermilk, rhubarb, or scrapple — the things that made each day a new ride in my Pennsylvania youth.

My past life, and the ghosts of our past

“You not working for the ni**er are you?” — she spat, as her eyes sharpened to spears of hate.

I ran a full region of a political campaign for Senate in 2008. It placed me for nearly 8 months in Eastern New Mexico. My assigned district ran from Tucumcari and old Route 66 down to Roswell and the hidden towns of the lower oil lands.

Remember when gas prices were >$4? It hurt farmers, ranchers, people all through Eastern NM.

A union group met monthly at an Elks lodge in my district. I called ahead to get some time to present and read into the specific legislation around their jobs and industry. At the next meeting, I spoke to the members on policy and my guy’s strong record. I could empathize — the steelworkers, coal miners, and my dad’s steward role in the 80s for the UE (United Electrical Workers, Erie Local 506, hoo-rah).

“My dad built some of the locomotives you now drive. He taught me the value of hard work and organizing.”
Thinking back, it sounded more like I was running for office. When I remember my goals at the time, I probably was.

The union president backed me up — in his own way. He went through his personal philosophy on the “3 G’s”

  1. God (no one higher than him, this has nothin’ to do with him)
  2. Guns (nobody’s takin’ them, so don’t worry),
  3. and the Gays (they’re not hurtin’ you, let em be)
“Y’all need to be voting for your jobs and your families. Like Travis said, Tom knows how important our work is for the country. He’s taken care of us and he’ll keep doing it.”

The members were convinced. They voted to endorse Tom Udall, my candidate.

I strode proudly and with some disbelief out of the meeting room and down the hall as they finished their meeting.

“The 3 G’s” I thought — wow. Well, that’s what matters to them.

As I began to process the meeting, a seemingly kind, old woman motioned to me from a reception window by the coat room.

As I approached, her face scowled. She immediately asked,

“You not working for the ni**er are you?” — her eyes sharpened to spears of hate.
“Once one of ’em gets in there, they’ll put US in the fields this time.”
My glow from the speech-just-delivered drained, along with the blood from my face.
“ah…No, Ma’am.” I stammered. “I have to be going now.”

Once outside, I sat for a moment in my Crown Vic — and thought about Joe

I had just hired an organizer, eager to work on a big campaign. Joe came with great energy and he found me to ask for a job. I lobbied to get him out from DC to his hometown of Roswell. He would be in charge of Chavez County. I never really considered what he had to deal with beyond the constant stressors of campaign life. He was sharp, reliable, capable, friendly, and driven. I loved working with him. It was hard to believe such a talent was on my team.

Yes, I made sure he was ok in the only ways I knew to ask. I visited, co-worked, checked in all the time. We talked strategy and I let him steer his county. He had a decent place to stay, and was even able to use a truck one of the supporters donated for the campaign. See, Joe was (is) black. Years later I also discovered he launched the Believe Out Loud project for LGBT Christian support.

My own experience in the region was a fun, intense ride— a successful experiment in running a “real” and old-school campaigning via community connection. I spoke constantly at different events and gatherings, met with local families and leaders — even went full cowboy for a few parades (my Cowboy Action Shooting days are a tale for another time).

Freddie’s gift

I remembered the local NAACP chapter leader, Freddie Perkins. We met and spoke at length at his old, storied downtown office. He came weekly for call time volunteering.

Looking back, he seemed isolated by the community. At the end of the campaign, he stopped by with an original NAACP political poster. I still hang it on my wall in my past-life memorabilia collection.

Was it better to have a phone line between him and the “undecided’s” we aimed to convert to supporters?

I was welcomed into most every setting and group.

Honest conversations and real connection were the norm —the people have a strong culture and community, and they care. I still have many friends from the area, almost a decade later. Even door-to-door training for volunteers was easy. The biggest danger was a too-long conversation with a lonely voter.

But what did Joe have to deal with every day? What did he have to suppress?

I replayed what the lady had just said. It was stuck in a terrible loop.

My auto-response was a “be polite to the old lady” instinct. Would a harsh response to her ignorance have made a difference? Would a root-cause question have changed anything?

As I’m heading East already — the Elks lodge might just be a stop on my way out of New Mexico. If she’s there — it’s time for an update and some hard questions.

It’s a memory that sticks with me — and another reference point, motivator to understand, and a driving force to look for cause as I travel through the South. It’s why I decided to use the The Green Book.

The Green Book is not my book — it’s very carefully and respectfully borrowed

The Green Book was a “travel guide for negro motorists” —a tool to keep them safe with a list of motels, safe houses, cafes, and places they could stop to rest and actually receive service.

Who were the people behind the listings?

Imagine a Jim Crow-supporter getting ahold of a copy (possibly after searching black travelers). The same information to offer shelter to some could be used to persecute the hosts.

Who would be willing to risk their businesses, their local reputations, their lives to host traveling black families in the 1930s-1970s? To give safe passage and match, support the bravery of those traveling?

If they or their descendants are still around to share some oral history, I want to hear it — and maybe even stay, eat, rest in their refuge.

Thanks to the U of South Carolina’s online, searchable map of 1956 edition listings — I can pinpoint houses, inns, restaurants of the brave serving the brave.

The dots track all the way back to my point of origin, New Mexico. As the Black history scholar and Green Book expert Candacy Taylor described:

Even once black travelers reached a multiracial city, such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, only six percent of the more than 100 motels along Albuquerque’s slice of Route 66 admitted them.

Places like Aunt Brenda’s restaurant served food to all who stopped.

And in the whiter southeast of the state, an individual “B. Brown” offered a room or space to sleep in their home.

As I track my way East along a likely route, it’s hard not to notice a scarily-vacant stretch across the panhandle of Texas with no listings anywhere, even in Amarillo. It’s a desolate place to break down even now. The ghost towns were not so ghostly in the 50’s — to whites anyway.

There is a series of “Tourist Homes” — offered as stops by individuals and families starting in Oklahoma and Kansas.

The one in Chikasha has my middle name (and my Grandfather’s first name), Boyd. Looks like a good place to stop by and introduce myself.

The Green Book was a powerful tool.

My intent is not to champion some righteous cause I have no right to represent or experience to understand. Race, and community, and the politics of humans everywhere are deep and complex. We change or we hold fast. We have our reasons.

My trip and writing is not about simplifying people — to label right and wrong.

In less than a day now, I depart. I’ll listen to the road, to the people, to the reasons as they sound.