The Green Book Initial Research: June 25th-July 20th

Hello, I apologize for the delay in my blog entries. I prepared the entries throughout the weeks, however it was difficult to finalize and post during the course of my travels and research. As a result, this post will be a bit lengthier than others. However, I am excited to share with everyone the progress of my project as well as the twists and turns that it has taken over the past 7 weeks.

The idea for my Monroe Project began last fall when a professor showed me an article on The Green Book, a travel guide published for African American travelers during the Jim Crow era. I created the project around the idea that the guide acted as a marginalized artifact and I wanted to explore its significance. At the time, I hoped to show that a simple everyday object such as a travel guide played an important role in resistance and protest against the segregated system throughout the United States during the 20th century. Other than that, I left my thesis open for what I would discover during my travels and research.

The first two weeks of my Monroe research consisted of reading primary documents and researching literature that either focused on or even hinted at the Jim Crow era, African American travel, The Green Book, and methods of protest and or resistance within a race context. This broad scope provided an immense amount of reading but I soon narrowed my focus to the obstacles that African Americans faced as travelers during the early 20th century. During this time I also planned my trips to Washington DC and Greensboro, North Carolina. There, I would set out and locate the addresses listed in a 1949 edition of the Green Book. I also set up several interviews, however, those fell through and I had to alter the oral history part of my project. I hope to someday collect oral history that supports my project, however it was very difficult to track down those who used the travel guide in one summer. As a result, I shifted more of my attention to the primary documents and my personal travels for this project.

I came across several essays and books that I would recommend to those who are interested in race relations in the United States, the Civil Rights movement, or Africana studies. One such book is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson collected over 1200 interviews of African American who migrated from the South to other parts of the United States during the 1900s. From these interviews, Wilkerson created a book about this migration and its effects on the nation. Another source that has provided me with many essays on African American history is the American Quarterly, a journal that often comes up within the American Studies department.

After all of this reading and research, I was ready to embark on the second part of my project. It was time to gather some experience in the field. My first trip was to Washington D.C. At this point, I was still struggling with my thesis and what I wanted to specifically tackle with this paper. I did not know what to expect of this first adventure with the Green Book. I set out Tuesday morning at 8:30 with my notebook in hand that held a list of addresses found in the 1949 edition of the travel guide and the sheer hope that I would find something.

What were the chances of a restaurant, hotel, or business still operational since the publication of the 1949 edition? Slim to none. However, what I discovered in my travels was that the importance of my fieldwork was not discovering that a building remained through the change of the American landscape, but rather the emotions associated with looking for that one safe spot within an entire city. Basically, finding a needle in a haystack. What I understood after walking through the July heat in the concrete jungle of D.C. was the sheer luck a black traveler needed to find a safe spot within a racially divided city. One would either need a personal network that provided information or a travel guide, such as the Green Book, otherwise it would be better just to keep on driving. Then there was the overwhelming relief one feels when discovering that there is a place to eat, sleep, and breathe without the fear of physical, emotional, and psychological harm. The closest I came to feeling this was when I discovered the first business listed in the Green Book. I had found it. My project was not a bust. I had walked the entire alphabet of the DC city streets, but there it was on U Street. Maybe it was not a safe spot, since I could easily walk into any business and find relief in the air-conditioned buildings, but when one is a stranger to a city and alone, there is a sense of fear and tension associated with the new surroundings and not entirely shaken until one finds his or her destination.

The D.C. trip turned out to be a worthwhile venture. I discovered several buildings including a YMCA, YWCA, and a market, all of which were historically preserved as a part of the “U Street Heritage Trail”. This trail marks historically significant parts of D.C. that played large parts in either African American culture or the Civil Rights movement. Though the trip gave me several things to think, I was still hesitant to nail down my thesis. I could take on many different points including the necessity for such a guide, de facto segregation as exhibited in the close proximity of all the addresses listed under each city, or the guide as a representative symbol of a distinctive culture emerging as a part of the American landscape in the mid-1900s. As a result of this trip, I wanted to return to my primary documents and see what supported my findings in DC, especially de facto segregation and the rise of African American entrepreneurs as a result of segregation.

I consider this to be the first part of my research. The following weeks (I will publish in the next post) consisted of another trip and the creation of a more refined thesis. This thesis completely surprised me. I could not have predicted the direction that my project took after traveling to Greensboro. However, that is for another blog!

 

Comments

  1. Meagen,

    I had not read your original abstract, so I had no idea what The Green Book actually was. As I read this post there were two things that kept coming to mind for me. The first was how precious that book must have been to travelers at the time as they were using it. If they lost that book, not only would they have been completely out of luck, but the people offering a safe place to rest could have been in danger if the wrong person picked it up. The other connection I kept making was how similar The Green Book is to ancient texts like the Codex Calixtinus in Spain. They may have been prepared hundreds of years apart, but they served similar purposes. Each book was filled with advice and information that a traveler needed to know if they wanted to safely arrive at their ultimate destination. It’s a powerful image to picture two travelers separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles over an ocean relying on the same kind of resource to get where they needed to go.

  2. mkmonahan says:

    Thank you for your comment! I had not heard of the Codex Calixinus. I will certainly read more about this book because I agree with you, it is a very powerful comparison. When I first came across the Green Book, I thought of the Underground Railroad. It seems that there could be a pattern of alternate resources in order to arrive safely to their destination, whether it be innocent travel or escaping from an oppressive environment.

  3. crshermer says:

    Meagen! I love it all so much so far 🙂 I felt as though I was transported back in time as you described the emotional turmoil involved with finding a safe haven in an unfamiliar location. I had never before thought about this aspect of race relations, and it got me to thinking that while time changes circumstances, some human emotions (like relief knowing you are safe) are as true today as they were in the past.

  4. Lillian Waller says:

    What a fascinating subject for research! I like your hands-on method of actually going to locations listed in the Green Book, as a way of immersing yourself in the roles and mindsets of the people who would have been using it. It is interesting how a single document opened up such a broad area of research – rather than focusing on a narrow topic through many different resources, you chose to use one main resource as a center point to explore the broad topic of race relations in America. I had never heard of the Green Book before, but it seems like an excellent choice of subject matter for this type of research, since it was such a widespread document that, by its very nature, was both a reaction to and an active player in American race relations. Reading your blog has made me interested in learning more about this topic.