Sometimes you find your way forward by looking back

December 20, 2020

“I grew up poor, one of seven children, in a family of farmers and fishers in rural Florida. We lived in a small village of 52 people and they were my relatives. My mother was a day maid. She rode with a relative 20 miles a day to an upper middle class white person’s house to clean, cook, do laundry and iron. My father was a cook and died mysteriously when I was 11.

We owned our land and our house and my siblings and I had a protected childhood. One of the things I learned from making the “Driving the Green Book” podcast was how African Americans protected their children. I wish we could have done an episode on this. They knew they could only protect their children from the eventual traumas and horror of racism to a point and then they would have the conversations about how to be aware of, understand and deal with the realities of the ways racism was manifested by other people. world. They wanted their children to have an innocence period.

My grandmother had a limited education, but she and my mother held the family together and loved us. My grandmother didn’t tell me her stories about what happened to her because she said it was her past and not mine. I needed to focus on the future. I didn’t know much about her before she died. Then people started telling me stories. The same thing with my mother. They wanted to give us a future unencumbered by their difficulties and fears. It was a lot to hold in, but that is why they were in church every Sunday and Wednesday, to be with God and find release and relief in prayer.

I assume until somebody tells me or acts toward me otherwise that most people want to be in touch with my humanity first and we can move forward. Knowing your history and where you came from, as well as where others came from, gives you a point to begin. That was one of our goals of making the “Driving the Green Book” podcast.

The “Negro Motorist Green Book” (called the Green Book) was created in 1937 to help black Americans to “travel without aggravation” and find safe places to stay and get services in this country. The podcast was going to be about a road trip with my associate producer, Janée Woods Weber, to places in the Green Book. We were going to talk with people who remember businesses featured in the book. But it became about the personal stories related to living through the time when the Green Book was necessary. It also became a personal gift that enabled me to remember my relatives and to hear their voices.

We took our road trip in June 2019. We covered 2021 miles, from Detroit to New Orleans, in 12 days.

“Driving the Green Book” is also the story of black neighborhoods and business districts that rose up during Jim Crow and segregation. Many were torn down under urban renewal by the government as a part of the Housing Act of 1949. After the interstate highway act was passed to build highway systems enabling commerce to move more easily. They said they were getting rid of urban blight and poverty. But if you look at many of the places that were targeted, they were not actually slums. They were middle-and upper-middle-class areas as well as black business districts and main streets. Why did they target these for urban renewal? It was to deal an economic setback to the African-American community.

Most white people had never been to black communities because of segregation and Jim Crow. The local press didn’t speak well of these neighborhoods, so the public only saw images of poor housing that needed removing. They didn’t see black people working, owning businesses, raising families, taking care of their houses, and sending their kids to school. They didn’t see the parts that were middle- and upper-middle-class housing or business districts. Segregation and Jim Crow gave the public a cover, so they could say they didn’t know what was being destroyed.

It is hard to see what has actually been done deliberately and repeatedly. It’s not just the destruction, it’s also the redlining of the communities. Even if you had a great job, worked for the municipality or worked in a factory, you still were relegated to live in a neighborhood where you couldn’t get a mortgage. The land was viewed as worthless or so high risk that banks would not make you a mortgage. In that case, if you did manage to get a house in a neighborhood, it was generally one that would be targeted for urban renewal.

There were these streets in every town. There was Davis Avenue in Mobile; Fourth Avenue in Birmingham; Jefferson Street in Nashville, Tennessee; and Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi. Most of them were either obliterated by urban renewal or they became isolated when the government built the highway system. Both led to their economic demise.

I think people in the African American community and the broader communities are now seeing these places as a part of history that was long ignored. A history that many feel was erased in front of them and replaced by another narrative created by the local governments.

We spent a day and night in Mobile. Mobile has a Southern gracious quality, but the lines between black and white are still there. We took the tour of the Dora Finley African American Trail and rode along Davis Avenue, now Martin Luther King Jr Avenue. We were surprised that the renewal in other parts of Mobile hadn’t reached there. It was disappointing to see an area with this much history still left behind. As outsiders, we wondered if anyone cared about what happened here.

Housing segregation is a problem in Mobile, like much of the country. If America could break the housing segregation issue, you would live next to people who don’t look like you. But you would also get to know them and how they live. You’d see how they take care of their houses and are responsible for their children. I think people are demonized too often and housing patterns have helped support that point of view

It took two years of determination before I met a young woman at Macmillan Podcasts who decided to commission and champion the series. I got a lot of rejections along the way. Many of the podcast gatekeepers didn’t see any reason to go beyond the Green Book movie released in 2018. But people didn’t know about the history of the Green Book or how important it was. In the podcast world, a lot of the gatekeepers want programs about the now. But you will understand now better if you understand the history and something about the people involved. You will understand the ramifications of the now.

History matters because it gives you a point of reference for your dreams and your achievements. Your relatives and your history are your inspiration. If they’ve survived everything that they did so that you’re here, then that should be your inspiration moving forward to make your situation and the lives of others, even better. Sometimes you find the way forward by looking back.”

This is from my interview with Alvin Hall for “The Decline and Revitalization of The Avenue” that is running in Lagniappe this week. It is the final story in the “Buried in Oaklawn” series. Here is the link to the story:

Here is the link to the “Driving The Green Book” podcast:

1 Comment

  1. Juan

    Thank you for sharing. Hopefully one day Ill get to travel the “Green Book”. I believe knowing our history is great in manifesting our future. Thank you for your work and perspective.


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