‘The Inexperienced Guide’ touring Smithsonian exhibit debuts in Memphis
Movement, said Noelle Trent of the National Civil Rights Museum, should be free. That’s the idea behind The Negro Motorist Green Book, a Smithsonian touring exhibit that debuts in Memphis on Saturday.
The Green Book, created in 1936 by Harlem postman Victor Green, was an annual travel guide published until 1967 that listed businesses that were black-owned or served black travelers. The sites were havens at a time when laws and Jim Crow’s segregation could make traveling the United States dangerous for blacks.
What happened despite the circumstances that blacks were forced into, said the exhibition directors on Friday, that makes the simplicity of a travel guide something extraordinary.
The exhibition, which is spread across the main museum (Lorraine Building) and the pension (Legacy Building), puts a collection of seemingly everyday travel artifacts – dishes, hotel uniform, architectural signs, home video material – in the context of the need for the Green Book for black families.
Trent, director of interpretation, collections and education at the Memphis Museum, helped curate the exhibition, which honors the Green Book and its 10,000 institutions and associations. Only 5% of these places – including the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum – are still operational today, said Candacy Taylor, the exhibition researcher and curator.
“I can’t think of a more perfect place to open this exhibition, the National Civil Rights Museum, because … it was a Green Book site, which is a very rare and beautiful thing,” Taylor said at a press briefing Friday. She was invited to a personal press event at the museum via video conference.
Taylor and Trent spoke to Terri Lee Freeman, President of the Civil Rights Museum. Marquette Folley, content director for traveling exhibit services at Smithsonian, who worked on the exhibit, was also videotaped.
“These communities were so rich when they flourished and lived in the Green Book,” said Taylor. She wanted to show this wealth in the exhibition, she said. Part of the beauty of the Green Book, she said, is that the book itself “wasn’t a complicated thing”.
Traveling to the Green Paper conveyed traditions to future generations who eventually didn’t use the guide or are now using other social media communities to find black-owned companies or black tour groups that still point out places to stay safe.
Travel was always by car, said Freeman, a few generations away from The Green Book, and her family always packed groceries to reduce the number of stops. Trent’s family planned stops before hitting the road, and they always drove in daylight. An interaction with the exhibition reminds viewers that a pillow and blanket were travel essentials as well as an empty can in case there were no safe toilets along the way.
Taylor heard many stories from her relatives before working on the project, but none about travel and racing. These only came after she started her research in the Green Book, she said. Putting this guidebook in the foreground should give people a chance to uncover scars related to the use of the book, she said, but also to celebrate the prosperity of black companies on the guidebook’s pages.
In Memphis, The Four Way Grill was a Green Book site alongside the Lorraine Motel. The exhibition includes the Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans and the Savoy in Harlem, some of which are still standing, but most of which are not.
Even ahead of the corporate pandemic’s financial blow, gentrification, red lining, urban renewal, and other factors such as natural disasters drove green book site closures, Taylor said, which is all the more reason to celebrate those that still exist.
Folley said, “Too often, when certain aspects of African American history are discussed in American history, they are referred to small splinters that are usually victims of splinters. This exhibit says, ‘Here is evidence. Americans who were African American, Black people, lived and prospered and survived despite the Jim Crow. ‘Until we as a country can actually open our arms inwardly … we will always be a little bit more blind than we need to be. “
The exhibition is in Memphis through January 3, 2021. For information on tickets and COVID-19 security logs, please visit Civilrightsmuseum.org.
Laura Testino covers educational and children’s issues for commercial appeal. Reach them at [email protected] or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino