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Black family vacations in the 1950s: An untold story

While the fight against segregation on public buses remains a civil rights symbol, a Brigham Young University historian shows how the struggles of black families vacationing by car contributed to the push for equal access to public accommodations.

In an upcoming book titled “Are We There Yet?” Professor Susan Rugh draws upon complaints written by a rising black middle class during the 1950s. These letter-writers documented discrimination on the part of hotels, restaurants, and gas stations around the country.

Rugh shows how their stories, submitted to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, became a bridge between elected officials and civil rights advocates.

“Those who pushed the Civil Rights Act forward used such images of the vacationing family having to sleep in their car after being turned away by hotel managers,” Rugh said. “They were trying to appeal to senators who took vacations with their families. This was supposedly the Golden Age of American family vacations, but it was not so for black families.”

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, asked committee members to imagine themselves “darker in color” while driving across the country. Wilkins then asked the senators where they would eat and use the bathroom, and how far they would need to drive each day before reaching a friend or relative who would let them stay overnight.

Family vacations continued as a theme during the hearing when Sen. Jacob Javits read into the record the story of Ralph Sims, a business owner who was quoted the rate of $50,000 a night by the manager of a motel in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sims offered instead to pay double the normal rate and pleaded, “I’ve got two kids out there. They haven’t had a good meal all day, we’re all exhausted and we can’t find any place to sleep.”

The manager refused, and that night the Sims family tried to sleep in their car, “counting the minutes until sunrise when they would begin hunting a colored restaurant for breakfast.”

The frustrated travelers lodged their complaints to the NAACP and asked the organization to take action on their behalf. Rugh first learned of the letters, now archived at the Library of Congress, from historian Barbara Welke.

“Through their letters documenting the experience of Jim Crow family travel, Susan Rugh documents the crucial role black Americans played in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made the discriminations they faced illegal,” said Welke, a professor of law and history at the University of Minnesota.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, the bill was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who years earlier had an epiphany regarding the need for civil rightsafter a conversation with Gene Williams, the husband of the Johnson’s maid. Then a senator, Johnson asked Williams the favor of taking the Johnson's beagle with him on the drive from Washington, D.C., back to their home state of Texas. Williams balked at the request and explained the difficulties of making the journey.

“You see, what I’m saying is that a colored man’s got enough trouble getting across the South on his own, without having a dog along.”

Rugh said black travelers in the 1950s in essence became the NAACP’s “foot soldiers” and turned up evidence of discrimination all over the country, not just in the South.

In Nevada, sailor Shirley Day’s honeymoon was marred when a coffee shop refused to serve lunch to Day and his new bride. Day, who had been a prisoner of war in Japan and lost a brother in Nuremberg, sought help from the police only to hear officers cite their inability to do anything because of city code.

“War veterans thought that they deserved better treatment given their service to the nation,” Rugh said. “We’re talking about a growing middle class of insurance salesmen and lawyers and educators, and they wanted to stay at the kinds of places their money could buy. They didn’t want to go to the other side of the tracks.”

Given the hardship in simply finding accommodations, travel guides emerged that listed places where blacks could be assured they would not be turned away. The Green Book for Negro Travelers was for many years the sole travel guide for blacks and remained a no-frills alphabetical listing. A later publication called Travelguide appeared with the more racially assertive motto, “Vacation & Recreation without Humiliation.”

Rugh turned up more than a dozen editions of the travel guides in New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The number of listings varied from place to place. Travelers to Detroit could choose from two dozen hotels, but in Minneapolis they would find just two hotels and one tourist home.

A 1952 guide listed on the cover a price of $1, which amounts to nearly eight dollars in today’s value according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“If you were a black businessman traveling around the country, you needed this,” Rugh said. “You needed to know where to stay.”

Criticism came to the publishers of these guides for accommodating the existence of racial segregation. The publishers of Travelguide addressed the issue by printing civil rights laws for each state and the addresses of the NAACP headquarters in each city. The Green Book deflected the criticism by stating in the introduction that someday “we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”

The book “Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations” is published by University Press of Kansas and is scheduled for release in May 2008.

Writer: David Luker

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