"Travel is fatal to prejudice," Mark Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad. Twain's optimistic aphorism was reprinted on the cover of The Negro Traveler's Green Book in 1948. But the same cover cautioned, "Carry your Green Book with you—You may need it."
The Green Book was a guide to traveling safely in segregated America. Published annually between 1936 and 1967, it listed hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and other establishments that welcomed black customers. Pullman porters on the Southern Crescent rail line often carried not just the Green Book but also insider tips, passed between passengers in the segregated cars at the back of the train, on the best spots to visit and which places to avoid. When the train stopped, black travelers?many of whom were musicians traveling the so-called chitlin circuit—would unload their luggage and seek out a safe haven.
Now, a traveling exhibition, the "Dresser Trunk Project," remembers these places of refuge. Inspired by the Green Book and the oral tradition of porters, and concerned about the loss of increasingly forgotten landmarks, 10 black architects and educators have designed and built 11 "dresser trunks" that commemorate cities and welcoming venues found along the Southern Crescent line.
Piece: Rickwood Field
Artist: Craig Barton
From 1920 to 1960, white baseball fans and black baseball fans alternated weekends at Birmingham, Ala.'s Rickwood Field, the Barons playing one Saturday and the Black Barons playing the next. Louvers shaded the stands and screened the view from the street. The Negro Leagues opened the world to young black players, including a 19-year-old Willie Mays, who briefly played for the Black Barons. "I'm not a big baseball fan," Barton says, "but I became one [while creating the piece]."
Credit: Scott Smith
Some of the sites represented survive as little more than legend in poetry or song, like Harlem's Glory Hole, a basement speakeasy. A few still stand, like Washington, D.C.'s Whitelaw Hotel, built by and for blacks in 1919. The Carver Inn, in Charlottesville, Va., was plowed down for a highway; the Coleman Hotel, in Newark, N.J., lies somewhere under the Star-Ledger building. New Orleans, Charlotte, N.C., and Meridian, Miss., are memorialized in toto. Birmingham, Ala.'s Rickwood Field—which inspired the piece shown here—still stands as America's oldest ballpark.
The exhibition was conceived and organized by William Daryl Williams, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. He contributed two pieces; the other participants were Craig Barton, Nathaniel Belcher, Lisa Henry Benham, David Brown, Yolande Daniels, Mario Gooden, Walter Hood, Scott Ruff, and Mabel Wilson.
Already the trunks have been shown in Chicago, Charlottesville, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. NAACP chairman Julian Bond saw them in Charlottesville and says, "It struck me as a wonderful recapture of a yesterday that needs to be celebrated, preserved, and recalled." Next month, the exhibit travels to the University of Maryland, where it will be on display from March 30 to May 3. Late this summer, the trunks will reside in a dedicated car on Amtrak's Crescent line, riding the rails from Washington to New Orleans, where their final showing will take place at Tulane University in the fall.
To see images of all 11 trunks and learn more about their inspiration, visit www.dressertrunkproject.org.