Friday, October 15, 2010

The Golden Age Of Travel (Sort Of)

The 1950's and 60's are considered by many to be the 'golden age' of travel. Planes came into vogue and had a reputation of 'Yay! I get to go in an airplane!' as opposed to 'Stupid freaking delays in an uncomfortable metal tube WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN'T TAKE MY SODA ON THE PLANE I'M A TAXPAYER I PAY YOUR SALARY'. The world was exotic and romantic and a little on the dangerous side but that was okay because it wasn't all touristy yet. It seemed like everyone wanted to go to Cairo, Hong Kong, Rio, Bora Bora and Hawai'i (always with the pronounced second I), and, on a second tier, Paris, Morocco and 'Meh-he-co'. All the travel pictures were washed out and grainy.

All of them. Even National Geographic's. My mom kept a bunch of old issues of National Geographic; they still sit up in our attic after a redecoration. One is from July 1959; it chronicles Alaska's entry into the United States, and the 49-star flag that would last only a short time before Hawaii joined as well. Another is from April 1967; it includes an ad (I love these old ads) for Expo '67 in Montreal; the namesake for the Montreal Expos that showed up two years later. All the photos are grainy, slide-showy, a few were so bad that I thought they were artist's interpretations until I found out that 'super anscochrome' did in fact mean a photograph.

As if to prove my point, the older issues are loaded with ads in the front and back of the magazine, many offering travel every which way. April 1967 runs ads for travel to not only Montreal, but also southern California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Wisconsin, Mississippi's gulf coast, Pensacola, Washington DC, Nantucket, the Canadian Pacific, Manitoba, Newfoundland/Labrador, and cruises to the Mediterranean and South America, as well as two pages of classified ads for camps and schools. (One entire page and half of the other is for 'boy's schools', which include military academies; the other half-page is for camps, girls' schools, co-ed schools, home study, and a secretarial school.)

There is one important thing to note, however, about these two National Geographics from the Golden Age of Travel:

Every single person that is doing any traveling is white.

In fact, the only non-whites that show up anywhere in either issue, be it ads or articles, are the drawn-in South Pacific dancers in an ad from the 1959 issue. When they said 'golden age of travel', they meant a golden age for white people. Minorities, particularly blacks, were busy fighting for civil rights at the time. There were many, many places where blacks- or some or all other demographics- were simply not welcome. We're not talking individual diners or stores. Entire towns made a point of actively driving out non-whites and preventing them from living in town by any means necessary. These were referred to as 'sundown towns', because if you weren't white, you had best be out of town by sundown, or else. A number of them went so far as to prominently display a sign on the outskirts of town, most saying "N*****, don't let the sun set on you in (name of town)", or some paraphrasing of same. (Jews were a popular secondary target.) Some sundown towns are still of a sundown mentality even today.

Needless to say, most of the sundown towns don't like to talk about it anymore, as James Loewen found out when he wrote the 2005 book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. His website contains a database of possible sundown towns across the country.

But these people still wanted to travel too. How could they travel with minimal fear of harassment?

If they're black, they would turn to the Green Book.

Have you ever heard of the Green Book? If you're not black, and you said no: good. That was the point. You weren't supposed to know unless you were in it or might need it. Beginning in 1936, the Negro Motorist Green Book was published and distributed within the black community in order to inform black travelers places which were safe to travel to without fear of harassment. The quality of said places was a secondary concern; no ratings were given, though if travelers wrote in and found that a destination was simply awful, they could see to removing it.

As the intro to the 1949 edition stated (available here in PDF): "There will be a day sometime in the future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year."

That time came in 1964, when that year's Civil Rights Act was passed. The Green Book was promptly discarded, and almost completely forgotten until recently, when Calvin Alexander Ramsay discovered it. He is currently working on a documentary about the Green Book, in order to raise awareness of just what travel was like in those days.

And, perhaps, get people considering that the Golden Age of Travel might just be now.

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