Race On The Road, African Americans Relive Perils Of Travel

At a bus station in Durham, NC, in May 1940
At a bus station in Durham, NC, in May 1940
Rhonda Colvin*

ROCKVILLE — Her mom always smiled — except when the family made its annual summer drive to visit the grandparents in Magnolia, Arkansas. "The smiles were gone while we were traveling," said Gloria Gardner, 77.

It was the 1940s, and traveling to her parents' hometown was not approached lightly after the family moved to Muskegon, Michigan, during the Great Migration. Stopping for food or bathroom breaks was mostly out of the question. For black families, preparing for a road trip required a well-tested battle plan in which nothing could be left to chance.

There were meals to cook and pack in ice. Sheets were folded and stacked in the car to use as partitions if they were left with no choice but to take bathroom breaks roadside.

And there was another item that Gardner recalls her parents never forgot to pack: the Negro Motorist Green Book. While her dad drove, her mother leafed through the pages to see whether there were any restaurants, gas stations or restrooms on their route where they wouldn't be hassled, or in danger.

"When it was time to stop, you had to know where to stop," said Gardner, who now lives in Rockville, Maryland. "If you stopped at the wrong place, you might not leave."

As she looked through a copy of her father's 1940 edition of the guide, she recalled its importance: "Our Green Book was our survival tool."

Source: New York Public Library

The Negro Motorist Green Book was created in 1936 by Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, to direct black travelers to restaurants, gas stations, hotels, pharmacies and other establishments that were known havens. It was updated and republished annually for more than 30 years, with the last edition printed in 1967.

Candacy Taylor, a writer who has catalogued sites in the Green Book that still exist, said Green distributed the guide through postal workers and traveling salesmen. Copies were also sold at Esso gas stations and, starting in the 1940s, through subscriptions.

Jim Crow segregation laws varied by county and state, so black motorists didn't have the freedom to play anything by ear — food, gas and lodging would probably be off-limits during stretches of their journeys. Black travelers risked more than the humiliation of being turned away at restaurants or service stations; they often encountered harassment or physical danger if they inadvertently stopped in the wrong town.

Signs posted at the cities' entrances warned black out-of-towners.

James Loewen, author of "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism," said he has been astounded by his research on the prevalence of sundown towns, all-white communities where unofficial rules forbade black Americans after dark. In some cases, signs posted at the cities' entrances warned black out-of-towners, "N--, Don't Let The Sun Go Down On You."

"I don't think this is a case of black paranoia for a minute," he said.

Loewen estimates that the nation had no fewer than 10,000 locales with these rules.

In particular, black drivers in the North had to be on high alert. Sundown towns were a Northern phenomenon, said Loewen, who continues to locate municipalities with such histories.

"In Illinois, I'm up to 507. In Mississippi, I'm at three," he said.

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended many discriminatory practices allowed under Jim Crow laws, similar risks and concerns have lingered. Motorists still fear encountering racist police officers or wandering into towns where they're not welcome. In recent years, travelers of color have been rejected by Airbnb hosts and booted from a Napa Valley wine tour in a case that led to a racial discrimination lawsuit that was settled.

In response to The Washington Post"s call in November for stories about racial discrimination while traveling, readers recounted experiences across the country, from New York to East Texas.

Ray Jones of Aurora, Colorado, who identifies as African American, said he exercises caution whenever he rides his motorcycle outside of the metropolitan Denver area. He said "White lives matter" billboards and bumper stickers send a message that he's not totally welcome.

He's even stopped traveling to North Carolina to visit relatives with his wife, who is white.

"Based on recent events in Charlottesville and the climate in America, I will not feel comfortable traveling south of D.C. for a few years when we visit the East Coast annually together," he said.

Evita Robinson, founder of an online community for travelers called, points to the political climate and a resurfacing of outspoken racism as causes for concern. She said some of her 17,000 members, most of whom are people of color, say they sometimes feel more comfortable traveling abroad than within their own country.

"Now more than ever, we need each other," said Robinson, who is black. "We need each other for insights, we need each other for advice on the ground in a community like mine."

Social media also gives a sense of what domestic travel looks like through the eyes of a person of color, chronicling stories of discriminatory encounters with such hashtags as #AirbnbWhileBlack and #TravelingWhileBlack. These concerns are not exclusive to black people. Last April, a Korean-American woman's tearful account of being rejected by an Airbnb host because of her race went viral.

In a message explaining her decision, the Airbnb host cited the president: "It's why we have Trump," her message read. "And I will not allow this country to be told what to do by foreigners."

Will race tap me on the shoulder?

President Donald Trump's election in November 2016 coincided with a surge in reported hate crimes that month, according to federal data. Though reported hate crimes have steadily declined since at least the 1990s - with 2015 having the fewest on record - reports of vocal white supremacists, high-profile fatal police encounters and caught-on-camera public racism are influencing where motorists of color are willing to drive.

Dallas resident Jeannette Abrahamson, who identifies as African American, mentioned the case of a 28-year-old black woman who was found dead in a Texas jail cell three days after she was arrested during a traffic stop.

"What happened to Sandra Bland could have easily happened to me as I've made that drive to Houston several times and pass a lot of those small country towns," said Abrahamson, 48.

During the Green Book era, black drivers were acutely aware that they could be targets of unwarranted traffic stops that could go wrong. Many black men would keep a chauffeur's hat in the car and tell officers that the vehicle belonged to their white employer, which would often defuse a bad situation.

The chauffeur hat strategy carries hints of the "slave pass," a note of permission that enslaved people had to carry any time they were traveling alone — evidence that journeys have long been perilous for black Americans.

In Washington, DC, in 1955 — Photo: Scurlock, Addison N.

Traffic stops remain an issue. In a multiyear study of more than 60 million traffic stops across 20 states, Stanford University's Open Policing Project found that black drivers are not only more likely to be stopped than white drivers, but that black and Hispanic motorists are also more likely to be ticketed and have their cars searched for less cause than whites.

There have been reports of local authorities freely discussing and making light of violence against black people, even advising recruits to shoot young marijuana users if they're black.

In August, Trump pardoned and offered vigorous support to a former Arizona sheriff who was convicted of criminal contempt related to his racial profiling tactics against Latinos.

Although the NAACP has existed for more than a century — through segregation and the turbulence of the civil rights movement — the organization released its first travel advisories last year.

In August, it issued an alert to people of color traveling in Missouri after a state law was passed making it harder for women and minorities to sue based on discrimination in the workplace. In October, when the organization advised caution when traveling on American Airlines because of "a pattern of disturbing incidents reported by African-American passengers," NAACP spokesman Malik Russell said there was an unexpected flood of calls and emails from people sharing stories of discrimination they faced as passengers.

He wondered whether the organization struck a nerve, revealing how much discrimination while traveling remains an under-discussed topic.

"It was a moment where we saw the need for these types of actions, where it seemed people were waiting for an opportunity to tell their story," Russell said.

When Taylor speaks about her Green Book research, people often tell her they are relieved that the need for such a guide is over. But she is quick to caution: "It's so important, I think, that we don't relegate that as just something that happened in the past, because there are variations of it that we're still living out in different ways, and it's just evolved. It's not gone, in terms of being safe on the road."

While recalling his own family's stories of travel during the Green Book-era, Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said that for a person of color, there's always going to be an awareness that hangs overhead.

While travel has gotten easier, he said, "there is always that sense that, "Am I going to have the experience that I want, which is to be free of race and to enjoy this moment? Or will race tap me on the shoulder?" And it usually does."

*Aaron Williams contributed to this report.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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