‘Seeking help while black': Renisha McBride tragedy is nothing new for black America

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” starts the last paragraph of the introduction to the 1949 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, published by the Victor H. Green & Co., Publishers in Harlem.

Known as just The Green Book, in recent years more people have become more aware of this particular brand of travel book aimed at black travelers that counted Esso Standard Oil and Ford among its supporters, but there were many like it answering the call to keep black people safe through a vetted list of hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses that were friendly towards black people as they moved about their city, state and country.

To some historians, these books are a sign of yesteryear. With the recent deaths of Jonathan Ferrell, the former Florida A&M University football player who was killed by a policeman in North Carolina to whom he was presumably running towards for help after a car accident, and Renisha McBride, the young lady in Detroit whom family members believe came to the home of a stranger after she hit a parked car for help only to be shot in the face and killed by a person who has yet to be charged for her death, others are asking if these books are once again needed to advise black people in this country of places to go where they can feel safe.

In the early 20th century, there was no pretense that it was not dangerous for black people to move about. Writing for The Green Book, Wendell P. Alston, representing Esso Standard Oil, euphemistically observed that “The Negro traveler’s inconveniences are many.”

And, today, despite the rhetoric of a post-racial nation, the deaths of Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride suggest that it is still not entirely safe for black people to even ask for help in an emergency.

Over 25 years ago, three black men simply seeking help in the Howard Beach area of greater New York City after their car broke down, were chased by a gang of armed white teenagers who liberally used racial epithets. One of them, 23-year-old Michael Griffith, was killed when he ran into the Belt Parkway to escape the angry mob and was struck by a car.

Even the best guide, of course, could not predict where one’s car would break down, but its devotees trusted them to map out a safer path where they were less likely to be harmed should such an unfortunate incident occur. According to Philip Merrill, a noted expert in black cultural artifacts of which his Baltimore-based Nanny Jack & Co has a vast collection, there were many Green Books.

“Philadelphia had one. D.C. had one. Believe it or not, Wisconsin had it in the early 1950s, because I have one. So if we do further research, we can probably look at almost any area that had a large black population and find that somebody published a similar type of booklet or pamphlet that would be almost like a bible for a person of color to survive.”

In Merrill’s research of Baltimore, for instance, he has come across The First Colored Directory of Baltimore City, published by Robert W. Coleman, a blind piano tuner, from 1913 to 1946, as well as The Baltimore Red Book, a directory of the city’s black-owned businesses popular in the 1940s. The Green Book itself started in 1936 catering to New Yorkers before later expanding to cover “the USA, Alaska, Bermuda, Mexico, Canada,” as its 1949 edition touts.

And while the other books were not full-on travel books, Merrill said, “The books give you a magnificent blueprint for segregated life.”

And, according to Janice Grant, an octogenarian who traveled from her native Maryland to Mississippi as a Freedom Rider, participated in the Freedom Schools there, as well as worked in the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party with Fannie Lou Hamer, in addition to driving cross-country when she attended UCLA for graduate studies, there were many “inconveniences” to “traveling while black” in the Jim Crow era.

“We actually had to take shoe boxes with our lunches. We had to stop in the woods to relieve ourselves,” she shared. “Ebony did put out a book,” she recalled, noting that it and other guides were not as useful to her traveling to California. “I would have to stop at service stations and ask them if I could sleep under their light for protection and freshen up in their bathrooms,” she shared, “because along the route, at that time, we didn’t have places. There were places but they were off the route. . . Of course, there was no place I could stop to eat along the major routes, so I would go to the grocery store and get bread and mayonnaise and whatever else I wanted,” she added.

Sadly, this was true in the 1970s into the 1980s, as black people traveling from the Midwest to the South, for example, were still prone to travel at night, carrying gas cans in their trunks, as well as bringing along fried chicken, pound cake and other goodies for the journey, to avoid stopping. They also, as Grant shared, often drove ten miles under the speed limit to prevent being pulled over.

Historian Thomas J. Sugrue expounds upon this for Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America, where he writes:

The phenomenon of being stopped for ‘driving while black’ did not begin with New Jersey in the 1990s. Throughout the 20th century, black drivers regularly complained that they were harassed by police officers. It was commonplace advice that black motorists should drive below the posted speed limit–but not too slow as to attract attention–because police officers would regularly stop blacks for traveling even one mile an hour faster than what was posted. Some black drivers took road trips at night, when it was harder for police to identify them by skin color as they drove down dark country roads.

For Merrill and many others, the killings of Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell are cruel reminders that times have not drastically changed and that these guides may still have a place in our lives today.

“Some of us are still concerned, even as we speak in 2013 and we’re entering into 2014, about all the crazy activity that’s going on tied into racial behavior,” he said. “We need to be wide awake. We cannot be asleep when we go to travel in 2013. When I travel anywhere, I am concerned.”

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha