It’s hard to go anywhere and not run into Black travelers. Every year, more African Americans explore destinations further away from their homes. For some, travel and wellness have become synonymous. It’s a major part of many Black millennials and Gen-Z Americans’ lives. However, the road for Black people to travel freely in the US has been long and hard. 

Until 1964, the segregation of American citizens based on race was legal in the United States. Commonly known as Jim Crow laws, these unfair regulations impacted every aspect of Black life in America. African Americans were treated as second-class citizens. They were prevented from exercising their right to vote, endured heinous, terroristic crimes in their neighborhoods, and were forced to use separate facilities from white citizens. Even while traveling, Black Americans had to maneuver around Jim Crow laws to safely vacation and explore the country. 

Although travel today is full of blissful moments and experiences, it once was a source of fear and anxiety for Black Americans. Many of the luxuries experienced by Black travelers today were impossible during America’s Jim Crow era.

Flying While Black During Jim Crow

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Today, traveling on a plane is easy for Black travelers. However, when commercial air travel was first popularized in 1914, Black Americans struggled to get plane tickets under Jim Crow laws. It was not uncommon for Black travelers to lose purchased seats on airplanes to white passengers. 

In 1951, American Airlines faced a lawsuit by an employee who refused to leave coded markings on tickets to help stewardesses segregate passengers. During a time when segregation was normalized, Black travelers were consistently deprioritized by airlines. 

One instance of segregation on airplanes included one of the most famous Black athletes in history. When baseball player Jackie Robinson traveled with his wife by plane from California to Florida in 1946, the sports icon ran into many issues. The couple was bumped from their initial flight and had to wait 12 hours before another plane could take them. However, they were also later booted from that flight so three white passengers could fly. Despite Robinson’s status, they were forced to finish the commute on a Greyhound bus.

Segregation & Travel

Jim Crow was found in pretty much all travel spaces both before and after desegregation. Lynching and other crimes against African Americans were not uncommon throughout the United States. Although some regions were less heinous than others, Black travelers had to remain vigilant in knowing which areas were unsafe. 

African Americans used word of mouth and printed travel guides to help them identify where they could and could not go while traveling. The most famous of these guides was The Negro Motorist Green Book. Created by postal worker Victor H. Green, these guides aided Black traveling in navigating the United States safely during Jim Crow. Green printed the guides for thirty years and partnered with gas stations across the country to distribute them to Black travelers. 

One of the most important aspects of The Green Book and other Black travel guides printed during Jim Crow was identifying sundown towns throughout the United States. Sundown towns were recognized as predominantly white communities where African Americans were shut out. Additionally, it was unsafe for Black travelers to be in or drive through these communities after a certain time. Typically, accommodations and lodging in these areas were either off-limits or hard to find. Black travel guides accompanied travelers to ensure they knew safe places to sleep and explore moving through the US.

Finding A Place For Them

Photo credit: Fabian Wiktor

During the Jim Crow era, it was difficult for Black travelers to find a place for them. Sundown towns made it unsafe for family, fun-filled road trips. Airplanes discriminated against Black Americans trying to fly. Even train and bus stations forced Black passengers to wait in separate waiting rooms under subpar conditions. 

Thankfully, pockets of hope popped up around the country for Black travelers. Destinations like Bruce’s Beach in California and Idlewild in Michigan were a few resorts that welcomed Black travelers from all over. Although places set up for Black travelers were consistently attacked by white neighbors and local officials, these destinations provided safe places for Black families to vacation during segregation. 

Despite the dangers of traveling during Jim Crow, Black travelers still pushed forward to see and explore the country. According to the Black Travel Alliance, Black travelers accounted for 458 million leisure stays in 2019 showcasing the strength of the Black traveler’s dollar. While the Jim Crow era may have ended over fifty years ago, Black travelers are still working to overcome challenges and stereotypes birthed during that time.