September 23, 2020

Road Tripping While Black: Readers Respond

The road trip has long been considered part of the great American experience, but the feeling of freedom often associated with getting in a car and seeing the country hasn’t always been extended to African-American travelers, who often worry about discrimination and racism while traveling.

After publishing a story on the concerns and anxieties many black travelers experience when driving, we asked readers to share their experiences. In hundreds of responses, people told us about their fears and worries, but they also shared stories of a pastime they’ve enjoyed with grandparents, parents, children and friends.

Many people said that their families used the Green Book, a guidebook first published in 1936 that listed welcoming towns, motels and restaurants for black travelers; others said that trips require a lot of planning and little spontaneity. Fear of being stopped by the police or encountering racism on the road has kept some people from venturing out. But for those who have traveled, seeing the country has been rewarding and they plan on continuing to explore.

The following responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Credit…Thalia Rodriguez

I’ve taken several road trips to the Poconos with my mother and siblings and we have been stopped by the police, unfortunately, almost every time. We are from the Bronx and we would take road trips to indoor water parks like Great Wolf Lodge and were always stopped. It would cause us extreme anxiety. The cops would be so aggressive toward our mother and we would be still in the car waiting to see what would happen. To this day, as young adults, when going for road trips to the lakes or Lake George we are always looking out the window, actively worried. It is a lifestyle, this worry and anxiety about the cops.

— Thalia Rodriguez, Bronx, N.Y.

ImageJoshua Lawrence Lazard’s friends at the Oak Alley Plantation, in Louisiana, in March 2014.
Credit…Joshua Lawrence Lazard

My parents always told me stories of the perils of “road tripping while Black,” but it never stopped us from going on road trips as a family. To this day, I have a pretty good interstate map in my head. At least twice a year I end up taking a trip of 12 hours or more. I probably worry about being a solo traveler more than being a black traveler. I’m always aware of my surroundings because being solo just makes me more of a target. I generally stick to the Interstate System, and when I do venture on back roads, I try to avoid stopping for gas or bathroom breaks. The prevalence of Confederate flags mounted on porches and flying in yards in the rural South still chills me to my core. I have logged miles through the dense fog of the Appalachian Mountains, the humid heat of the Deep South and the frozen prairies of Illinois, and I don’t see any reason to stop now. This land is my land, and I plan to drive every mile of it.

Joshua Lawrence Lazard, Raleigh, N.C.

Credit…Valerie Johnson

In about 1971 in Georgia, the skies opened up on our family trip back home to North Carolina from our vacation in Florida, so when we saw the glowing red vacancy sign, we were elated. We pulled up close to the door and a man came out in a trench coat with a big umbrella, a welcoming smile on his face. But as soon as the inside light popped on, revealing my mother, father, brother and me as black, the man’s smile vanished. He signaled “no” with his hand and retreated. The last thing I saw through the rain-streaked window was the “no” flickering on in front of “vacancy” as we pulled out of the mostly empty parking lot. I was only 6 or 7 but I knew what had happened.

This summer I need to accompany my daughter on her move to California. There are states where I am not comfortable on the roads. I am always afraid that the police will stop me. I am afraid that I will be accused of doing something and the fact that I am a middle-aged lawyer won’t save me. And I am wary of stopping at establishments in towns where I might not be wanted. That is what racism does. It makes you wary, all the time, so we will likely fly despite the risks of airplane travel.

Valerie Johnson, Durham, N.C.

Credit…Tyler Beckworth

Road trips have always been a passion of mine and I will certainly plan a few this summer. However, being a black male has and will continue to keep certain places off limits in my mind. Rolling through a small town and stopping in the local bar has always intrigued me, but unless I’m with my white friends, I won’t stop. There’s simply no knowing who is in there. I’m sure I’ve missed out on a great bar with great people. But it’s not a risk I’m willing to take.

— Tyler Beckworth., Los Angeles, Calif.

My friends, who are mostly white, have a freedom in making travel plans I never will. I sweat every detail from where we stop for gas, spend the night, even the side roads and detours we take.

I refuse to let fear dictate the choices I make, but there are limits to how much protection even the most abundant caution and vigilance can provide. I’ve been incredibly lucky and never had a racial incident while driving, but I wonder with every trip whether or not this is the time my luck runs out.

— Spencer Gilbert, New York, N.Y.

I have taken multiple short and long road trips across America, including one bicycle ride from San Francisco to Washington D.C., exactly 10 years ago this June. Of all my international travels, it was the bicycle trip across America that worried my friends and family the most. Two black women on bicycles riding through Middle America. We were highly visible and had lots of interactions with other travelers and folks in small-town America. Our awareness was heightened, but we did not experience any overt hatred. We did experience many acts of kindness, like a ride into town during a hailstorm. Or when a white police chief in a small town let us camp in his backyard because the only motel in town said they had “no vacancy.” We heard many opinions from native, black, white and immigrant communities about our ride and about their politics. We saw signs protesting Obama. Mostly people were shocked and curious to see us.

— April Banks, Los Angeles, Calif.

I am a 39-year-old black male who has traveled all around the U.S.A. and in 13 countries. In all of my road trips, I have never really been afraid to travel because of my race. There are times when I stop in small rural towns (especially in the South) for gas or at welcome stops where I can tell my presence as a black male is not welcome. The biggest risks, in my opinion, for black travelers are state troopers who see us as targets for stops. I will never let the racism of a few deter me from traveling, as during most of my traveling I have never had any issues. I think it is important to stay aware while not being afraid.

— Sam Tyler, Atlanta, Ga.

As a young girl in the 1970s, I always looked forward to our annual summer road trip to Tennessee for my grandfather’s family reunion. One of the best treats of the weekend was the huge picnic lunch my grandmother would prepare for our trip down I-65. Mom (as my sisters and I called our grandmother) would fry chicken and make potato salad, meatloaf, poundcake and more. There would be six or seven cars full of Walkers and Wards heading south to Centerville, and we’d all stop at that same rest area in Kentucky for lunch. Then we’d pile back into our respective cars and make our way down the interstate.

It didn’t dawn on me until I was in my 20s why my family had this established tradition. My grandmother made and packed lunch for her three children during the 1950s and ’60s when they would trek to the South. My grandparents were painfully aware of the South’s Jim Crow customs and unwritten laws (even in the 1970s and ’80s). They knew, although laws had changed since the Civil Rights Movement, laws don’t change hearts and minds.

The mid-trip picnics I enjoyed so much as a child began out of necessity, not from choice.

Even though racism and bigotry were the catalysts for my family’s tradition, we have lovingly turned it into something warming and familial. That’s what my ancestors have always done: We’ve always been given the scraps, the leftovers, the remnants; and we’ve always made it beautiful, covetous, delicious.

— Jerilyn D. Williams, Lansing, Mich.