Cultural historian Candacy Taylor traveled Route 66 to document her findings on businesses and history for her second book. But once she got deeper into Route 66 culture, she uncovered findings about the culture of historically black "green book" sites that are still operating today.
Taylor will be releasing her project called “Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America” in January 2020. The project is based on “The Negro Motorist Green Book” written by Victor Hugo Green, a mailman and travel agent who published the book between 1936 and 1966 as a guide for black travelers along the highway.
Taylor will speak Oct. 18 during the 5th annual Route 66 Miles of Possibility conference in Normal.
Taylor’s book discusses the green book sites still in operation that survived the hurdles of racism that are wiping out black communities in major cities and along Route 66. Taylor scouted over 3,600 green book sites in 48 U.S. states and photographed over 160 Green Book properties. She found that less than one-third of these sites are still standing, and fewer than 5% are still in operation.
“I felt like it was important and that it was my mission to make sure people look at the green book through the lens of today,” Taylor said. “All these layers of history and how these communities thrived and then suffered and then thrived again and all that pendulum of justice that swings back and forth. The book really takes the reader through each decade where we made strides in terms of racial progress, where we fell back, and how all these green book sites and black travelers facilitated, endured, or triumphed these things like redlining, gentrification.”
Taylor was surprised to discover that many of the green book sites are now plagued with violence and mass incarceration. Cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit have experienced major urban renewal. Gentrification, a growing problem in major cities, is decimating black communities. Areas that were once business had become freeways.
Taylor talks about how the studies on million-dollar blocks play a role in the transformation of these communities.
“What that is is that they estimated is that close to 80% of the community has been locked up or under some kind of correctional control.” Taylor said. “Within that community, there are buildings that are just boarded up because people have been literally rehoused into prisons. It’s costing millions of dollars per block to imprison these people.”
Taylor spoke with owners of the green book sites still in operation. They are shocked in how communities have changed since their business first opened.
After reflecting on the racial progression of America since the original green book, Taylor wants readers to understand that history proves that improving race relations is not an easy path.
“It’s not that progress has ever been in a straight line,” Taylor said. “That’s not how our history works and it’s never been the way that our history works. It’s a belief system that we want to believe in America, but that’s not how it works. Things get better, then things get worse, then they get better, then they get worse.”
Taylor will be launching her exhibition based on her project in June 2020 at the National Civil Rights Museum in Tennessee. The exhibition will display more images, interviews with green site owners, and audio that didn’t make the project. The book will also come with a board game, mobile app, digital interactive map, and virtual reality platform.
Taylor’s presentation will be held at Illinois State University's Alumni Center on Friday, Oct. 18, from 7-9 p.m. She will walk the audience through the experience of the average black family traveling through Route 66 and history about the green book. It is free and open to the public.
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