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'Negro Motorist Green Book' exhibit helps Houstonians travel back to dangerous yet hopeful past

Keith Garvin 2023-09-26
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HOUSTON - For three months, Holocaust Museum Houston is taking visitors back in time to an exhibit with ties to the city. The 'Negro Motorist Green Book' exhibit gives a visual and hands-on look at a period when traveling as a Black person in the United States wasn't always safe. It is a walk through one of the most troubling times in our nation's history -- yet one that offers hope. "These weren't just locations that would go. These were safe havens," said Alex Hampton, the museum's changing exhibitions manager. The Green Book was one of several guides -- perhaps the best known -- that listed businesses that were safe for families trying to avoid danger on road trips. "This really was a guide that revolutionized travel and where, prior to this, travel could be dangerous," said Hampton. "You didn't know where you could stop and often were packing everything in your car to make just a 12, 13, 14-hour drive." The exhibit includes artifacts from business signs and postcards. Also -- historic footage, images, and firsthand accounts that allow visitors to step back into a disturbing chapter of American history. And yet you can see joy with the desire to simply travel without fear. "There's also just some really great photos of smiling people and mothers with their children knowing that they don't have to worry as much when they travel," said Hampton. "It's just a beautiful thing to see." The exhibit's premier sponsor is ExxonMobil -- a corporation with strong ties to the Green Book -- associated with its company Esso. ExxonMobil CEO and chairman Darren Woods was on hand for the exhibit's opening. "We were, if you go back in the day, the only major retail distributor of the Green Book," recalled Woods. "Black travelers could find refuge in our service stations around the country." ExxonMobil's parent company not only distributed the Green Book -- a third of its service stations in the 1940s were owned by African-Americans. The company was also a leading employer of Black chemists, scientists, and engineers. "It means a lot to the company and frankly a lot of our employees," said Woods. "A lot of our employees have family members who have personal experience with the Green Book." Houston had locations listed in the Green Book, eight of which are still standing today. That includes the historic Eldorado Ballroom and the building that currently houses James D. Ryan Middle School -- once the home of the Houston College for Negroes in the Third Ward. The exhibit takes you down many roads that were traveled during the days of Jim Crow, giving a glimpse of Americans simply trying to live their lives in peace. "I think that's what this exhibit is," said Hampton. "It's a beautiful story of hope and resilience at a time when people were just trying to keep you down because of who you were." The Green Book exhibit will show at Holocaust Museum Houston through Nov. 26, which is the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The museum said it was only natural for them to give space to this exhibit because of the shared history of discrimination between the Jewish community and African Americans.

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