Once a year, as many black families living in the north did, we would make the annual trip down south. Often, as kids, we never really knew until the week before when mama and daddy would say,
“We have to get ready to go south”. One thing I want to do here is to make it perfectly clear that this was not like a fun, family trip, seeing the sights and enjoying the journey. There was no such thing as staying in a hotel or stopping at a restaurant to eat.
Traveling back home, for my parents, to the South was very different for black folks in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is almost reminiscent of the Underground Railroad network used by our ancestors many years ago. I have now come to understand that it was like stations that we had to make it to on our journey. Traveling down the length of 2 laned Highway 51, my parents knew there were towns where we could stop and buy gas and there also were towns where we knew we would not be served.
There were towns where my parents feared and prayed we would not have car trouble because it would not bode well for black people to be there for any reason, especially car trouble. That is one of the reasons why black people drove in 2 car caravans back then; to watch out for each other and be there in cases of need.
The night before, we would make sandwiches: bologna, bologna and cheese, or potted meat, all individually wrapped in waxed paper and packed in a box. Let me point out there were 5 of us kids and mama and daddy. So that was a lot of sandwiches. We would have bottles of pop to drink but daddy didn’t want us to drink too much because he only wanted to stop for gas.
My job in addition to making sandwiches was also to make sure we had plenty of toilet paper because back in the day, we were often not allowed to use some gas station bathrooms and rather than being told no, we would stop by the side of the road and go with as much privacy as we could muster while never leaving my parents sight.
When we started our trip, it was often between Midnight and no later than 3:00 am. We would go to bed early and be awakened in the dark to get dressed, load up the car and get underway.
Daddy always started each trip smoking a God awful cigar. Really don’t know where this ritual came from. We kids usually went right to sleep and when we woke up, we were often in Southern Illinois which was very Jim Crow in its’ views and treatment of blacks. Entering into the Deep South always made my mom extra nervous. I was always awakened by mama telling daddy, “Johnny, slow down, the speed limit is dropping to 30 and you know the police will stop us for speeding.”
Sometimes when we would go through some of the small country towns, mama would have me put my head in her lap. I thought it was because we were playing a game, but years later came to realize she and my dad were a bit concerned of trouble if white people saw me in the car because of my color. And daddy just didn’t want trouble. He always carried his gun in the glove compartment and I don’t think he ever had to use it. but he never knew when trouble would show up and he was ready to protect us at any cost. I really don’t know why daddy seemed to rush to get us there because he would just get down to the family farm and brag with my uncles how he got us there in 9 hours as opposed to the 10 hours it normally would take. When we crossed the Illinois line into Kentucky, mama would always give us the same speech every year that went like this: When we get to Tennessee don’t ask to go to the bathroom anywhere. When talking to white people, say ‘Yes Ma’am and no Ma’am’. do not look white people in the eye when you talk to them. And keep your hands where they can be seen at all times. I think if she could, she would have made us invisible just to protect us.
I found, when we would get in the South, people would stare; I mean stop and stare at us, because of me and my color, but then that is another story.