Last night, we heard from author and historian Taylor Branch as he shared “King’s Dream for Justice: Then and Now” for the American Democracy Lecture.
Now, we hear from Messiah College student, Arion, who offers a reflection on the lasting impact racism and segregation has had on our own city of Harrisburg.
With the growth of automobility in the 20th century, White Americans found themselves with the unique opportunity to experience the joys of traveling throughout the United States. They had the opportunity to reinforce the ideology of American individualism in an expanding geographical landscape. However, the expanding geographical landscape meant something much different for African Americans with an automobile in the Era of Jim Crow. The roads of United States, instead of becoming endless points of access, became an ever-growing list of spaces of fear. The North and the South became landscapes of limitations, full of political and social boundaries. These boundaries, built on fear, became quite apparent to me when I juxtaposed the supposed freedom of movement in the 20th century with the confining reality of Victor Hugo Green’s Green Book and its unfortunate relation with the city of Harrisburg.
Victor Hugo’s Green Book, which has relatively recently been brought into the academic arena, is an African American Travel guide. It goes state by state and lists locations in major cities and large towns where an African American could safely, without fear of rejection, stay the night, access car maintenance, and even get haircuts. The history is jarring. The dark condition of our past, if not checked, creates a pernicious natural tendency to distance ourselves from this history by using our modern perception to place a chasm between the past and our present selves. The Green Book allows us to dispel the myth of distance from the roads and limited resting locations of the Jim Crow Era as we curiously look up our own communities in the Green Book pages and find that they were also under the influence of social and political segregation.
What’s more saddening is when we see the effects of these borders in the 21st century. Harrisburg, our nearest urban center, is no exception. Once a line of segregation is found in our community, we can either ignore its existence or follow these trails of restricted spaces to find other ones. We find that even individuals within Harrisburg without vehicles still have restricted mobility, using streets as border markers to determine where they can and cannot cross. Building restrictions stop individuals of certain races from accessing housing in specific neighborhoods, especially in the suburbs of Harrisburg. These boundaries unconsciously and consciously morph the way people move, interpret leisure, and feel safe. The consequences of breaking such restriction range from mortal danger to galvanizing humiliation. An African American staying past dusk in a sundown town may never leave. An African American family traveling to Pittsburg from Philadelphia for fear of being rejected at the door, may skip a much need gas or restroom stop, or may need to continue driving into with no opportunity to sleep. It often creates an atmosphere of fear for those who were restricted both politically and socially, and the geography of the community, an internal map of points of freedom, shrinks considerably.
The boundaries described are immersed and entwined deep within ourselves and our community, and finding these threads of fear that knit together our world is neither easy nor painless. Nevertheless, it is necessary. A multitude of independent projects from Messiah College seek to provide a truthful historical identity to the area surrounding the city. Digital Harrisburg, a project that correlates census data with Harrisburg maps from the early 20th century, and independent research projects focused on restricted racial covenants as well as accessibility and movement are all pieces in this goal. The projects listed above are just a few out of many potential acts of uncovering this history. Other marginalized groups such as immigrants and refugees also have specified spaces of fear in our locale, and this also need be researched both through a historical lens as well through a modern one. The history that this project can uncover may be uncomfortable, frustrating, and even aggravating at times. Nevertheless, it is exciting that we as a community can be, figuratively and literally, topographers, mapping spaces of fear within ourselves and our community because it is only after the spaces of fear are mapped, analyzed, and the recognized that spaces of restriction can be deconstructed and reconstructed into spaces of freedom.
Information on Digital Harrisburg: https://digitalharrisburg.com/
NYPL collection of Green Books: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/the-green-book#/?tab=about
Arion is a Junior History major with a Social Studies Certification.
Above image by Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.
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