The Travel History of Black America

February 15, 2022 12:58 pm By Necoh Mitchell

February is Black History Month, and Independent Travel Advisor Necoh Mitchell, with LaVon Travel & Lifestyle, is helping us share some of the travel history of Black America. It’s important that black history isn’t separate from American history, and sharing our stories is the best way for it to be learned. 

How about we start in the 1930s. People would spend their summers traveling by car to visit their families or maybe taking a trip to the beach. Black people didn’t have the freedom to travel just anywhere because Jim Crow laws and segregation prevented this. Angry people who didn’t want to see black travelers confirmed it. So, in 1936 Victor Hugo Green wrote “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” or simply, “The Green Book.” It was a travel guide for black people. Mr. Green published lodging, restaurants, and gas stations that did business with black people. This book kept them informed and safe from 1936 – 1966. 

Moving to 1938, Willa Brown Chappell was the first American woman to get her private pilot’s license on June 22, 1938. Mrs. Chappell wasn’t finished with the travel industry, and in 1940 she co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America, which was also the first black Aviator group. She and her husband also opened the first flight school owned by black people. She also became the first American woman to have both a mechanics (1935) and commercial aviation (1939) license. Talk about a phenomenal woman!

Going into the 1940s, there were enough black pilots who wanted to fly, but they weren’t permitted to use the airports. The answer? The Columbia Air Center. This was an airfield in Croom, Maryland, that was set up by black pilots in 1941. It had an all-black staff and trainers who served in World War II as Tuskegee Airmen. Columbia Air Center was open between 1941-1958. These pilots loved the skies and created a way to stay in them. They are truly an inspiration.

By the 1950s, the “Golden Age of Travel,” black people wanted to travel more domestically and internationally. So Freddye Henderson and her husband Jacob opened Henderson Travel Service in Atlanta, Georgia, to help them do just that. The travel agency booked thousands of trips for black travelers, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, 1964 visit to Oslo, Norway, where he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. The Henderson’s saw the potential of specializing in travel to Africa, so they provided services to go there, including chartering planes to West Africa where there were no commercial flights. They started to focus on trip planning and tours to Africa. They worked closely with almost all of the major African American professional associations, including the National Bar Association, National Medical Association, historically black colleges and universities, and more. Henderson Travel Service used their ingenuity and endurance to create a Travel Agency that black people could trust in to get to the far-flung corners of the earth. Their legacy has paved the way for so many to not only travel, but to work in the travel industry. 

It wasn’t until 1956 that you saw a black person become a pilot for an airline. Perry H. Young, Jr., became the first on December 17, 1956, when he was hired by New York Airways. It was in 1965, nine years later, that Captain Marlon Dewitt Green became the first black man to be a pilot for a major U.S. airline, Continental Airlines. It took a lengthy court battle that went to the Supreme Court for him to achieve the right to fly with Continental Airlines. He flew with them from 1965 – 1978. When he died in 2010, Continental Airlines named a Boeing 737 after him. In 1978, Jill Elaine Brown became the first black woman to be hired as a pilot for a major airline, Texas International Airlines.

These tenacious ones paved the way for many little black boys and black girls who dream about traveling the world and working in the travel industry. We see the fruits of their labors. Black people spend over 95 billion dollars on travel. Myself, my family, and my friends contribute to that 95 billion. 

We’re so grateful for Mr. Green, Ms. Chappell, the Hendersons, Mr. Young, Mr. Dewitt Green, Ms. Brown, and the Tuskegee Airmen for their contributions to travel. But is all great now? The short answer is no. 

While we have organizations like The Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals and The National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers (NABHOOD), and Blacks In Tourism, we need more allies. These organizations are key, but ALL travel organizations should be inclusive of black people. Traveling in general should be a freeing experience for everyone. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Black people do not always feel safe while traveling. 

Black people are targeted while traveling. 

Black people can be scared while traveling.

Awareness of racism is heightened, but the fact of the matter is – racism still exists. In order for black travel to just be travel, we need others to remember that we are people, not threats. While Black History Month is a great thing to promote awareness, we ask for participation in kindness year-round. Since 1976 we’ve recognized Black History Month in the United States. In those 46 years, it has highlighted some of the great achievements by the innovative and creative minds of Black Americans. Let’s continue to celebrate the incredible past and our inspired future.

I’m grateful to be a part of the community that is Tafari Travel where black people matter. They encourage diversity and look for ways to promote awareness. -- Necoh Mitchell

Author: Necoh Mitchell 

Luxury Travel Advisor — Specializing in Eco Luxury Travel

Drexel Hill/Philadelphia, PA  267-713-9964

LaVon Travel & Lifestyle ~ A Virtuoso Affiliate