Have Blues, Will Travel: Traveling Blues Musicians in the Jim Crow Era
Fullerton Museum Center, July 24 – End of August, 2021
Tucked into the back of the Fullerton Museum’s Have Blues, Will Travel installation is a Navy-blue three-ring binder. Sit down on the gallery’s comfortable bench and open the binder to the back pages, and you’ll find the story of Neff Graham Cox.
Neff lived on Fullerton’s Truslow Ave. in the 1930s at the center of a thriving Black neighborhood. Neff’s Fullerton neighbors supported him through tough times, even helping him rebuild his household after a fire. Neff left those neighbors each morning to work in Brea and returned to his home each evening in Fullerton. He had to return; as a Black man, he wasn’t welcome in Brea after dusk. Like many places across the country, Brea was a “sundown town,” a place where people of color were welcome to work in the day but weren’t welcome to stay the night. African Americans who ventured into these white spaces at the wrong time were threatened with rudeness, violence, and, in the worst cases, death.
Those of us familiar with the controversy over the Plummer Auditorium renaming know that Brea isn’t the only town around here that’s stained by racism. The KKK, and organizations like it, were active in Fullerton too, and across the country—burning crosses, steering families away from homes in white neighborhoods, and, what’s sometimes overlooked, making trouble for Black travelers.
All along the nation’s highways and byways, whites refused to serve Black travelers at lunch counters, turned them away from restrooms and out into the woods to pee, and denied them rooms in which to sleep.
Fullerton Museum faces down this past with the first exhibit of its reopening: Have Blues, Will Travel. But the mood of the exhibit, which began in July and will run through the end of August, is less somber than celebratory, for the exhibition highlights the travel publications that Black entrepreneurs developed to guide Black travelers safely through this racist gauntlet, and the large-than-life style of the Black musicians who traveled the country under their guidance.
Stepping into the Fullerton Museum, one hears the voices of these blues greats literally echoing through the high-ceilinged hall, with a playlist including Muddy Waters’s “One More Mile” and Maggie Jones’s “Northbound Blues.” The blues-men and -women who traveled the country’s roads in the middle of last century look down on visitors from life-sized posters. Alongside these prints of John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, and company are even larger placards explaining why the blues players, and millions of other African Americans, were hitting the road. Slavery, sharecropping, and chain gangs all contributed to the Great Migration, a movement of Blacks out of the rural south and into northern industry that spanned the early and middle decades of the 20th century.
Visually rounding out the “travel” part of Have Blues, Will Travel is the other focus of the exhibit—supersized covers of the travel magazines. These were magazines that were researched, authored, distributed, and consumed by the emerging African American middle class.
The earliest of these travel guides is the Green Book, begun by Victor Hugo Green as a brief, 10-page guide to Black-friendly businesses in his own New York neighborhoods, and expanded, with the help of mail carriers nationwide, into a guide to all the nation’s highways and byways for Black travelers. Hugo’s ominous byline suggests both the dangers Blacks faced and the role of his guide in keeping them safe; “Carry Your Green Book With You . . . You May Need It.” A decade later, a competing publication, Travelguide, followed in the Green Book’s footsteps offering Black travelers a slightly more glamorous take on travel with the prospect of “vacation and recreation without humiliation.”
In addition to the posters, the exhibit includes a few actual-size reproductions of the guides themselves. Visitors who page through them are urged by the posters nearby to consider what it would have been like to venture out on the road from say, Nashville to Memphis, and to depend on the few establishments highlighted in the travel book to get there safely. Look up at the 1962 poster of the Interstate highway system moving through those cities and consider, is it better to pack sack lunches that grow soggy, or pull into a market where a white man might turn Blacks away? (Unfortunately missing at this reporter’s visit—perhaps due to COVID?—was a whiteboard marker that the poster promised you could use to plot lines on the map.)
At the back of the exhibit, just beyond that map, is a final display connecting the troubles of the Green Book era to the realities of Driving While Black today. Headlines arranged on that display document recent police interactions with Black motorists and other civilians, some of them fatal. Right underneath that is the reading bench. There, books for both children and adults give visitors of all ages a chance to dive deeper into issues facing Black travelers. Also sitting there is the navy-blue, 3-ring binder. Inside you’ll find not just Neff’s story, but a series of essays and articles that make connections between the nationwide scope of Have Blues, Will Travel, and our own city of Fullerton, where Have Blues is currently making a brief stop before traveling elsewhere.
We urge you to catch the act. Visit, listen, read, and learn about how race has shaped the spaces we live in, and travel through.
Fullerton Museum Center
301 N. Pomona Avenue
Fullerton, CA 92832
When: Thursdays: 4-8PM (museum also open for Beer Garden); Fridays: 12-4PM; Saturdays: 12-4PM
$10 for adults, $5 for children aged 5 to 18