Black Highways: Thirty Years Ago We Didn't Dare Stop
Sunday, June 21, 1987
I AM IN THE back seat of my father's Buick Special, for the long drive to Grandma's house. The trip started with gaiety in the dark hours of the morning, but as the day wears on it becomes a nightmare. It is 1958. I am almost eight years old, quenching my thirst with bladder-busting cold drinks while riding through the hot, dusty South in an unairconditioned car with my two younger sisters.
Mom is seated attentively next to Dad. He is usually all-powerful and in control, but today, for some reason, he is uptight. And it isn't just because of the chicken-bone fight in the back seat, either. With every request from the kids to stop, he seems to speed up. With every child's moan, Mom encourages self-control.
"Try to hold it a few more miles," she says, but she never explains why we can't stop.
It's obvious to me now, setting off on a similar trip in June 1987, what frightened my father so long ago. At that time, in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas -- hell, all over the South -- those backroads were simply too dangerous for parents to stop to let their little black children pee.
In those days, there was even a travel magazine -- called the "Go Guide" -- which offered the addresses of black-owned hotels, motels and tourist homes across the United States. There was a huge demand for those listings, especially among black traveling salesmen and conventioneers. The reason: So many black travelers were just not making it to their destinations.
Now I am on the road again -- traveling a path made smoother by the passage of federal civil-rights laws and time. I came back home to Louisiana because I wanted to see what had changed during the past 30 years. Dad insisted that I had been too young to know how bad life really was back then been for black people in the South, that I had been more concerned about getting the last fried-chicken leg than getting to our destination before nightfall. So I asked him to go with me to provide authentic historical perspective.
"I remember you were just a little baby, riding in a basket on the back seat of the car, on our way to see your grandmother," my mother recalled before we left. "The car broke down in Hope, Arkansas, and do you know the white people there would not let us heat up your bottle? My baby had to drink cold milk."
During the 1950s and into the '60s, Mother would spend the evening before the trip frying chicken and boiling eggs. We thought it was because Mom knew we liked to eat and ride at the same time. The truth was harder to swallow.
"After riding all day, I'd say to myself, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could spend the night in one of those hotels?'" Mom recalled, "or, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could stop for a real meal and a cup of coffee?' We'd see the little white children jumping into motel swimming pools, and you all would be in the back seat of a hot car, sweating and fighting.
"And look at you all now," she said as Dad and I prepared to depart. "Using credit cards to reserve hotel rooms in advance, and you can stop and eat wherever you please."
Dad, who is a businessman in Shreveport, piloted the trip at the wheel of his new, ivory-colored Mercedes 420 SEL, with cruise control set for the speed limit, classical music on the tape player, seat adjusted to a comfortable recline, self-adjusting airconditioning, tastefully tinted windows and me, riding shotgun in my leather seat with a map in my lap.
Our first stop was a town in Arkansas called Dermott, population 4,000, where my father was born in 1924. He was hoping to find someone who had known his father, Dr. Hezekiah King Milloy, a dentist who had one of his three offices here.