Cheryl Everette was reminiscing, replaying scenes from the vacations of some of her favorite black travelers. There was the woman who went deep-sea fishing for marlin, she recalled, and another who crossed the Sahara Desert on a camel, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
"From the mail I get our readers are going everywhere . . . Europe, Africa of course, the Carribbean and Mexico," said Everette, who is travel editor of Essence Magazine, a journal for upwardly mobile young black woman.
Black people are traveling. But it's largely a secret to much of the white travel industry which rarely solicits their business or notices these off-season nomads wandering at home or abroad. Equally surprised, however, are other black travelers, who find blacks springing up in the unlikeliest of places.
Last Labor Day, Cheryl Brookins, a 29-year-old Washington attorney, went on her first Caribbean cruise with her fiance. Expecting to find only a few other black traverlers, Brookins said they encountered a black church group of about 30 people bedecked in sun hats, colorful floral print shirts and pulling excited children to tow.
While sable faces are rarely featured in Love Boat cruise ads, or those depicting couples strolling the sands of Waikiki, travel agents say cruises and island beach resorts have recently replaced Europe as a favorite vacation spot among black travelers.
"We have hundreds and hundreds of people we book on cruises," said Beatrice Smith, sales manager at Rodgers Travel, the oldest and largest black agency in the District of Columbia. "When we show them a cruise film, the only black faces you see are the blacks who work on the ship."
Still they go. Even if unmoved by the ads, they are convinced by the full-service cruise packages. "When you spend $1,000 for a cruise, you get everything with it" -- room, three meals, snacks, transportation and entertainment, said Alberto Deveaux, owner of DeVoe Travel Services in Los Angeles and Culver City. "That's what they like." According to the Caribbean Tourist Association, Deveaux said, the cruise demand from the West Coast currently makes that area third in tourism to the Carribbean.
TV sagas like "Roots" helped sensitize airlines to the appeal of ethnic travel and encouraged them to suggest, for example, that blacks visit Africa, Smith contends. And black celebrities like O. J. Simpson and Pele have helped promote travel through commercials.
Better educated, more prosperous and socially liberated by civil rights efforts, blacks are traveling more than ever. And if all hotels and resorts aren't welcoming them with open arms, they at least have opened their cash registers.
"Twenty years ago I couldn't get hotel accommodations for blacks in Las Vegas," Deveuax said. "Anytime I made a [telephone] request it came back negative. When I sent a letter from the white area where I lived, making the same request, I got a confirmation every time."
About seven years ago, during his annual drive home to St. Petersburg, Fla., D.C. police officer Hiram Brewton said he ran right into a Klan rally on the major roadway, Rte. 301.
"It scared the living hell out of me," Brewton said. "I drove straight through to Florida that year." Such sights are rare now, he said. And I-95 provides a conveniently alternative route.
Generally speaking, black travelers are welcome at hotels in most U.S. cities, agents say. "But by no means are things perfect," added Brewton's wife, Blaun-eva, a black consultant who has traveled throughout the United States setting up conferences for black business groups. "By no means can we come and go as we please."
At one major hotel in Minneapolis, for example, Brewton said she was given a room "I wouldn't put my dog in." At another hotel just a few blocks away she was given royal service.
Seemingly unfazed by travel costs, even in tight money times, blacks pay cash for their trips more often than white travelers, agents say. Some people who are poor credit risks have little choice.
Plunking down thousands of dollars annually, black singles, retirees, couples, tour groups and families trek cross-country to conventions, travel overseas on island cruises and pilgrimages to the Holy Land and sojourn to mother Africa. Often they've saved for the trip for months.
"They spend $3,000 and $4,000. I don't know where they get the money from," said Elizabeth Doles, owner of Vista Travel, a black agency in the Detroit area for more than 20 years.
"I have a woman right now (a registered nurse in her 40s) who we've just given a price to go to the Virgin Islands with four children and her mother," Doles said. The week-long trip costs $6,000. "When I said, 'Maybe you should get something cheaper,' she said, 'No. This is what I want. You know, you just have to do the things you want to do once in a while when you work so hard.'
"I think the market is up because years ago they weren't even allowed to go.
The hotels were closed," and the civil rights movement helped open them, Doles added.
Doles said she also does a flourishing business with church conventioneers who make pilgrimages across country and to Israel. This year, "50,000 people will attend the National Baptist Convention in Detroit," she said, coming from as far away as Africa, the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Hawaii. "It happens every year."
Black travel covers the globe.
Several years ago Eastern, Pan Am, TWA and United funded a study to analyze black travel patterns. Some 1,400 people with median incomes of $13,000 a year were interviewed. The airlines found:
In 1975, 500,000 black travelers spent $300 million traveling outside the United States (an average of $6,000 per person). Four years later, blacks spent more than $1.2 billion for travel services and supplied 7 percent of the total travel industry revenue.
In 1965, 5 percent of all U.S. travelers abroad were black. By 1971, the figure had jumped to 16 percent (a percentage higher than the entire black population in this country).
Ninety percent of black people who have flown have taken pleasure trips by air within the last three years.
"I've been in the business 25 years," Deveaux said. "I haven't seen [black travel] dropping yet. Somehow, blacks are still traveling. Those that were traveling last year are still traveling this year."
Yet travel companies are doing little to untap black gold.
"The airlines tend to do better using black media," but not the hotels, travel-oriented credit card companies or some of the car rental groups, said Jim Moss, advertising director for Black Enterprise magazine.
Despite a paid circulation of 230,000 comprising an audience that is 86 percent college-educated and has a household income averaging $28,000, Moss said he has a hard time convincing advertisers that there are blacks with the economic means and interest to travel.
Most familiar with the tales of poor, southern sharecroppers heading north on trains nicknamed the "chicken bone express" for the boxed chicken lunches carried abroad, some advertisers "don't realize the diversity," Moss said. "There are 26 million black consumers in the United States. We should be considered a primary audience instead of a secondary audience you just happen to pick up."
Merle Richman, public relations director for Pan Am, says that over the years the airline has not increased its pitch to woo ethnic consumers, even though it is now providing the main travel service from the United States to Africa.
"Our principal aim is at the business traveler. We advertise in the publications that these people generally tend to read," he said. "certainly we're in the business to get all the business we can."
In 1980, Rodgers Travel did more than $1.5 million in business planning trips for 18,000 black travelers, Smith said. Journeys ranged from one-day, first-class trips to Niagara Falls to pleasure cruises in the Caribbean to church groups going to Oberammergau, West Germany, where the famed Passion Play is held every 10 years. And the agency was awarded Amtrak's Golden Spike Award, for the fifth year in a row, for directing more than $30,000 worth of business to Amtrak each year.
Among some blacks, the weekend junket has become a way of life.
"Years ago, it was New York," travel agency owner Doles said, naming the destination her Detroit customers preferred most. "Now they love to go to Toronto. It's economical. For $89, transportation and hotel included, people can still leave the country and have a good time.''
West coasters head for Las Vegas. Every weekend caravans of buses wind their way eastward for a rendezvous with the slot machines, Deveaux said. There, middle-aged black women with itchy palms and a bankroll of quarters spend $50 to $100 on one-armed bandits. For $85, they get round-trip transportation, a hotel room and coupons for meals or poker chips.
"There are people who go every weekend," he said. "The older people go on their savings."
The tour packages are endless. There are black golfers' tours, bowlers' tours, skiers' tours, tennis junkets, sun-seekers' hideaways, gamblers odysseys. And, of course, the conventioneers. Between May and August, about 70 black professional and social groups and church organizations will hold conventions from one end of the country to the other.
Deveaux estimates that there are maybe 200 black-owned travel agencies in the United States and only a small percentage of blacks are working in the industry overall.
Betty Johnson, a black woman from Denver, became a traveler by becoming a travel agent after graduating from high school. By age 23, she had crossed America and visited Hawaii, where she saw the ocean for the first time.
Vernie and Helen McClendon's worldwide travels began back in 1975 with a trip to Paris. "I had a modeling school in the District then," Helen said, "and people told me, 'You'll never know anything about fashion until you go to Paris.'"
Since then the black couple has vacationed in Germany and Belgium. Their most memorable trip, however, was inspired by the Pan Am commercials encouraging ethnics to return to their homelands, Helen said.
"And after seeing 'Roots' -- that made me really want to go." So in 1978 the couple flew to Amsterdam, Holland."My maiden name is Sturdivant," Helen explained. "We have some Dutch ancestors."