African Americans in Southwest Virginia have always had an unofficial Green Book- it was called word of mouth

Cheryl E Preston
The Green Book still exists unofficiallyPhoto byGreen Book official trailer youtube screenshot

Word-of-mouth warnings continue to this day

Governor Glen Younkin just signed a bill to highlight the historic Green Book sites from years gone by. These were businesses, hotels, and locations in Virginia that were considered to be African American friendly. This was a travel guide and a way locals could tell Black visitors where they would be welcome and which places to avoid because of possible danger.

Blacks in Southwest Virginia have always had their own unofficial Green Book so to speak which is word of mouth. This came through personal experience or friendly warnings from other African Americans or sympathetic Whites. When I was a child during the 1960s I went to Kroger on 9th Stree in Southeast Roanoke City with my grandma one day. She told me to stick close to her and not give the appearance I might even be looking at anything.

She would terrorize me and my brothers by saying if the police got us we would be sold into the circus-like Eko and Iko the Albino twins from this area. Grandma also said there was once a sign when you entered Southeast from downtown that read "No Nigg**'s after dark." She said she shopped-paid for her groceries and then got out of the area as quickly as she could.
African Americans are not welcome everywherePhoto byKyle GlennonUnsplash

The unofficial Green Book is beneficial

When I worked for the Sears Roebuck Credit Department in the late 1970s a White co-worker from Montvale told me that there were still KKK meetings behind the big propane gas tanks and that if I ever came that way to visit to do so before dark. Sometimes back then when certain areas of Southwest Virginia were mentioned the older Blacks would stop talking and give each other knowing glances and the young ones understood this was not a place we wanted to go. That's the way the unofficial Green Book worked-word of mouth from people of both races.

When my firstborn was a student at Radford University in the mid-2000s he decided to take a drive in a neighboring area. He stopped at a convenience store and asked the White clerk what was up the road behind the store. He told my son that if he drove up there he might not come back because there were no Blacks in the area and they were not really welcome. This was an unofficial Negro motorist Green Book warning. This may sound strange to some but African Americans in Southwest Virginia continue to deal with the complexities of racism and neighborhoods where we are not preferred.
Don't drive down that road you may not returnPhoto byGreen Book trailer video screenshot

Atmosphere can be a Green Book warning

In 2021-just two years ago I was driving back from Lynchburg and needed gas I decided to stop at a convenience store on 460 in Bedford. My passenger told me to get the gas and get back in the car because they did not like the feel of the area. As I walked into the store I noticed a man to my left staring at me with a hateful glare and once inside customers were looking at me as if I were an alien. When I walked down one aisle a man stood blocking me so I had to go the other way. I could not believe this was happening at all, especially in 2021, and yet it was.

I saw one other Black person in the store and I assumed she was a local because no one paid her any mind. The clerk was polite but when I stepped out the door the atmosphere felt as if there was pure evil around me and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. As I pumped the gas two White males standing near the store kept giving me looks that said get your gas and go and that's what I did.

I had been told so many stories as a child about racism in Bedford like the one about teenager Billy Johnson. Allegedly he had a car wreck and his passenger was a White female teen. She and others who witnessed the crash said that when local law enforcement saw her they beat Billy to death and said he died of his injuries from the accident. I actually felt that day that someone could do something to me and I might not be seen again.
Corn fields and Confederate flags are triggersPhoto byStefano MarinellionUnsplash

Concern for my Black sons

I had not felt this unease in Lynchburg and a few miles up the road in Blue Ridge- Blacks and Whites lived near each other and visited each other's homes and churches when I was a child. And yet pocketed in between Blue Ridge and Lynchburg I felt that I was not welcome. When I shared my story on Facebook 4 or 5 people responded that they had similar experiences in that same store and warn others to keep driving and get gas somewhere else. That's the unofficial Green Book at work and now I can warn people too.

About a decade ago my sons went out of town together and when they returned told their dad and me they had taken a wrong turn. They ended up on a dirt road and said all they could see were corn fields scarecrows, and confederate flags. They said the atmosphere seemed as if it were filled with demons of racism and it was getting dark. They were thankful to find a place to turn around and make it home safely. but said as they were driving it felt like if they did not find a place to turn around they might not get out of there alive.

The next time anyone wonders why Black males are more prone to hypertension just consider the added stress of dealing with such situations that others do not experience. Racism indeed is a pandemic of its Southwest Virginia. No one should have to hear that if they drive in a certain direction they may not return or feel apprehension if they make a wrong turn.

I've had commenters on similar stories saying that they didn't need to be told but my motto is I never should have had the story to tell in the first place.

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I write, about breaking news, and current events. I wrote a newspaper column from 1997 to 2007 and have written for various online platforms since 2012 including Yahoo Contributor Network, Hubpages, and Vocal Media.

Roanoke, VA

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