Celebrating the African-American Shoebox Lunch

Food Features Soul Food
Celebrating the African-American Shoebox Lunch

Photo by Skovdal & Skovdal

The great American road trip occupies a special place in the popular imagination. For lovers of Kerouac novels, it’s a romantic rite of passage; for others, it’s the chance to explore nature’s amazing bounty on a shoestring budget or cement lasting friendships. Whatever the reason for setting off, the iconic ritual of journeying across America is so overwhelmingly celebrated that it’s hard to imagine that until recently, it represented a stumbling block for the African-American community.

After all, part of the road trip’s appeal is its simplicity and its accessibility. All you need is a working car, gas, a handful of friends, a map and someone in charge of the snacks (or someone with a keen eye for the red, white and yellow In ‘n’ Out sign).

But the intersection of food and travel is precisely one way in which black travelers were often held back from embarking on cross-country journeys.

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Photo by Matthew Ray

Certainly, travel has always been an integral part of the African-American community’s rich heritage and culture. Whether willing or unwilling, a strong black travel culture is echoed in the diaspora, the Great Migration after slavery’s end, and the black activists who rode buses to boycott Jim Crow segregation laws.

However, that travel culture has been profoundly shaped by the historical oppression of black communities’ rights to free movement. From the 1890s until 1965, segregation laws such as the Jim Crow laws legitimized the isolation of public spaces, schools, transportation, restrooms and restaurants exclusively for non-black members of society. “The vast majority of the country was composed of white spaces where black people were forbidden or unwelcome,” Dr. Gretchen Sorin wrote in her article, “The Negro Travelers Green Book.”

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Photo by Matthew Ray

This limited the ways in which black folks could travel, whether to visit relatives and friends, participate in the Civil Rights movement, conduct business, or take vacations. These legal limitations caused extreme inconvenience, humiliation and could endanger the black traveler.

Before the automobile became almost universally accessible, black and white people alike relied on trains to travel long distances across the United States, but their experience was far from the same. As segregation laws were strongly enforced in the South, black passengers traveling from places like New York or D.C. to states such as North Carolina, or from Chicago to Tennessee, would have to switch into the “colored only” section of the train once they crossed over into a state where segregation was still legal.

These sections of the train not only lacked the same amenities as a “white only” car, making travel uncomfortable, but prohibited black passengers from eating in the dining car. Although there were many restaurants and facilities along the way, many would not offer service to black folks. For the black traveler, accessing food along the journey was nearly impossible.

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Photo by Matthew Ray

The question of how and where to eat became, in the words of author Psyche A. Forson Williams, “the most salient component of black people’s travel experiences.”

In response, black women would arm black travelers with “shoebox lunches.” At times faceless and unsung, these women — family members, church attendees or businesswomen — would find ways, both legal and illegal (as hawkers) to cook delicious meals with limited resources, making a way out of no way.

Packaged in old shoeboxes, these lunches were packed with foods which traveled well: boiled eggs, a piece of pound cake, pineapple upside down cake or sweet potato pie, a serving of fruit or vegetable, sandwiches and almost always, fried chicken. They not only provided safety and sustenance to black travelers on trains, buses and long car trips, but allowed for cultural expression in an uninhibited way, subverting customary expectations of silence and compliance. Instead, they allowed creative freedom and offered nourishment of the soul.

Photo by Skovdal & Skovdal

Once cars became more accessible and the black middle class began to grow, black travelers began to take road trips in lieu of public transport. While the car offered a new measure of autonomy for the black traveler, they were still subjected to many of the same perils and humiliations as before. Along the highways, many businesses and restaurants refused service to blacks. Even states like California or Illinois, often considered safe havens for black folks, were peppered with so-called “sundown towns,” which brandished large signs threatening black people to leave before sundown or risk lynching.

Photo via public domain

Inspired by the Jewish press and likely no stranger to the perils of being black in America,
New Jersey military veteran and postal service worker Mr. Victor Green launched The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1936. The book offered a detailed directory for black readers on where to safely find lodging, barber shops, garages, taverns, drug stores, gas stations, churches, and food. The book’s advertisements highlighted restaurants offering “ The Best Fried Chicken” or “The Best Soul Food Around,” offering the black traveler a piece of home away from home. The publication even went as far as to make special editions for travel on trains, planes and abroad. Few black travelers left home without it.

Photo by Matthew Ray

Unfortunately, The Negro Motorist Green Book could not always shield black travelers from long stretches in cars, buses, and trains where service and food were unavailable, leaving the black traveler with no option but their shoebox lunch.

Today, shoebox lunches are largely unheard of (although they still feature in some church functions) and The Negro Motorist Green Book ceased publication in 1966, shortly after the Civil Rights Act was passed. However, the boxes and the book remain powerful symbols of innovation in the face of discrimination.

The road trippers of today might find it difficult to imagine the hurdles faced by the black traveler. Meanwhile, those faced with that reality — the black women who lovingly and meticulously packed shoeboxes, and Mr. Victor Green — helped set a proverbial table for the black community in the presence of their enemies. They refused to be relegated to “the other” and did what was in their power to offer their peers some normalcy in a world which tried to deride them as not normal. They helped their communities feed one another, ensuring that black travelers could travel to fight Jim Crow segregation, journey to a better life in the North and the West, or simply visit their loved ones and experience America’s beautiful landscapes.

Photo by Matthew Ray

The next time you hit the road and stop to take a bite, think of these beautiful folks, and the people like them, who today are still traveling to support social justice causes. A few social justice freedom fighters include the members of Black Lives Matter, who have turned up in support of the Women’s March and NoDAPL, or the hundreds of Americans across the country who turned up at airports to protest the recent anti-immigration ban. The road trip may have captured the American imagination, but the resourcefulness and resilience shown by black travelers in the face of injustice can captivate and inspire us as we drive toward the murky times ahead.

A native of Oakland living in Copenhagen, Amanda Yee is a chef, writer & food stylist. Previously, she worked with Bryant Terry as his sous chef & fellow food justice advocate.

Lunchbox photo by Skovdal & Skovdal with assistance from Ida Navrbjerg. Food styling by Amanda Yee.

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