Irv Logan and Elizabeth Logan Calvin, grand children of Alberta Ellis, who owned many black-friendly establishments in Springfield, Missouri. Photograph: Joshua Lott for the Observer
Is she talking about Trump? “I didn’t want to mention his name, but yes. It makes me wonder where it’s all going to end.”
Calvin says she no longer drives on the highway at night. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that.” Logan expresses similar apprehension. “The old saying was you take two steps forward and one back – well, it looks like we’re taking that step back.”
He too has made behavioural changes. As an enthusiast for vintage cars he likes to drive but now he makes an extra effort to plan his route closely. “My ancestors taught me: hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Now I’m always prepared for the
Black drivers in Missouri were warned last summer to ‘exercise extreme caution when travelling throughout the state’ Which means? “I carry a firearm.”
Noth with standing the constant diatribe emanating from the White House about “shithole countries”, rapist Mexicans and “very fine” Nazis, there are negative developments closer to home. The Republican-controlled Missouri legislature recently made it virtually impossible for black people to sue employers for discrimination, in a throwback to the old Jim Crow laws.
Official data compiled by the state shows that racial disparity in the frequency of vehicle
stops by Missouri police has grown steadily since 2000. Today, African Americans are 75%
more likely to be stopped and searched than whites. “Exercise extreme caution when travelling throughout the state” was the travel advisory issued last summer by the Missouri
branch of the civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People. For younger African Americans, racial profiling by police has become the new frontline in their experience of driving while black. Marshall Egson, whose family owns a large colonial-style house in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, which was listed in the Green Book, likens the cumulative effect of being stopped over and over again by law enforcement to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Every time I go out in my car I worry: am I going to make it home?” he says. “Over time it gives you PTSD. The way I see it, most every black man in America has PTSD.” As the road miles of my tour of Missouri pile up, past and present seem to elide. When did the Green Book end and the present begin?
Has there ever been a break?
In Springfield, the sense of history bearing down is palpable only a few blocks away from the former site of Alberta’s Hotel. It was here on Easter Sunday in 1906 that three young
black men, wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, were lynched from a metal tower in the town square. The men were left hanging under a model of the Statue of Liberty perched on top of the tower. Before the lynching, Springfield had a thriving black community that accounted for more than a third of the 60,000 population. Over the next couple of decades, most of the African Americans fled and Springfield became
overwhelmingly white, as it remains to this day.
You could view the Easter Offering, as the lynching subsequently became known, as a buried historical detail whose relevance is minimal. Or you could see a ghostly shadow of that tower still looming over the town, and
directly reflected in the 2010 census records which put Springfield’s black population at a meagre 4%, against the whites’ 89%. Jonathan Herbert had a powerful intimation of the legacy of the Easter Offering when he first moved to Springfield in 2005 to head
the theater programme at Ozarks Technical community college. He was struck by how
small the black community was, and how unassuming its presence.
“It was like people were
keeping their heads down. I felt that when I first got here, and I still do.” After Herbert and Barber put out their query on Facebook, igniting that passionate discussion among friends, Barber set out with his family on the road trip to Arkansas. They took to heart several recommendations gleaned from the conversation, including that they should bypass Harrison, an Arkansas town with a long history of KKK activity. Having made those accommodations, everything went splendidly.
“When we finally took the trip we had no problems whatsoever,” Barber says. “I think that was partly because we had done our due diligence.” The modern equivalent of the Green Book had worked. Barber’s wife, Jaime, remains on edge. Over coffee in Springfield town square, she explains
that whenever Marlin is late home from work she finds it hard to control the dread that
wells up inside her. Why is she so fearful? “I grew up in a small white town where
certain words were used,” she replies. “I know the assumptions, the way they see black people.”
Back in the former sundown town of Sullivan,Stefan Wehmeyer is now 22 and in a happier place. A couple of years ago he found religion, and has become a pastor in a local non-denominational church. He says he is sticking with Sullivan, despite everything he was put through as a teenager. He sees it as his duty to remain in the town, “in the trenches” as he puts it, to combat local
racial prejudice. Thirteen weeks ago his wife, a white woman from a small town in Arkansas whom he met on a church mission, had their first child. Before their daughter was born, Wehmeyer prayed long and hard and was overawed in
the delivery room when his prayer came true. “I prayed that she’d look white, and she
does,” he says. “She will be safe.