When you enter the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery next month, chances are you’ll find yourself in Ben’s Chili Bowl, a historic black-owned restaurant in Washington. The diner was a haven for black Americans walking through the nation’s capital in the 1950s and 1960s — and is now the site of a virtual reality exhibit, on view Nov. 1 at the CRMC.
Traveling While Black, a 2019 VR film directed by Roger Ross Williams, offers a deep dive into the dangers that generations of Black people have faced as they travel across the United States. Hear candid narratives from activists and historians who have encountered these dangers firsthand.
Tafeni English, director of the CRMC, said she hopes the exhibition will create a dialogue about how these challenges persist.
“We don’t have Jim Crow laws here anymore, but [Black people] still have a lot to contend with being safe in certain spaces,” English said. “I think that’s going to be really important to the conversation.”
The exhibition explores the legacy of the Green Book, a guide that has helped black people find safety in American cities for generations. The last Green Book, published in 1967, listed several places in Montgomery where black people could obtain food and lodging without facing discrimination, including the Ben Moore Hotel and Alexander’s Blue & Gray Inn.
In the film, civil rights activist Courtland Cox recalls first noticing the actions of activists in Montgomery to dismantle the status quo.
“I was maybe 14 years old when I started seeing the challenge, the real challenge, in Montgomery with the bus boycott with Rosa Parks,” says Cox in the film. “Especially in local and long-distance transport, we had to deal with people who said to us: ‘You’re not as good as we are.’ And thanks to the people who got on the bus and challenged the evolving institutions, you can now dream big. They can dream bigger than we could dream.”
The center has begun preparations to recreate the interior of Ben’s Chili Bowl. After completion, there will be six booths and a counter, which together can accommodate 15 people at the same time.
Visitors can view the exhibit from November 1 through January 2023 for the admission fee to the center, which is US$5 for adults. The film lasts about 20 minutes, followed by a short debriefing with educators in the middle. English hopes everyone gets a chance to experience it.
“I hope that not only educators, but just your regular citizen, go out and engage in conversations … about how the past is connected to the present,” English said.
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