Everyone but two: a love story of national park travels in the 60’s.

Old Orchard Beach, Maine 5Everyone But Two , a story of an African American family traveling the country by trailer, during one of the most turbulent times in history. A story told by their granddaughter, Carla Brown. The story caught my eye because all too often, African American families dared not take such risks in the 60’s and it was a risk due to the tone of the country.

As I read through her grandparent’s memories of their travel, it was clear to me the Graham’s were determined to live a life of travel with no regrets.
I often refer to the cautiousness African Americans feel today, when it comes to traveling to some of our wild spaces. Reading first hand some of the experiences the Grahams faced during the 60’s, does give credence to those cautions, but the Grahams seemed to walk away from their experiences in a different light, they felt “welcomed” Mr. Graham said. He didn’t allow race to enter into the equation in their travels. That was a big take away for me.

I reached out to Carla Brown, the granddaughter of Benjamin and Frances Graham to ask if her grandparents would allow me to interview them, through her, about their travels and what their take away from that time was.
My one regret in doing this story, it took me 2 years to finally get around to putting it all together. In August of 2016, Mrs. Frances Graham passed away. What an amazing journey filled life she led.

“August 10, 1965, Benjamin and Frances Graham, an African American married couple with no prior camping experience, embarked on their maiden voyage to the New York World’s Fair in their newly purchased 17’ Stardust Travel Trailer. That same week, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Watts Riots erupted.”

Teresa Baker: Why is the telling of your Grandparents travels, so important to you?
Carla Brown: When I first had the idea of developing the documentary, Everyone But Two: The Life, Love & Travel of Benjamin and Frances Graham,
the motivation to tell the story of my grandparent’s was purely personal. As someone dear to me has stated, this is my love letter to them, and in a sense, it is. Growing up, I had always had a close relationship with my grandparents and spent a lot of time with them at their home and in their trailer. I have always felt that they were unique individuals and when I got older, I began to notice how others responded to them. I can’t think of anyone that I have met, who has been in their presence that was not genuinely fascinated by them. Whether it’s the natural humor of my grandfather or the humble diva manner of my grandmother, there was never a time that I was not aware of them being the center of attention.

Now that I have been immersed in the research and have talked to the state and national parks about my grandparents’ travel, I think that is important for me to tell this story because it debunks the notion that everyone’s history is the same. Telling this story also gives me a much-needed platform to expose others to the importance of the state and national parks and our environment. With statistics citing that the year 2043 will be the end of the white majority, it is crucial for the continued support of the state and national parks that people of color become involved in the visiting and stewardship or all will be lost. It would be a travesty to lose such magnificent resources for reasons that could be combated with something as simple as exposure and open dialogue.

During the last 8 years, my grandmother’s mobility has decreased and she has been bed ridden. My grandfather, only due to stubborn love, has been her main caretaker and has continued to make it clear that my grandmother is his girlfriend, even now in her 90th year. He once told me that every night, he moves her hospital bed over to the bed that they used to share, so he can hold her hand as they lay separately. In this day and age, where true love and a marriage that transcends decades seem as though they are vanishing, because of them, I have this hope that one day, a man I have known and loved for over 70 years, will show this same devotion towards me and I to him.

Grahams bw trailer.jpegTB: What would you want people to know about your grandparent’s travels?
CB: One thing I want people to know about the love my grandparents had for their travels to our national parks was that there was never a time that they thought they were not welcomed. The national parks had always been a place for them to enjoy and appreciate. Even at times as turbulent as they were for African Americans during the week of their first journey, August 10, 1965 (the signing of the Civil Rights Voting Act and the eruption of the Watts Riots), there was never any hesitation about visiting.
Most importantly, I want people to know that the experiences they had from their travels and visiting our national parks are memories that they have continued to cherish for the last 50 years. If given the opportunity to live their lives over, they are adamant that there is not one thing that they would have changed.

TB: Did you ever run into any discrimination during your travels?

Benjamin Graham: We never had any problems. When we went into a place, we were way in the country, and I didn’t think about it. The only thing that happened was in Missouri, the toll keeper; I’ll never forget this, a black man – first black person I had seen on the tolls. We asked if there were any campgrounds around here, and he responded, “Not for you. They don’t have any campgrounds for colored around here.” I didn’t go five miles and saw a great big sign for a campground, Camp Benita. We went down there and they said, “Of course-we have a spot right here.” I said, maybe I ought to go back and tell the toll keeper, but then I thought, how many black people are going to be coming thru here with trailers. But no, we were never denied, and I mean, we did all back woods stuff. Never denied. I will give them credit for that. I wasn’t even thinking about discrimination at all. It never crossed my mind.

BG: We would be the only blacks at the campground. There would be nobody else. We didn’t see any blacks. The only time we saw a black camper, when he saw me, he thought I worked there. He said, “Hey, we are the group [he is with an all-white group] that’s coming in for the night. Is this our spot?” I told him that I didn’t work here, that I was camping here. He said, “You don’t work here?” I said, “No I don’t work here. I am camping here.” He said, “You are camping in here?” I said, yes. This was from a black guy.

Frances Graham: I really feel that people who are campers are different.
FG: Then when we did meet a black couple, they didn’t want to recognize us.
BG: You know me, I don’t care about that. We were never denied a spot. In Georgia, when we stopped at a police station and asked about going into a national forest, the police officer said he wouldn’t go in there tonight, it was too dangerous. He said, “You can park right behind the police station.” That’s what we did. But we have stayed in national parks and forests and there wouldn’t be a soul in there. One place, way in the distance you could hear somebody laughing, every once and a while. I never even worried about that. We never had any problems.

Thurmont, MD 66 3.jpegCB: I remember you telling about incidents in Montana.
BG: It was just young boys in a car, with a Boy Scout emblem on it. They were riding by as we were walking. We had gotten out of the vehicle and were walking to go into a restaurant. Benita and Nancy were little people then. CB:[In prior interviews, BG stated that the occupants of the car yelled “nigger” out of the car at the Grahams and their two daughters. Subsequently, they informed someone at the campground about the incident. This person knew who the boys were based on the Boy Scout emblem and assured the Grahams that it would not happen again].
BG: I don’t know why, but I wasn’t looking for any racial problems. I never gave it a thought. People were glad to see us. We just never had a problem. No one came right out and said anything. We didn’t really trust people. When we got gasoline, and pulled into the filling station, she [Frances] stood on one side and I am on the other side to make sure that no one would tamper with anything. Other than that, nothing whatsoever.

TB: What was your fondest memories?
BG: All of it was good to me. We enjoyed it – just the two of us. We really enjoyed it.
FG: I think the family that we met, the DuLacs, on the first trip to Maine.
BG: The family had adopted a little black boy and didn’t know how to take care of his hair. This guy [father of the family] ended up owning a potato chip company in Canada bought out by Lays Potato Chip Company. We met a lot of very interesting people. Then I started to make a list of the interesting people that we met but I never completed it. We were more of an interest than the people we were meeting. I swear that we met this guy in California, and we saw him twice, he had just sold the Clippers for billions of dollars [Donald Sterling ]. This guy came up to me at the campground, I can’t remember where we were, but we were out west somewhere. He was talking about the government telling him who he had to rent to. He didn’t want to rent to blacks. Of course, I didn’t want to talk to him.

Then there was the guy we met in Alabama. He told us that he was good to his Negroes. We talked to him because his wife was losing her sight. I will never forget that man. He made those gyro-planes. You stand up and fly them. He was taking her as far as he could as long as she had sight. He knew that her sight was failing. He was an old guy. I don’t remember how the conversation came up about him being good to his Negroes. That was during the time of a huge storm. We were wondering why we didn’t see any black people in that town. We had been there for about a week and finally we turned on the news or the radio in the trailer and had heard that the Klan had lynched a black man in that town. It had just happened before we got there. They dragged him behind a pickup truck and killed him. But we didn’t know that. Nobody ever said anything and we were the only blacks at that campground. In Mobile Lakes, Alabama. In fact, in later years we saw that they [victim’s family] took the Klan to court and the mother [of the lynched man] ended up owning a building/granted a building as a result [of the settlement].

CB: I don’t want to put any words in your mouth, but do you think we can say that the fondest memory of your travels is your time together?
BG: Yes, we had a good time together. We never had a word between us. The whole thing was so interesting to me. I was glad. In the beginning I didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t interested in sleeping in the woods. But after we got started, I really liked it. Every place we went was an adventure for me. It was good. The whole thing was good
FG: And I want you to notice that there was no argument about where we would go. We just made up our minds about where we would go and off we went.
TB: Has researching your grandparent’s stories of travel, increased your love of our national parks and other open spaces?

CB: Absolutely. Researching their story has given me a much greater appreciation of love and our national parks. I chose such a long title for the documentary because I had to include the words “love” and “travel.” It was a necessity because it has been their life; these are the two principal components. Their love for each other and their love for travel has proven to be inseparable.

My grandfather often tells the story of his boss taking him aside and asking, almost trying to verify that he was taking 30 days of vacation to spend time with his wife in a trailer. Apparently, to his boss, this was absurd. To my grandfather it was absurd to spend that time without her.

The appreciation that I have gained for the national parks has grown exponentially since I started my research for Everyone But Two. The cornerstone to the development of this documentary has been a series of travel logs that my grandfather kept, the details of their trips starting in 1965. In these journals, every minute detail such as gasoline fees, miles driven, routes taken, and places visited, were written down on handmade spreadsheets, neatly kept in binders. I collated this data into modern day spreadsheets to make it easier for me to sort and easily identify and compare aspects of their travels. While examining this data, I was able to establish that they visited many state and national parks. It was at these parks, that my grandparents shared experiences that are now part of their fondest memories.

TB: In your own words, can you tell me about the love your grandparents share for our national parks?
CB: One thing I want people to know about the love my grandparents had for their travels to our national parks was that there was never a time that they thought they were not welcomed. The national parks had always been a place for them to enjoy and appreciate. Even at times as turbulent as they were for African Americans during the week of their first journey, August 10, 1965 (the signing of the Civil Rights Voting Act and the eruption of the Watts Riots), there was never any hesitation about visiting.

Most importantly, I want people to know that the experiences they had from their travels and visiting our national parks are memories that they have continued to cherish for the last 50 years. If given the opportunity to live their lives over, they are adamant that there is not one thing that they would have changed.

Carla Brown may be reached through her website: Everyone but two

 

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