Ben’s Chili Bowl acted as a safe haven for Black travelers in the 1950s and ’60s.
MCLEAN, Va. — In the 1950s and ’60s, navigating your way around the country, while Black, wasn’t always safe. A traveling virtual reality exhibit currently at the McLean Community Center highlights the travel perils Black people faced.
“Traveling While Black” shares the history of the Green Book, a tool created to help Black people travel around the country safely. The virtual experience allows you to travel as if you were a Black person in the ’50s and ’60s.
“For a moment, it gives you the perception of what it might be like to be in a Black person’s life,” said Daniel Singh, the director of McLean Community Center. “Where you can’t escape it, it’s all around you.”
One of the first experiences visitors will have is stepping inside an iconic D.C. restaurant: Ben’s Chili Bowl. Owner Virginia Ali shares her own stories about the harsh realities of travel at that time, illustrating why the Green Book became a vital resource to know safe places to stop for gas, food, etc. Ali created Ben’s to be both a safe haven for fellow Black travelers, as well as a community center for locals.
“It’s not just about what happened in the past, but what’s happening right now,” Singh said. “I think this film is helping them sit back and listen a little bit and say there are things I don’t know, but I need to learn. The biggest thing that we find surprising is that people don’t know how prevalent racism is in our country in our backyards.”
After the virtual tour, guests can write messages about their experiences on cards.
“Hopefully they’ll continue to learn more of what they didn’t know and start working to fix those problems,” Singh said. “We can also all be part of the solution. And to me, that’s what’s exciting, is to undo the systemic racism, the institutional racism, and start working towards … making it safe for everyone to be a part of this community.”
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