Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Q: I read in Traveling While Black that there was a Jim Crow Travel Kit. Do you have one of the kits at the Jim Crow Museum?
Grand Rapids, Mi.
A: Unfortunately, we do not have a Jim Crow Traveling Kit. In fact, the kit was not sold or offered to the public. It was a concept developed by Joseph K. Bowler to illustrate the terrible traveling conditions of Jim Crow designated travel areas. There may be no better way to illuminate the necessity of a travel kit, than to just show the entire letter that Bowler wrote to the Chicago Defender in 1922.
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Minister Equips Himself to Overcome Hardships of Southern Travel.
In order to conform to the Southern white man's Jim Crow law and at the same time be in perfect comfort while riding the “hog train” to Jackson, Miss., the Rev. Joseph K. Bowler of Morgantown, Mass., has equipped himself with what he terms a “Jim Crow traveling kit.” It consists of a pair of soiled overalls purchased from an auto mechanic, a miniature gasoline stove and a small table top the size of a scrub board. Rev. Bowler passed through Chicago Monday.
Asked why he purchased such a peculiar outfit for travel in the South, he replied as follows:
“I secured the overalls in order to avoid soiling my best clothes when riding in the dirty Jim Crow coaches. I could not afford to wear a decent looking suit while riding amid such filthy surroundings, and then I want to be in perfect harmony with my environment.
I have often seen the conductors and news butchers come into the Jim Crow coaches and spit tobacco juice on the cushions where our men and women have to sit. In some parts of Mississippi, the white farmers use the Jim Crow coaches as baggage cars in which to transport chickens and hogs, and no gentleman would like for a chicken or hog to be his seat mate and at the same time a be a cuspidor for railroad help, so I devised the regalia in order that I would not have a cleaning and pressing bill when I arrived at my destination. If I am forced to ride and sleep in filth, I believe in being prepared for the occasion.”
Rev. Bowler explained that he made his purchase from an auto mechanic who was on the eve of discarding the overalls after they had been in service for over 10 months. In addition to wearing old, soiled overalls, Rev. Bowler made other “accommodations” when traveling in a Jim Crow car.
“The small stove,” he continued, “is to prepare my meals while en route. The dining car is a closed corporation as far as our people are concerned because white people below the Mason and Dixon line maintain that we are animals, virtually camels, and can go without food or water for several days. I cannot force myself to sneak to the back of some depot kitchen like a little poodle and ask for food: neither can I take a chance of being shot to death by attempting to invade a dining car to secure my meals. They pay men of my own Race to stand at the door and keep me out. So, I have a supply of salmon and other canned goods that way I intend to ward of hunger.”
The small table was the last item that needed the reporter’s consideration, and the minister was anxious to explain its presence. He outlined its mission and purpose as a member of the kit.
“I have never been a good hand at eating sandwiched, and therefore the table will serve to relieve me of this awkward custom by supplying me a place for my food. Then there may be another person on the train who may not be prepared as I am, but accustomed to the same respectable style of living. I can offer my services and at the same time enjoy my meal across the table with a friend as unfortunate as I am.”
We thank you for the question. This topic has given us an idea to create a display which shows this letter and display it together with items that were in Bower’s Jim Crow Traveling Kit to show some of the travel difficulties Black people faced during this period.
Jim Crow Museum