Q&A: Author Deborah Douglas Blends Travel and Black History

Deborah Douglas voyaged throughout the South in preparation for her book Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events That Made the Movement (Moon Travel Guides).

head shot of Deborah Douglas wearing glasses with hair hanging down
Deborah Douglas
Photo by Ven Sherrod

Deborah Douglas voyaged throughout the South in preparation for her book Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events That Made the Movement (Moon Travel Guides).

LJ: What is the U.S. Civil Rights Trail?

Deborah Douglas: The trail follows the midcentury civil rights movement and was established in 2018 by Travel South, a collection of Southern travel agencies. Officials wisely realized the power of a more cohesive story and secured the scholarship to back it up. The journey is excellently curated on an interactive website, civilrightstrail.com. Visitors can click on cities from as far north as Delaware, south to Florida and New Orleans, and west to Kansas to see how people and issues flesh out this historical narrative.

Why did you write the book?

We know because of excellent scholarship by the likes of Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, who has chronicled the lifetime monetary value of enslaved Black lives, and the 1619 Project how much value Black Americans have infused into this country. We are who we are because of the contributions our ancestors made with their bare hands. Traveling the civil rights trail is a journey of Black investment to survey our returns.

I wrote about the trail because the history is there if we just engage with it, and it has everything to do with the quality of our lived experience now. Even before Black Lives Matter took off, the movement mattered because the legislative gains and norms shifting [resulted in] outcomes we enjoy daily.

On the civil rights trail, we can eat where Dr. King ate. We can stand on a Delta road on hot summer day and imagine the good time Emmett Till was having on his summer vacation—until he didn’t. We can stand on the street in front of Little Rock Central High School. A collection of specialized museums pulls the experience together with appropriate context.

What kind of research did you do?

I spent several months traveling to each of the selected cities and visited every museum available as a point of entry to the cultural experience. I met with local residents and as many people who were involved with the movement as I could. Many are up in age, and I wanted to honor them by acknowledging them with a listening ear, while incorporating their voices and essences in my book.

I read books and credible websites that chronicle this history. I blew up people’s phones during the pandemic to check my facts with people who were there. I bothered my journalist friends—a lot. I never gave up.

Many of the cities and states along the trail have tourism bureaus with knowledgeable staff. I worried “the life outta them,” to quote my grandmother Louise Purham. These travel professionals are a great resource, especially those who have roots in these cities and are connected to the civil rights story.

There are so many fascinating facts and stories. Do you have any favorites?

Everybody, everywhere wanted me to write a book about them—no matter how many things I had on my to-do list that day. I interviewed a civil rights veteran in Birmingham who told me about a secret meeting to organize Black residents in the early 1960s. When I asked who was there, this elder scolded me and told me, “Everybody doesn’t want you in their business, young lady!” I loved it, and I’m keeping him close to my heart. This man is taking that lifesaving secret to the grave because what happened in the 1960s, with all the danger and vulnerability present, is as real as yesterday.

What did you feel as you researched and wrote the book?

I constantly wondered how I would respond to the events covered in this book. Would I have had the courage to avoid punching someone who spat on me during a sit-in? Would my heart have permanently broken and left me bitter receiving news of the murders of Emmett Till, the four little girls in Birmingham, or Jimmie Lee Jackson, who died protecting his mama? Would I hate white people now if I had had to live in those conditions then? So many people involved in the movement were highly educated, accomplished, and skilled. They were literal superheroes with a level of mental and physical stamina I cannot fathom. They were able to accomplish this despite all the barriers to their advancement, which makes me feel kind of like a slug.
I need to get it together.

Did you have any input into the book’s visuals?

I took the vast majority of photos and sourced others to complement images found by Moon professionals. I used my influence to mitigate the white gaze. That means centering Black people in big and small ways. I advocated for showing pictures of as many actual people, as opposed to artifacts and buildings, as possible. Most of the people I met situate themselves in this story whether they were there or not. It was imperative to me that people open my book and see themselves looking back. I want my book to feel like family.

How should readers use the book when they are able to take trips again?

I believe you can travel the civil rights movement with your mind’s eye. You can read one chapter and keep coming back. Think about how you spend time with National Geographic. Readers may never go to those far-off places, but they can go with their imagination.

Once you hit the road, I suggest taking it one city at a time. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and you’ll have a richer experience if you spend a little time in each city.

Who do you envision using this guidebook?

This book is for people who love America. Remember the line about “a more perfect union”? Well, sorry to break it to you, but it’s not perfect yet: Traveling the trail is a way to engage with people and places who pursued this ideal with courage and gusto. Conversely, this book is also for people passionate about current events and who may be perplexed about America.

U.S. Civil Rights Trail is great for history buffs and people who like geography. This book is for students, who can learn what it means to look at where you live in a different way. For students who go on spring break trips to the South, here’s a literal road map for a more engaging experience. This story is for travelers who want to level up.

Finally, this book is for my people. These people who made this movement what it was, who took great risks and even gave their lives. We are because they were.

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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