If you walk into Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial Center next month, there’s a chance you’ll find yourself seated at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a historic Black-owned restaurant in Washington. The diner was a haven for Black Americans going through the nation’s capital in the 1950s and ’60s — and now the setting of a virtual reality exhibit coming to the CRMC on Nov. 1.
“Traveling While Black,” a 2019 VR film directed by Roger Ross Williams, offers an immersive view of the dangers generations of Black people have faced as they traveled through the US The exhibit transports participants to the booths and lunch counters at Ben’s Chili Bowl to listen to honest narratives from activists and historians who faced those dangers first-hand.
Tafeni English, director of the CRMC, said she’s hopeful the exhibit will create a dialogue for how those challenges persist.
“We don’t have Jim Crow laws here anymore, but [Black people] still very much have to grapple with being safe in certain spaces,” English said. “I think that’s going to be really important for conversation.”
The exhibit examines the legacy of the Green Book, a guide that helped Black people find safety in American cities for generations. The last Green Book, published in 1967, listed several locations in Montgomery where Black people could receive 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 how he first noticed the actions taken by 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,” Cox says in the film. “Just in terms of local transportation and interstate transportation, we had to face people telling us, ‘You’re not good as we are.’ And now because of people who got on the bus and challenged the institutions that developed, you now can dream big. You can dream bigger than we could dream.”
The center has started preparations to recreate the inside of Ben’s Chili Bowl. Once completed, there will be six booths and a counter, which combined will seat 15 people at a time.
Visitors can view the exhibit from Nov. 1 to January 2023 for cost of admission to the center, which is $5 for adults. The film lasts roughly 20 minutes, followed by a short debrief with educators at the center. English hopes everyone gets a chance to experience it.
“I’m hoping that not only educators, but just your everyday ordinary citizen, will walk away engaging in conversations … on how the past very much connects to the present,” English said.
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