A packed house for my first presentation of 2020 at the historic El Garces in Needles, California.
How do you responsibly promote tourism during a pandemic? If you have a travel network how do you write about tourism and not note event cancellations or rescheduling, travel restrictions, surges in COVID 19 numbers in locations or business closures? If speaking engagements and book signings are an integral part of your travel network, how do you schedule and promote future presentations not knowing if the venue will be open or if it will be safe for an audience to attend? If your business is to assist tour companies, what do you do if tour companies are not operating and do not plan on resuming operations for six, twelve or even eighteen months? How do you develop a long term, or even short term strategy, when literally everything is subject to change by the hour. This is but one facet of the conundrum that I have been facing this year along with countless travel writers, tourism officials and tour company owners.
And to compound the challenges of attempting to address these problems there is the worrisome trend toward abandonment of respective conversation, people filtering the world through the lens of conspiracy theory, and outright hostility to, well, most everything. Post an article about pending restrictions on European travel and receive notes, email and social media postings that range from “you are going to loose followers for this focus on the negative” to “I never thought of you as a liberal socialist anti-American” and “thank you, it is refreshing to have an honest source of nonpolitical information.” Post a link to an article for a book about the Titanic, note a few of the things that caused the sinking and receive a note that says, “The thinly veiled attempt to say that President Trump is the reason for the COVID 19 pandemic is disgusting. You should be ashamed.”
So, how is a travel writer to survive during these tumultuous times? How can a travel network remain solvent, or even thrive, in a year plagued with pandemic, societal unrest, and political upheaval? I am still trying to find answers to all of these questions and many, many more. In the process I have learned that there is opportunity in crisis IF a person is able to adjust expectations, to change direction on a dime, and is willing to learn. I have also rediscovered that the desire to continue eating on a regular basis will provide a great deal of incentive as well as flexibility and more realistic expectations.
So, I launched Coffee With Jim, a Sunday morning live stream program on our Facebook page that is then added to the YouTube channel. This provides a promotional venue for Jim Hinckley’s Americaas well as the crowdfunding initiative that is integral to all that we do at this time, and it adds value for advertising sponsors. Likewise with the weekly 5 Minutes With Jim audio podcast. I write feature articles for MotoringNZand blog posts for MyMarketing Designs (how many words can a person write about kites? I am going to find out). Now I am working to offer presentations such as the one about the National Old Trails Road in Needles at the first of the year as a pay per view program. The test run on Facebook was less than ideal so now we will be trying Vimeo. Stay tuned.
The White Cliffs wagon Trail near Kingman, Arizona
There is still the matter of promoting travel destinations and events. There is more to consider than just the fact that the announcement of cancellations, such as the balloon festival in Albuquerque, are happening with stunning rapidity that can render articles irrelevant in less than a heart beat. There is also the moral responsibility. And so the focus has been shifted to camping, to hiking, and to outdoor attractions.
Today I attended a meeting of area museum representatives at the Mohave Museum of History & Arts (respectful social distancing but limited use of masks). It was a networking opportunity that tentatively netted five speaking engagements/book signings for this fall IF…. This event sort of summed up the entire year and the challenges currently being faced.
The current crisis has exemplified the importance of having an online presence, especially for the small business owner and the writer, travel or otherwise. Because they had an online store several writers and business owners that I know sold more merchandise than during non pandemic times. And there is a need for content, and as a result, income derived through blog writing. It isn’t glamorous (how many damn words can I write about kites!) and it doesn’t pay well but it does pay.
Will Jim Hinckley’s America weather the storm? You bet. We are durable. We are flexible. It might look a bit different next year than it has in the past but we have been telling people where to go since 1990. And we will be telling people where to go for years to come. However, the places we tell you about might just be a bit empty, a bit quiet. But that is where we thrive. We have always shared the empty places. It is the dawn of a new old era.
It was an incident of such vicious barbarism the nation was shocked into action. On July 6, 1917, representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and business owners in East St. Louis met with the mayor to demand the resignation of the police chief and for extensive reform in the police department. Newspaper writers, outraged by the rioting, accused the mayor of having allowed a “reign of lawlessness.” The death toll may have been the primary focus of news stories, but the cost of extensive property damage was another cause for outrage. The Southern Railway Company loss claims included a warehouse and more than one hundred carloads of merchandise valued at more than $525,000. A theater valued at more than $100,000 had been burned, and at least 312 homes were destroyed.
Even though this, the race riots in Springfield, Illinois and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and similar incidents during the first decades of the 20th century predated certification of Route 66, I included these stories of racial strife and prejudice fueled violence in cities along that highway corridor in my latest book, Murder and Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. They were necessary to provide insight into American society of the era and the role prejudice played in crimes committed during the glory days of Route 66.
In 1917, in East St. Louis long simmering racial tensions reached a boiling point. As in Springfield, the immigration of African Americans from the south fueled deep rooted prejudices. By 1910 the African American population in East St. Louis was six thousand, a number that doubled by 1917 as factories were desperate for workers to fill war-contract quotas. In February 1917, the predominately white workforce at the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike. In retaliation and to prevent a decline in production, the company hired African American workers as replacements.
On the heels of a fiery city council meeting on May 28 where angry white workers lodged formal complaints, the rumor of an attempted robbery of a white man by an armed black man spread through the city like a wild fire. Late that afternoon an enraged mob poured into the streets beating any African Americans they encountered and vandalizing storefronts. As the violence increased, the governor dispatched the National Guard to restore order. By mid-June, an uneasy calm descended on the city and the soldiers withdrew. This, however, was only act one. On the first day of July, groups of white men drove through African American neighborhoods and indiscriminately fired guns at the houses.
Armed African Americans, some military veterans, took to the street, and in one incident shots were fired into an oncoming car in what they believed to be self-defense. Tragically, the two men killed were police officers, Detective Sergeant Samuel Coppedge and Detective Frank Wadley, who had been called out to investigate the drive-by shootings. The following morning, after a meeting in the Labor Temple where crowds were whipped into a frenzy of anger and hatred, attendees swarmed onto the streets where they savagely beat blacks with guns, rocks, and pipes. As the mod grew in size, homes were firebombed, fleeing residents were shot, and there were impromptu lynchings.
Carlos F. Hurd, a reporter who had gained notoriety in 1912 for his heart-wrenching interviews with survivors of the RMS Titanic sinking, wrote a detailed eyewitness account that was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 3. He opened his feature with, “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless Negroes at Broadway and 4th Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant. The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport,” he wrote. “There was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it. ‘Get a nigger’ was the slogan, and it was varied by the recurrent cry, ‘Get another!’” The Crisis featured additional articles that provided details of mayhem, brutality, and outright horror: a person beheaded with a butcher knife, a twelve-year-old African American girl pulled from a trolley bus, and the girl’s mother attacked and left for dead with a gaping hole in her head.
A federal investigation and hearings before the Committee on Rules in the House of Representatives in August led to indictments. Among those brought to trial to account for the tragic events was Dr. Leroy Bundy, a dentist and prominent leader in the East St. Louis African American community. In the rush to judgment, he was formally charged with inciting a riot. Bundy was given prison time in connection to the riot, along with thirty-four other defendants, ten of whom were white.
Perhaps the most egregious race riot of the era occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The incident now known as the Tulsa race massacre was actually the culmination of a serious incidents, including the lynching of two African Americans the year prior. On May 30, 1921, a nineteen-year-old shoe shine man named Dick Rowland, stepped into the elevator of the Drexel Building. Accounts vary in detail, but according to later testimony Rowland either tripped and fell or was jostled against Sarah Page, the seventeen-year-old elevator operator, and stepped on her foot. She screamed. Witnesses claimed that Rowland had made sexual advances toward Page.
Rowland was arrested that same day and held, pending investigation of the incident. That evening a lengthy editorial entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight” was published in the Tulsa Tribune fueled growing tensions. By 7:30 p.m. the following evening, a crowd was gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse. Vocal elements in the mob demanded that Dick Rowland be surrendered to them, but the sheriff steadfastly refused. Reports of the growing mob circulated throughout Tulsa, and in the Greenwood District apprehension mounted. In response, a group of African American men, many of whom were veterans of WWI, went to the courthouse with the intent to aid authorities. The sheriff wisely rejected the offer of assistance and asked the men to quietly return to their homes.
The Greenwood District of Tulsa was more than a prosperous, progressive African American community. It was a shining light for reformers and was often highlighted to bolster arguments that African-Americans were equals to whites. As a testimony to the district’s affluence, in the years following WWI the district was often referred to as Black Wall Street. The vibrant neighborhoods supported two newspapers, numerous churches, a library, and scores of prosperous African American owned businesses.
After being rebuffed by the sheriff members of the mob stormed the National Guard armory but were turned back by guardsmen on duty. Then shortly before midnight, a rumor swept through the Greenwood district that the all-white mob was attacking the courthouse. A group of nearly one hundred armed men, many of whom were veterans, from the Greenwood District again went there with an offer of assistance to the law enforcement officers guarding the jail and courthouse. Again, the offer was rejected and the men turned away. As they made their way through the crowd, a scuffle ensued, an attempt was made to disarm an African American veteran, and a shot was fired.
The following morning, just after daybreak, thousands of armed white men gathered on the outskirts of the Greenwood district and swept into the area as a horde. By late afternoon in some areas, such as along the tracks for the Frisco Railroad, the riot became a pitched battle as African Americans fought back. Pedestrians were viciously beaten, windows were smashed, fires set, and cars were overturned and torched cars. There was extensive looting of businesses and homes. As the violence escalated there were reports of unarmed men, women, and even children being shot in the streets. Among the slain was A. C. Jackson, a renowned African American surgeon, who reportedly was shot after he surrendered to a group of vigilantes. At one point a machine gun was used indiscriminately. The unprecedented violence led Oklahoma governor James B. A. Robertson to declare martial law and order the National Guard to restore order.
The riot had transformed more than thirty-five city blocks of businesses and homes into charred ruins. more than a thousand people were treated for injuries, and there were an unknown number of deaths. In the investigation that followed Dick Rowland was exonerated of all charges and an all-white grand jury laid the blame for the riot and destruction on the citizens of the Greenwood District. Not a single vigilante was sent to prison for the murders and arson. The Greenwood District was devastated and thousands of residents spent the winter of 1921, as well as much at that year, living in tents. Many chose to relocate. Tulsa was transformed by the riot.
The reverberations of these incidents are with us today and are made manifest in the call for police reform that followed the death of George Floyd, and the senseless destruction of American cities that are accompanying protests. In Tulsa the Greenwood District was rebuilt in the decade that followed, but many families moved west. They followed Route 66 to California. Not surprisingly, for many years the Tulsa riot, and the incidents in Springfield and East St. Louis were subjects not often discussed. And that is one reason we are still fighting the same battles.
As a somber footnote, in 1997 an Oklahoma state commission was formed to investigate the riot. After extensive investigation by scientists, archaeologists, and historians, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission released a report in 2001. The death-toll estimate was revised to at least three hundred people, and local legend was confirmed when investigators found that many of the dead had been unceremoniously dumped into mass graves.
The year 2020 is a truly historic moment in time. In the blink of an eye the entire world was transformed. Travel, education, politics, shopping, employment, none of these will be the same as they were before March 15. It is is a time of tremendous worry and anxiety, of opportunity and of loss. How unnerving. How exciting. Still, there are those instances when I give thought that it would be best to read about all of this in a history book than live through it.
Personally the year dawned with great promise. I had a recently published book to promote, Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. In the midst of the pandemic I would learn that it had been awarded the Independent Publishers silver medal award. Linked with this was a growing calendar of speaking engagements; the El Garces in Needles, California, a northwestern tour with five engagements, the International Route 66 Festival in Zlin, Czechia and Miles of Possibility Conference to name but a few. As an added bonus I had finalized arrangements with another tour company, number 32, that would utilize my services. I had every reason to be happier than fleas on a puppy.
A packed house for my first presentation of 2020 at the historic El Garces in Needles, California.
The clouds on the horizon gave little indication of the magnitude of the storm that was fast approaching. There were growing hints of a troublesome virus brewing in China. Whether it would develop as a new strain of influenza, something a little more serious like SARS or a pandemic such as that which swept the globe in 1918 was still a matter of conjecture. The swirling conspiracy theories on social media muddied the water and made it difficult to garner an accurate picture of the situation. And as with every crisis or potential crisis of the past few years, the virus and any potential threat was manipulated for political gain and to foster carefully crafted divisions.
In February my pa passed away. It wasn’t unexpected as he was 92 years of age and quite ill. Still, that left a bit of a hole, and I was in a fog most of the month. And I had become adept at ignoring the drum beat of incendiary political rhetoric and the cacophony of conflicting news. This meant that I missed storm warnings, not that I could have done a great deal to prepare for what was coming. With the luxury of hindsight this might have been a blessing. If I had been paying more attention, and had been more aware of how many countries were preparing for a serious crisis while here in the good old USA we were whistling past the graveyard, I would have been as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
March is when the proverbial dog doo hit the fan. My dearest friend and I celebrated her birthday with a quiet dinner and talk about our friends that would we would be visiting with soon as well as the adventures awaiting us. Within days it all unwound. Tour companies began canceling for all of 2020. The college canceled the community education programs on tourism that I had developed. Like dominoes speaking engagements were canceled one after the other. I have never really learned to swim. Still I have long believed there is no better incentive to learn than when the ship is going down and the ice water is swirling around your testicles.
In April it felt like I was having a root canal during a tax audit and a prostate examination. The cascade of cancellations escalated. Then I got sick; fever hitting 103.9 degrees, shortness of breath, extreme fatigue. After several days without improvement I trudged to the COVID-19 evaluation tent at the hospital. It was there that I first learned that the entire country, not just me was in severe trouble. That was when I realized the national response to a potential disaster of epic proportions was akin to a one legged blind man playing darts. After a cursory examination I was give a simple single sheet that explained my condition. “You do not currently meet testing criteria for COVID-19. However, your symptoms are highly suggestive of infection of COVID-19 or a closely related viral illness. If your shortness of breath continues, worsens or is accompanied by a new symptom please return for further evaluation. It is imperative that you self quarantine immediately.”
It has been a long and interesting road to recovery. I picked up the morning walkabout, an ideal time to make a valiant attempt to see through the fog to get a hint of what the future of tourism might looked like and meditate on what I need to do to keep Jim Hinckley’s America afloat, to provide support for the Route 66 community during this time of crisis, and to ensure that my dearest friend and I continue eating on a regular basis, a habit I picked up many years ago.
Thanks to a friend in New Zealand, I began writing a weekly feature column on automotive history for MotoringNZ. Next I began writing blog posts for various companies. And I made a valiant attempt to figure out the labyrinth that was the Pandemic Unemployment Insurance program as income had plummeted by something like 95%. And then there was the ongoing attempt to teach the old dog new tricks; paid presentations on Zoom (a work in progress), creation of new programs such as On The Road With Jim and Coffee With Jim, a complete revamp of packages for advertising sponsors, solicitation of consultation work all launched with a large modicum of hope.
Now,, if could just figure out if this the beginning of the end or a new beginning.