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Las Vegas storyteller recalls pre-Green Book trip to Alaska

Judy-Ann Young of northeast Las Vegas was 5 when her stepmother loaded her stepsister and her in a car en route from San Francisco to Alaska, where her father was working as a cement mason.

“It was 1956; there were no freeways and the roads to Alaska weren’t paved,” said Young, now 68. “ The trip was 3,000 miles and took eight days. My dad told my mother he couldn’t come back until spring. She wouldn’t have that. It had been six months since I’d seen him.”

So she asked people around town about the route to Alaska, which was still a U.S. territory. The Green Book — which African-Americans used in the 1930s through ’60s to help find lodging, gas stops and other public amenities where they might not be welcome — at the time didn’t cover the route from San Francisco through Canada to Alaska, so her mother created her own version by asking other African-Americans who’d been to there what places were safe.

“The black community has always been a tribal community,” Young said. “There were others who had gone to Alaska or heard about the opportunities there — like people hearing of opportunities in America. Desperate people make drastic decisions.”

Young now tells the story to crowds across the city as a member of the Nevada Storytelling Guild, the Las Vegas affiliate of the National Storytelling Network. Members performed “Stories from the Motherland” on Feb. 12 at the College of Southern Nevada’s North Las Vegas campus in celebration of Black History Month.

“For me, storytelling is life itelf,” said Rochelle Hooks, president of the Nevada Storytelling Guild. “I was raised with stories. My mother had a story for everything. Before I recognized it as a craft, I just thought that’s how parents talked to their children. It’s very important to me. I’ve used storytelling in my career to teach literacy because children first hear (before reading).”

Hooks joined Young for the storytelling event, where she, along with two other members of the organization, performed fictional African- and African-American-inspired folk tales.

The group meets the fourth Tuesday of every month, excluding July and December, at the College of Southern Nevada’s North Las Vegas campus in room 202 — the multicultural room, Hooks said.

Packing light

Young’s mother took the bare essentials on their trip to Alaska.

“Some clothing, her old cookbook, a Bible and a .38 Smith & Wesson that she wrapped in sanitary napkins to cross the Canadian border,” Young said. “She put them in a box and told us not to mess with the purple box with the flower on it.”

When they approached the border and the officer asked if her mother had any firearms, her mother told him she relied on God to take care of her and her children. He let her through. Once they were out of sight, Young’s mother pulled over, removed the gun from the box and put it in the passenger seat, covering it with her Bible, Young said.

“I never really thought about how unusual it was until my mother passed away that she was a renaissance mother,” Young said. “She did a lot of things I thought everyone’s mother did. … She had a sixth-grade education but she was extremely smart — very resourceful with a mother’s wit.”

Contact Mia Sims at msims@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0298. Follow @miasims___ on Twitter.

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