Starting in the 1950s, Jet magazine’s longtime society editor Gerri Major wrote dispatches from glamorous locales around the globe. Her not-so-secret plan? Get her African-American readers to come join the fun.
Preparing for an international trip was a familiar routine for Gerri Major—she had crisscrossed the Atlantic so many times that her friends and colleagues had taken to calling her Gerri-Go-Round—but on one particular spring day in 1953, she was especially in her element. She wore a long-sleeve black dress, white gloves, and an on-trend black pillbox hat as she strode to gate 9 at New York’s International Airport. Major was headed to London to cover the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II for Jet magazine, where she worked as the society editor. The agent handed her a ticket, and at that moment one of Major’s companions snapped a picture. That image, which ran a few weeks later in Jet, would become a kind of calling card for Major on her future adventures and a beacon to a growing fan base of similarly intrepid African-American travelers for whom Major had become an inspiration.
The coronation was a plum assignment for journalists lucky enough to receive press credentials from the British government. Back then, as now, the world was obsessed with royal news. But for Major it was an opportunity to focus on Black travelers who attended the event. “There were twenty West African chiefs and tribal officials watching the ceremonies,” she recalled in her book Black Society. A Benin prince and his companion from the Gold Coast “stopped London traffic” in their eye-catching native dress, with umbrellas that later “created a truly international atmosphere” at the queen’s garden party.
Major would pay special attention to the comings and goings of prominent African-Americans. “Two members of Harlem’s smart Bridgettes, Ida May King and Alberta Osborne, arrived in London via the SS Verdam for the coronation weekend and a tour of France and Italy.” Along with their itineraries she described their social calendars. “Dr. Gertrude Curtis Thompson of Los Angeles came in from Paris the day after the coronation. Said she hates crowds. Her hostess was Adelaide Hall, who was appearing at the Saville Theater in Love from Judy. The doctor was loaded down with fine leather goods which she had picked up in Italy…”
Born Geraldyn Hodges in Chicago in 1894, Major was raised by a doting aunt and uncle after her mother died in childbirth. She excelled in school, eventually attending the University of Chicago, where she received a degree in philosophy. She took a series of jobs after she graduated—elementary school teacher, Red Cross nurse during World War I—and then moved with her first husband, Dr. Binga Dismond, to Harlem, where she launched side-by-side careers in publicity, journalism, and social activism.
Friends say Major blossomed in Harlem, immersing herself in the arts and the city’s vibrant social scene. She and Dismond divorced but remained close friends. In 1946 she married John Major, a prominent businessman from Atlantic City; they exchanged vows in Buenos Aires—an alluring destination for American travelers at the time. She became a household name with her long-running Jet column, “Gerri Major’s Black Society,” and for her work at Ebony (where she was a staff editor), the Amsterdam News, and other publications.
But it was her role as travel reporter and occasional tour leader that may be her most important legacy. Throughout her adult life Major encouraged her friends and readers to take up international travel as a way to not just venture beyond their neighborhoods but to break through the remnants of Jim Crow–era restrictions and lay claim to the benefits and sheer pleasure of seeing other parts of the world. Hers was one of the early voices in what would become a larger Black travel movement that picked up momentum in the 1960s and ’70s and continues today in the work of a number of prominent Black travel influencers.
Major wrote about society, and her middle-class background grounded her reporting and commentary. Readers of Jet and publications such as Interstate Tattler, Pittsburgh Courier, and the Amsterdam News sought her opinion on all things related to African-American social life, because she was an insider but not one who guarded the gates or sought to keep strivers out. It helped that she was equally and visibly invested in the mission of racial equality and worked with the NAACP and National Council of Negro Women. She was also a keen observer and skilled raconteur, so even when she covered routine events like cotillions, charity galas, HBCU football games—beats that might seem trifling in 2022—her observations felt like, and were, serious journalism. “I wrote items that reinforced the breadth and scope of the Black traveler,” Major said in Black Society.
African-Americans began traveling internationally in earnest after World War II, some inspired by descriptions from returning GIs of less segregated conditions in European capitals. But there were other motivations, including the combination of a constant fear of racial aggression at home, which pushed African-Americans across national borders, and the pull of European nations that were actively encouraging Black travelers to visit, believing that the tourism revenue would help rebuild their war-ravaged cities.
“For the small, select group that did have the means to indulge in leisure, the international space was most appealing, because that was the only place where they felt they could truly be a leisured body,” said Rutgers University history professor Tiffany M. Gill in a recent conversation. “It started with a wave of Black women in the ’30s who used their occupations to permit travel.” Dancers like Josephine Baker and Ada “Bricktop” Smith and visual artists such as Augusta Savage used their art as a means to see the world. Others, like Juanita Harrison, found alternative ways to make it happen. She started traveling abroad when she was 13, hiring herself out as a maid and doing other odd jobs to cover her expenses. She chronicled her experiences in a 1936 memoir, My Great, Wide, Beautiful World.
Major took most of her early trips by herself, which presented its own sort of challenges. As a woman of fair complexion, she could pass for Latin American or South Asian; Black Americans often used the veil of passing to guard their safety and to increase their mobility. Steamships were Major’s primary mode of transport during those first adventures, and two factors in Black women’s ability to travel on them were the type of ship and which country’s laws governed the ship company. “They had these very arbitrary segregation laws,” Gill said. “It created a great deal of uncertainty around whether you would even be able to purchase a ticket and gain passage.” It was also uncertain how you would be treated onboard. “A lot of this had to do with who was onboard, if the white folks would complain about Black people being there.”
“My legs say they want to stop, but my heart and head say, ‘Keep going,’ and so I do.”
Major did not often address these disparities in her writing. “I think that was part of her mystique,” Gill said. Her goal was “to show that it was possible for Black women to travel.” She was an unabashed promoter, and as such she gave travel a patina that glossed over some of the challenges African-Americans faced. But Major also worked closely with organizations like the NAACP, which reported cruise companies (especially those that received government subsidies) that discriminated against Black travelers.
The excitement and glamour of the early days of Black leisure travel live on in the photo albums and curio cabinets of the people who experienced it firsthand. Journalist Demetria Lucas remembers searching through her grandmother’s chest of drawers when she was a child and finding a shot of her on the back of a camel. In awe, she took the photo to her grandmother and learned that she had vacationed in Jerusalem and other faraway places in the 1950s. After that, Lucas said, “travel felt like a part of my birthright.”
Lucas, who contributes to top newspapers and has appeared as a guest on Good Morning America, has spent her adult life making world travel a personal priority. On her first trip to South Africa, in 2011, she stood on a rock in Cape Town and was taken aback by the beauty. “Everyone should come see something like this…be in awe of something so beautiful,” she posted on Instagram, launching the popular hashtag #seesomeworld.
The same year, a woman named Evita Robinson founded Nomadness Travel Tribe, a group of Black millennials who go on adventures together and share tips on where to go next. Robinson got the idea after spending 2009 living in Niigata, Japan, teaching English during the week and working as a bartender on weekends to fund trips to nearby countries. In 2011, while living in Thailand, she began seeking out others who, like her, were looking for like minds to travel with. Today Nomadness serves as an information hub, travel service, and platform to address issues travelers face today. “This community was the start of Black people and brown people owning their travel stories and not waiting for someone else to tell them for them,” she said.
When air travel became the primary mode of overseas travel, in the ’60s and ’70s, Major (who was by then aging) doubled down on globetrotting. She began traveling with newly emerging Black professional women’s clubs, offering to help first-timers get into the scene. She started a tradition of going someplace new on her birthday, and the trips became more adventurous as the years went on. In 1974 she celebrated her 80th birthday in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. “My legs say they want to stop, but my heart and head say, ‘Keep going,’ and so I do.” She followed that birthday bash with one in Copenhagen and a gambling trip to Beirut. In 1977 she spent her 83rd birthday in Athens.
There, Major raised a glass to toast friends in Spanish: “Salud, felicidad, pesetas, y tiempo pan gastador.” (To health, happiness, wealth, and time to enjoy them.) It was classic Gerri Major, said Gill. “She could be the fullness of this fabulous, cosmopolitan Black woman that she couldn’t be in the U.S.” Sadly, her health was failing. Major hoped to make one last trip, to China, but couldn’t get a visa. “They told me they had no accommodations for a wheelchair,” she said. As she later explained, it was only when “my body couldn’t keep up with my mind” that she stopped traveling. Major died of a stroke in 1984.