The Traveling Friends have visited every continent but Antarctica (it's too cold), all 50 states, and several countries. All are senior citizens; several are in their 90s. The organization has now grown to 21 members.
In 1988, Bunia Baxter, Thelma Arbor and Lucille McCall attended their 40-year class reunion as recently-retired educators. A conversation on the walk to their cars about traveling turned into a 28-year-old traveling organization called Traveling Friends.
They are still traveling — now with even more friends.
“We had all recently retired from our jobs as educators when we attended the 40-year reunion, and we were all talking about what we are going to do now that we are retired,” said Baxter, who is in her 90s but still as active as ever.
“Thelma suggested that we take a trip, and everyone agreed. I had recently won airfare for anywhere I wanted to go with three stops on American Airlines from a scratch off game I played on the plane during a trip to California. The ladies said they will go anywhere I chose, so I started planning the trip.
In September 1989, they took a trip to the Cayman Islands with eight classmates and eight friends. When they arrived at Puerto Rico, they were greeted by Hurricane Hugo, so they had to grab a taxi and head the airport, where they were all scattered on different flights. They all eventually met again in Atlanta.
“That was some trip, but we didn't let that stop us,” Baxter said.
The next year the ladies went on a Hawaiian cruise, and in 1991, they took an Amtrak trip to Seattle, Victoria Canada, San Francisco and Las Vegas. They took a trip every year that followed, and in between out of state trips they would have what Baxter called “fun weekends,” where they would go to different concerts and shows within the state.
“We decided since we were going on trips we would form an organization,” Baxter said. “We decided on the name 'Traveling Educators' since all of us were retired educators. But as more people started to travel with us and join the organization (they) were from other industries. We changed the name to 'Traveling Friends,' derived from the African slogan Warefete Wasafari. We decided our dues would be one dollar a month — 12 dollars a year. There are only five living charter members; Lucille McCall, secretary, Gladys Davis, vice president, Thelma Arbor, Lois Meekins, me as president, and nothing has changed.”
The Traveling Friends have visited every continent but Antarctica (it's too cold), all 50 states, and several countries. All are senior citizens; several of whom, like Baxter, are in their 90s. Baxter said the charter members have made every trip, with maybe the exception of one or two. The organization has now grown to 21 members.
The members include: Dorothy Chapman-Brown, Bobbie McCombs, Sandra Harris, Ruth Lee, Sandra McAllister, Evelyn Ross, Catherine Smith, Reola Smith, Nina Stagger, Marinda Turner, Pamela Wade, Ezerene Williams. They meet once a month, with each member taking turns in alphabetical order hosting the group.I love this group of women. This is an amazing thing that you all have started, and it keeps getting better and better. It's so good that even the men want to jump on the bus with us now. Bobbie McCombs
The organization's most recent adventure was a nine-day, eight-night trip to the African American Museum in Washington D.C. Baxter said they usually like to travel with a group of no more than 30, but they have had groups as large as 55 people. The Washington trip in September was a group of 88 requiring two charter buses rather than one.
“You'll look out onto the bus and it will be so many people it looked like they would never all get off,” Baxter said.
Brown, a recent member who was responsible for the second bus of friends, said she has been traveling with the organization for years, and after receiving the trust of the members to put together a second group for another bus to Washington, she felt that it was important to make her membership official.
“This is an awesome group of ladies,” Brown said. “They have great ideas and goals. I missed the deadline to pay for the Washington trip, and Mrs. Baxter told me that their bus was full, so if I wanted to go I had to get a second bus, so that's what I did. I got a group of 40 people together, and I am still so thankful for the people that agreed to go and for the members who trusted me to organize things the right way. I knew that I needed to become a member if I was going to ask 40 people to come join us on the trip, so I became a member. I can't invite someone to my house if it's not my house.”
McCombs, who hosted October's meeting, thanked the charter members for what they created.
“I love this group of women,” McCombs said. “This is an amazing thing that you all have started, and it keeps getting better and better. It's so good that even the men want to jump on the bus with us now.”
Baxter said that in their early traveling years, they could never get their husbands to join them on the trips.
“They didn't want to go but we didn't care because we were going regardless,” she said. “One year one of the ladies got her husband to go, she told him that there would be a male bus driver so he would have company, but that particular year we got on the bus and the bus driver was a woman. This last trip we had eight or nine men to accompany us.”
Baxter said that in their 28 years of travels they have never seen another African American female travel group. Outside of their name having African origins, they also take heritage trips – making a circle around the southern states.
“The group will say, let's go and see, and I'll start planning or get a travel agent – that's how we decide where we're going to go next,” Baxter said.
Their next trip scheduled is their annual Christmas getaway in December. They will be traveling Cordova, Tennessee, to the singing Christmas Tree and to Nashville to visit the Gaylord Resort.
Baxter said she remembers one instance in baggage claim in the Atlanta airport during their first year of traveling when a group of people passing said, ”look at those old ladies.”
“We just laughed because we had just retired and we were active, we weren't old — at least we didn't feel like it,” Baxter said. “A lot of us are in our 90s now. We have had a lot of members die or leave the group because of illness, but we're still growing and we're still going. We have been blessed to have traveled this long and with no problems on the trip. I don't know when we will stop. We'll just take it day by day and month by month.”