There’s a scene in the movie “Green Book,” when Don Shirley, a Jamaican American classically trained pianist, and his white chauffeur, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, climb into a blue Cadillac before setting out on a 1962 concert tour that would take them through a still-segregated United States, including potentially treacherous stops in the Midwest and the Deep South.
Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) slides in the back seat. Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) takes the driver’s seat, prepared to leave New York for an eight-week tour. But before they hit the road, a manager slips Vallelonga a “Green Book,” explaining quickly that black people can’t stay everywhere and that the guide might help the chauffeur find accommodations for Shirley.
The chauffeur glances at the cover of the Green Book and tosses it on the passenger’s seat.
Despite the movie’s title, there are not many more references in the movie to the guide that was essential for black travelers in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when segregation was in full force in the United States.
And the movie, nominated for an Oscar for best picture Tuesday, has been tarnished by allegations of sexual harassment against director Peter Farrelly and the surfacing of racist tweets by co-screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga.
But the history remains important.
The Green Book, which was initially called “The Negro Motorist Green-Book” when it was first published in 1936, became so vital to black travelers that thousands would not make plans without it. The information listed in the Green Book — hotels, motels, cafes and restaurants that welcomed black people — could literally mean life or death for black travelers.
Black travelers who ended up in the wrong place, wrong hotel, wrong street or wrong town were sometimes beaten, shot, pulled from their cars and dragged out of town. A wrong turn could lead to an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. Bad timing or bad information could lead a driver into a “sundown town,” cities, towns and communities across the country where African Americans were not permitted after nightfall. Some of those towns had warning signs at their borders: “N-----, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You.”
“Sundown towns were throughout the country; they were everywhere, even on Route 66,” Candacy Taylor, a Harvard fellow and cultural documentarian working on a project about the Green Book, told The Washington Post.
“When you have that reality, you need a guide. You need something to tell you where you could stay that was safe. … There were lynchings still happening.”
In 1936, Victor H. Green, a postal worker who lived in Harlem with his wife, Alma, encountered discrimination during a car trip. Green decided to begin publishing “The Negro Motorist Green-Book.”
“Just What You Have Been Looking For!!” Green wrote in the first edition. “Now We Can Travel Without Embarrassment.”
The Green Book was not just for travel through the South or Midwest but also printed listings in the West and in Northern cities where segregation and discrimination were also common.
The first Green Book documented safe places in metropolitan New York. It listed hotels, tourist homes, service stations, restaurants, garages, taxicabs, beauty parlors, barbershops, tailors, drugstores, taverns, nightclubs and funeral homes that welcomed black people at a time in the country when it was legal for establishments to discriminate based on race.
The response to the first guide was so great that the next issue went national, offering listings across the United States. Over the years, the price varied — some cost 75 cents, others $1.50. Salespeople helped distribute the copies. Customers could also order the guidebook in Green’s Harlem office.
“If you’re traveling you don’t have to worry about accommodations — whether this place will take you in or that place will sell you food. That is if you’re white and gentile. If you’re not, you have to travel a careful route like seeking oases in a desert,” an ad in the 1949 edition of the Green Book said.
Except during World War II, the Green Book guide was published annually until 1967, three years after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, said Maira Liriano. She is the associate chief librarian at the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is part of New York Public Library. Twenty-two Green Books have been digitized there. (The 1966-67 issue is not digitized because of copyright concerns. But the library has a physical copy.)
“After the Civil Rights Act is passed, you can’t discriminate on race,” Liriano told The Post. “African Americans could go to any hotel and restaurant and couldn’t be turned away. Once it was the law of land, the Green Book was not necessary.”
The Schomburg has the largest collection of Green Books in the country. “There are other guides,” Liriano said. “But none were published as long as the Green Book.” The “Hackley & Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers: Board, Rooms, Garage Accommodations, etc. in 300 Cities in the United States and Canada” was published twice, in 1930 and 1931.
In the 1949 edition of the Green Book, Wendell P. Alston, a special representative to Esso Standard Oil Co., which became a major distributor of the Green Book, explained just how crucial the Green Book was for African American travelers.
For most travelers, Alston wrote, “there are hotels of all sizes and classes, waiting and competing for their patronage. Pleasure resorts in the mountains and at the sea shore beckon him. Roadside Inns and cabins spot the highways and all are available if he has the price.”
But for black travelers, many of those facilities were simply unavailable.
“The Negro traveler’s inconveniences are many, and they are increasing because today so many more are traveling, individually and in groups,” Alston wrote. The ranks of black travelers, he said, included musicians, entertainers, students, teachers and business executives.
The Green Book offered a way to sidestep danger and humiliation, listing hotels and businesses from New York City to Birmingham, Ala.
In the movie “Green Book,” one of the first stops Shirley and his chauffeur make is in Kentucky. The movie shows the chauffeur pulling over at a roadside Kentucky Fried Chicken, then sharing a bucket with Shirley, who professes not to know how to eat fried chicken without a knife and fork.
If they were looking at a 1962 edition Green Book, they would have found very few listings for eating establishments and hotels in Kentucky that welcomed black people.
If they stopped in Bowling Green, Ky., they would have found only one hotel advertised for black patrons: the Hotel Southern Queen on State Street, Hwy 31.
Had they traveled to Elizabethtown, they could have stayed in the only place listed: the home of Mrs. B. Tyler on Niles Street.
In Lexington, there were four listings that would have accommodated Shirley: The Greystone Motel on Race Street; the Huggins Service Center; the home of Mrs. K. Wallace; and the home of Mrs. Nancy Griffin.
In Louisville, the Green Book listed nine options for black travelers: the Brown Derby Lounge; Elite Tavern & Grill; Frank’s Service Station; Hook’s Hotel; Mickey’s Bar & Grill; the Allen Hotel; Turner’s Drive; and the YMCA or YWCA.
Green, the founder of the Green Book, longed for a country where the listings would be unnecessary.
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” Green wrote in one introduction. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.”
Green died in 1960, four years before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which included a prohibition against discrimination in public accommodations.
Read more Retropolis: