In the 1930s, the freedom of the open road beckoned, but for African Americans traveling in the Jim Crow era, highways could be fraught with peril.
Stopping at the wrong roadside diner could lead to discrimination and “embarrassments.” Running out of gas on a highway could lead to an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. Making a bad turn into a “sundown town” — where African Americans were not permitted after dark — could lead to a lynching. Some of those towns constructed signs at their borders warning, “N—–, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You.”
“It was life or death for black travelers,” said Candacy Taylor, a Harvard fellow and cultural documentarian working on a project about what was first known as “The Negro Motorist Green-Book.”
“Sundown towns were throughout the country; they were everywhere. Even on Route 66. When you have that reality, you need a guide. You need something to tell you where you could stay that was safe,” said Taylor, who began working on the “Green Book” project after visiting a Route 66 museum and seeing a Green Book tucked under a glass case in the corner.
Travel was dangerous in the South, but it was perilous in the rest of the country, too. “Segregation was still in full force, but there were fewer signs,” said Taylor, who is retracing Green Book destinations and creating an interactive map. “There were lynchings still happening,” including people beaten or tied to the bumper of a car and dragged out of town. “There were horrific things that happened to black people.”
In 1936, Victor H. Green, a postal worker who lived in Harlem with his wife, Alma, encountered discrimination during a car trip. He decided to begin publishing “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” a guide for black travelers to help them reach their destinations safely.
“Just What You Have Been Looking For!!” he wrote. “Now We Can Travel Without Embarrassment.”
The first guidebook 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 by 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-New York Public Library, where 22 Green Books in the collection have been digitized. (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 said. “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.
The “Go Guide to Pleasant Motoring” was first published in 1952 in Washington by Andrew F. Jackson. The Schomburg has issues of the “Go Guide” through 1965.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture features an interactive exhibit on the Green Book, which allows visitors to experience how African Americans used to travel.
In the 1949 edition, Wendell P. Alston, a special representative to Esso Standard Oil Co., which became a major distributor of the Green Book, wrote an introduction.
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 simple 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.
But from the late 1800s into the 1960s, many states imposed “Jim Crow” laws, forbidding people of different races from mingling. The laws, which were named after a minstrel show character, required business owners to separate the black and white people they served.
In Alabama, all bus stations were required to have separate ticket counters and separate waiting rooms, according to the National Park Service. Toilet facilities were segregated; so were passenger trains. Restaurants were forbidden from serving black and white people in the same room, unless they were separated by partitions “from the floor upward to the distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment.”
In Georgia, restaurant owners were required to sell to white people exclusively or black people exclusively “and shall not sell to the two races within the same room or serve the two races anywhere under the same license.”
In Louisiana, the ticket counters at circuses were required to be segregated. Black and white circus-goers could not enter a circus tent under the same entrance.
In Oklahoma, even telephone booths were required to be divided by race. The state also segregated fishing, boating and bathing facilities.
In South Carolina, lunch counter owners were forbidden from serving meals to “white and colored” customers in the same room, or at the same table, or at the same counter.
In Virginia, anyone operating a public hall, theater, opera house or motion picture show was required to separate white people from the “colored race.”
In an Aug. 29, 1925 editorial, the Chicago Tribune wrote that the presence of black swimmers “however well behaved, among white bathers is an irritation.” The newspaper suggested that “Negroes could make a definite contribution to good race relations by remaining away from beaches where their presence is resented.”
During the Jim Crow era, Klansmen often patrolled dark roads and could “literally get away with murder,” Julian Bond wrote in a report entitled “Ku Klux Klan; A History of Racism and Violence” for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Green Book offered a way to sidestep danger and humiliation, listing hotels and businesses from New York City to Birmingham, Ala.
In Kansas City, the Cadillac Hotel offered “hot and cold water in every room for reasonable prices.” A half-page ad for the Edison Hotel in San Francisco promised it was open 24 hours a day, featured a coffee shop and cocktail lounge, and was “fireproof–Class A.”
In Washington, the nightclubs listed included Republic Gardens, Club Bali and Club Caverns.
The guide included upcoming national conventions and articles on “Safe Driving Rules” and “What to Wear in Bermuda.”
“The tone was positive,” Liriano said.
“Why don’t you Advertise? Everybody reads the Green Book,” Green wrote. But he also longed for a country where his guide wouldn’t be needed.
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” he 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.
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