2018-02-10 / Features

Booklet guided black travelers through segregation

BY ANGELINE BROWN
SPECIAL TO THE C-T

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. 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 whereever we please, and without physical harm and/or embarrassment.”

That was how the authors of the “Negro Motorist Green Book” ended the introduction to the 1948 edition. In the pages that followed they provided a rundown of hotels, guest houses, service stations, drugstores, taverns, barber shops and restaurants that were known to be safe ports of call for African- American travelers. The Green Book listed establishments in segregationist strongholds such as Alabama and Mississippi, but its reach also extended from Connecticut to California – any place where its readers might face prejudice and danger because of their skin color. With Jim Crow still looming over much of the country, a motto on the guide’s cover also doubled as a warning: “Carry your Green Book with you – You may need it.”


Hotels and other “safe” businesses for black travelers were listed in a directory published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green. 
SUBMITTED Hotels and other “safe” businesses for black travelers were listed in a directory published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green. SUBMITTED First published in 1936, the Green Book was the brainchild of a Harlem postal carrier named Victor Hugo Green. Like most African-Americans in the mid-20th century, Green had grown weary of the discrimination blacks faced whenever they ventured outside their neighborhoods. Rates of car ownership had exploded in the years before and after World War II, but the lure of the highway was also fraught with risk for African-Americans. “Whites only” policies meant that Black travelers couldn’t find safe places to eat and sleep and so called “Sundown Towns” – municipalities that banned blacks after dark – were scattered across the country.


The Green-Book, published by Victor Hugo Green, was a guide for black travelers during the days of segregation. 
SUBMITTED The Green-Book, published by Victor Hugo Green, was a guide for black travelers during the days of segregation. SUBMITTED Inspired by earlier books published for Jewish audiences, Green developed the guide to help black Americans indulge in travel without fear. The first edition of his Green Book only covered hotels and restaurants in the New York area, but he soon expanded its scope by gathering field reports from fellow postal carriers and offering cash payments to readers who sent in useful information. By the early 1940s, the Green Book boasted thousands of establishments across the country, all of them either black-owned or verified to be non-discriminatory.

The Green Book’s listings were organized by state and city, with the vast majority located in major metropolitan areas such as Chicago and Detroit. More remote places had few options – Alaska only had one entry in the 1960 guide – but even in cities with no black-friendly hotels, the book often listed the addresses of homeowners who were willing to rent rooms. In the 1954 Green Book, Durham listed one hotel, five restaurants, five beauty parlors, one barber shop, three taverns, seven service stations, two drug stores and five cleaners. Most of the largest cities in NC had black-friendly accommodations.

Thanks to a sponsorship deal with Standard Oil, the Green Book was available for purchase at Esso gas stations across the country. It eventually sold upward of 15,000 copies per year and was widely used by black business travelers and vacationers alike.

As its popularity grew, the Green Book expanded from a motorist companion to an international travel guide. Along with suggestions for the United States, later editions included information on airlines and cruise ship journeys to places like Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. The guide also offered travel tips and featured articles on certain cities. The 1949 edition placed the spotlight on Robbins, Illinois a town owned and operated by Negroes. In 1954, readers were encouraged to visit San Francisco, which was described as “fast becoming the focal point of the Negroes’ future.”

Victor Hugo Green died in 1960 after more than two decades of publishing his travel guide. His wife Alma took over as editor and continued to release the Green Book in updated editions for a few more years, but just as Green has once hoped, the march of progress eventually helped push it toward obsolescence. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act finally banned racial segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks and other public places. Just two years later, the Green Book quietly stopped publication after nearly 30 years in print.

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