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In the 1930s, a Sunday drive in the country was the hallmark of a white middle-class lifestyle. When school was out for the summer, parents would pile their children into the car for a visit with relatives further afield. Or to lie on a beach in a resort town.
African Americans also felt the pull of the open road. But for them, a cloud hung over the prospect.
“This cloud rarely troubles us in the mornings, but as the afternoon wears on it casts a shadow of apprehension on our hearts and sours us a little,” Alfred Edgar Smith wrote in the National Urban League publication “Opportunity” in 1933.
‘‘’Where,’ it asks us, ‘will you stay tonight?’”
On many roads, the answer was: Not here. “We Cater To White Trade Only,” a sign at one Ohio restaurant announced. A banner hanging over a Main Street in Texas declared: “The Blackest Land. The Whitest People.”
Even so, Smith reasoned, there had to be doors that would open to Black travelers. “If we just knew where they were, what a world of new confidence would be ours.”
A New Jersey letter carrier, Victor Hugo Green, answered Smith’s prayer with the 1937 publication of “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” (Green established it in 1936, but there is no evidence of a 1936 edition.)
Green drew inspiration from the Jewish community’s response to an experience Jewish Americans and African Americans shared: Half-filled restaurants would turn them away by saying: “We’re expecting a large group.” Hotel reservations would be canceled when a desk clerk would see the face that went with the name.
“The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted,” Green wrote. His book took a different tack: It listed accommodations accepting Black travelers.
Initially, the Green Book focused on New York. Its next edition, in 1938, listed about a dozen Chicago hotels, among them the Ritz and Grand, and two YMCAs, all in Black neighborhoods. In 1941, the list added tourist rooms — families that took in paying guests — and the Palm Tavern on 47th Street where jazz great Duke Ellington performed and novelist Richard Wright hung out.
Subsequent editions expanded the Green Book’s coverage to include more of the U.S. and also included guidance on travel to and accommodations in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.
Segregated U.S. Army units had fought in France during World War I. American Black soldiers were celebrated as heroes by the French for winning a battle that saved them from defeat.
“We know a number of our race who have a long standing love affair with the tempestuous city of Paris,” a Green Book writer reported. “Their hearts have lingered there long after they have returned home.”
Over the Green Book’s run, which saw no publication during World War II and ended with a 1966-67 edition, the guide transformed travel for African Americans from worrisome and dangerous to relaxing and enjoyable.
The automobile freed Black people from the indignity of segregated trains and buses. And the Green Book saved them from anxiety when pulling up to a motel or drive-in restaurant. Black musicians who made a living on the road, however, couldn’t always avoid such pitfalls.
Ellington, a successful composer and bandleader, could afford to rent a private railroad car that exempted his band — but Mahalia Jackson had to endure the precariousness of driving while Black.
The famed gospel singer traveled the rocky roads that connected her Chicago home with performance venues in Jim Crow America.
“Teen-age white girls who were serving as car hops would come bouncing out to the car and stop dead when they saw we were Negroes, spin around without a word and walk away,” Jackson wrote in her autobiography.
“It got so we were living on bags of fresh fruit during the day and driving half the night and I was so exhausted by the time I was supposed to sing I was almost dizzy.”
In her book “Driving While Black,” Gretchen Sorin recalls a family excursion in her childhood to Niagara Falls. Her father booked a room in a nearby motel. Yet despite the reservation, she sensed his uneasiness getting out of the car.
“My brother and I, sitting in the back seat, did not know there was a chance we could be turned away by the establishment,” Sorin wrote.
“But our father returned smiling. He need not have worried; with fair skin and wavy hair, his racial identity was quite ambiguous.”
The Green Book spared other children some of the shocks of racism. As did Standard Oil’s progressive merchandising.
One of the first corporations to recognize the Black community’s buying power, it made James Jackson its “representative to the race” in 1934. Jackson, who was the first African American bank clerk in Chicago, was the U.S. Commerce Department’s adviser on Black affairs when Standard Oil hired him. He committed his employer to buying 5,000 copies of the Green Book. In turn, Green gave Esso’s gas stations, a Standard Oil subsidiary, his endorsement.
A Green Book article urged: “Use Esso Products and Esso Services where ever you find the Esso sign.”
Similar distribution arrangements were made with the U.S. Travel Bureau, private travel agencies and resorts. That gave the Green Book an annual circulation of 20,000 copies at its height, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In 1952, Green retired from the U.S. Postal Service. It had nurtured his guidebook, as the civil rights leader Julian Bond explained to NPR in 2010:
“He was part of the Postal Workers Union, and there are postal workers everywhere. And he used them as guides to tell him: Well, here’s a good place, a good place there.”
The Green Book’s writers also gained helpful advice from people like Nellie Bass, whose brother established the Piney Woods Country Life School.
Bass booked rooms for the school’s famed student performers — the Cotton Blossom Singers and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm — who appeared at fundraisers for the Mississippi boarding school in towns that had neither a motel or tourist homes open to Black people.
In his final years, Green dealt with health issues, and his wife, Alma, took charge of their enterprises, including a travel agency. When he died in 1960, air travel was booming, and because it was regulated by the federal government, airlines couldn’t openly discriminate. Yet Black travelers might be confronted by Jim Crow upon landing. Washrooms were segregated in some Southern airports.
It was apparent, however, that the Green Book’s shelf life was limited. Bond and other activists were forcing the government’s hand. Freedom Riders refused to sit in the back of the bus. Sponsored by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Southern Democrat, and supported by Northern Republicans, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination in public accommodations.
“Gone are the nightmares of yesterday’s travel for Negroes,” the New York Amsterdam News wrote in 1966.
That same year, the final issue of the Green Book was printed.
Victor Hugo Green might not have mourned its passing, had he lived to see it. In the introduction to his book from 1948 to 1951, he predicted:
“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 wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”