The Negro Motorist Green Book: Looking back to a time when Blacks had no choice but to support Black business

For almost three decades beginning in 1936, many African-American travelers relied on a booklet to help them decide where they could comfortably eat, sleep, buy gas, find a tailor or beauty parlor, shop on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls, or go out at night. In 1949, when the guide was 80 pages, there were five recommended hotels in Atlanta. In Cheyenne, Wyo., the Barbeque Inn was the place to stay.

A Harlem postal employee and civic leader named Victor H. Green conceived the guide in response to one too many accounts of humiliation or violence where discrimination continued to hold strong. These were facts of life not only in the Jim Crow South, but in all parts of the country, where black travelers never knew where they would be welcome. Over time its full title — “The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide” — became abbreviated, simply, as the “Green Book.” Those who needed to know about it knew about it. To much of the rest of America it was invisible, and by 1964, when the last edition was published, it slipped through the cracks into history.

Until he met a friend’s elderly father-in-law at a funeral a few years ago, the Atlanta writer Calvin Alexander Ramsey had never heard of the guide. But he knew firsthand the reason it existed. During his family trips between Roxboro, N.C., and Baltimore, “we packed a big lunch so my parents didn’t have to worry about having to stop somewhere that might not serve us,” recalled Mr. Ramsey, who is now 60.

He is among the writers, artists, academics and curators returning a spotlight to the guide and its author, emblematic as it was of a period when black Americans — especially professionals, salesmen, entertainers and athletes — were increasingly on the move for work, play and family visits.

In addition to hotels, the guide often pointed them to “tourist homes,” privates residences made available by their African-American owners. Mr. Ramsey has written a play, “The Green Book,” about just such a home, in Jefferson City, Mo., where a black military officer and his wife and a Jewish Holocaust survivor all spend the night just before W. E. B. DuBois is scheduled to deliver a speech in town. The play will inaugurate a staged-reading series on Sept. 15 at the restored Lincoln Theater in Washington, itself once a fixture of that city’s “black Broadway” on U Street.

Historians of travel have recognized that the great American road trip — seen as an ultimate sign of freedom — was not that free for many Americans, including those who had to worry about “sunset laws” in towns where black visitors had to be out by day’s end.

Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a co-sponsor of “The Green Book” play reading, said the presence of the guide into the 1960s pointed out that at the same time people were countering segregation with sit-ins, the need to cope with everyday life remained.

He added: “The ‘Green Book’ tried to provide a tool to deal with those situations. It also allowed families to protect their children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which they might be thrown out or not permitted to sit somewhere. It was both a defensive and a proactive mechanism.”

Although Victor Green’s initial edition only encompassed metropolitan New York, the “Green Book” soon expanded to Bermuda (white dinner jackets were recommended for gentlemen), Mexico and Canada. The 15,000 copies Green eventually printed each year were sold as a marketing tool not just to black-owned businesses but to the white marketplace, implying that it made good economic sense to take advantage of the growing affluence and mobility of African Americans. Esso stations, unusual in franchising to African Americans, were a popular place to pick one up.

Green wrote in his book’s introduction, adding, “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.”

The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and Mr. Green ceased publication.

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3 Comments

  • Rounduprussy

    Reply Reply August 23, 2010

    This is DOPE.. I think its a great idea to map out local black owned businesses in your own neighborhood and see how far you can integrate them in your daily/weekly life.

  • thelma

    Reply Reply August 31, 2010

    Some years ago there used to be a “Black Pages” version of White Pages that provided listings of black businesses.

  • Danny

    Reply Reply September 12, 2010

    Another good history lesson. And with 75% white population and 13% black, serves to let us know we have come a long way. Also serves to remind us we should be thankful that most blacks and whites want all types of crime to end.

    But too many powerful and affluent, both blacks and whites, want crime to grow for profits. Billions in revenue to be had to provide products and services for criminals. Those evil groups, made up of blacks and whites, are the evil that serves to divide instead of unite blacks and whites. Done for greed, influence, power. Possible because we have so many poor, dumb, and needy because of the many and varied systems in place that enable criminal production. We, blacks and whites, allowed this. We are the enablers of the enablers of criminal production.

    Let’s be even more thankful that 100% of blacks and whites do not become criminals. Consider if 100% of blacks and whites became criminals. With 75% white and 13% black population ratio, and both sides with no morals, it would be a very bad thing for blacks. It could become like things are in Africa today for many blacks. Where blacks kidnap, torture, kill, and enslave other blacks. Where a variation of “The Negro Motorists Handbook” black travel guide is still used to escape horrid abuse by blacks.

    Actually we still have similar travel guides throughout the US. There are certain places blacks and whites just don’t go because of their race, or because of the level of crime regardless of your race, or because of gang warfare, or because of large communities of street dwellers.

    Have a safe trip to the voting station.

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