Read The Negro Motorist Green Book: A Guide To Driving While Black During Jim Crow
America was a dangerous place when Jim Crow mandates ruled the land. Laws separated Blacks and whites, the KKK was alive and well, and lynchings were far too common. One white woman's lie even started the 1923 Rosewood Massacre - an event that completely destroyed the lives of many Black citizens. Racial discrimination after the Civil War was so severe and potentially life-threatening for Blacks that Victor Green developed a book that helped navigate the racist waters.
Green's original 1936 Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual pamphlet that focused on safe spaces in New York City, but it eventually expanded to include the whole country. The innovative work suggested travel destinations and establishments that weren't racist so that African Americans could avoid the danger and humiliation that were often (and sometimes still are) unfortunate realities of Black life in the United States.
The 'Green Book' Kept Black Drivers SafePhoto: Addison N. Scurlock / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Victor Green's Negro Motorist Green Book, also known as the Negro Traveler's Green Book or just the Green Book, was incredibly necessary. Segregation, discrimination, and Jim Crow laws were part of the national landscape and hardly any government forces sought to upset that balance. In 1925, the Chicago Tribune went so far as to warn Black Americans not to travel at all in order to help race relations, stating:
"We should be doing no service to the Negroes if we did not point out that (to a very large section of the white population) the presence of a Negro, however well behaved, among white bathers is an irritation. This may be a regrettable fact to the Negroes, but it is nevertheless a fact, and must be reckoned with... The Negroes could make a definite contribution to good race relationship by remaining away from beaches where their presence is resented."
Driving produced its own slew of problems, as many white Americans believed that people of color shouldn't be allowed the privilege. Black drivers were profiled and harassed for simply being on the roads. The guide offered ways to circumvent the "driving while Black" phenomenon.
The Book Remained In Publication Even After The Civil Rights Act
The annual Negro Motorist Travel Guide was published without fail from 1936 to 1967, except during WWII. It varied in price, ranging from 75 cents to almost two dollars and expanding from its initial 15 pages to 99 pages. It even covered some international travel destinations.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discriminations based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion illegal. In theory, it prevented any establishment from refusing to serve Black people. The Motorist Guide continued publication until three years after the Civil Rights Act legislation, however, proving that segregation was still a threat.
Green remained optimistic, though, noting:
"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 Book Cautioned About Establishments That Were Sympathetic To The KKKPhoto: Carol M. Highsmith / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
As lynchings and violence against Black people were common occurrences, especially in the South, the Negro Motorist Green Book offered helpful advice. It suggested that Black travelers avoid establishments along Route 66 if the letter K was mentioned in the business name. For example, the Kozy Kottage Kamp and the Klean Kountry Kottages only served white patrons.
Citizens From Every State Contributed To The BookPhoto: Ben Shahn / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Victor Green decided to widen the scope of his work because the first travel guide was so popular. He was able to get country-wide information about safe establishments as well as those that might be dangerous. Green also offered to pay people to submit information for the book; he wanted it to be comprehensive. By 1940, the Green Book referenced thousands of establishments across the country, all of them were either Black-owned or verified to be non-discriminatory.
As the book expanded, Green included letters and testimonials from travelers that visited his approved destinations. In one 1938 letter, New Jersey native William Smith offered praise for the book, calling it "a credit to the Negro Race... that will mean as much if not more to us as the AAA means to the white race."
The Book Helped Black People Find Accommodations Despite The Prevalence Of White-Only HotelsPhoto: Marion Post Wolcott / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Negro Motorist Green Book was arranged by state and city. It alphabetically listed hotels, restaurants, night clubs, taverns, barber shops, service stations, beauty parlors, and other necessary establishments that people of color may have wanted to visit when in unfamiliar territory. Hotels that accommodated Black people were usually some of the most sought after establishments. When no such hotels existed, the book mentioned homes that welcomed Black travelers.
For example, Boise, ID had one Black-friendly hotel and two tourist homes, but Battle Creek, MI had three tourist homes and no Black-friendly hotels at all.
The Book Reminded Black People About Sundown CitiesPhoto: James Loewen / Amazon
One major challenge that Black people faced when traveling was a "sundown city" or a "sundown town." These were all-white locations where Blacks were not permitted after sundown. Some towns would enact violence on Black motorists that traversed the unfriendly territory, posting signs that warned, "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On You." The Green Book included information about sundown cities and warned readers about which ones were especially malevolent.