Question of the Month
The Negro Motorist Green Book
Q: I am writing a paper on the Negro Green Book Traveling Guide. Do you have a copy of the Green Book in your museum?
--Stan Delton - Salina, Kansas
A: Imagine this scenario. An African American couple is traveling from Pensacola, Florida to San Francisco, California. As night approaches, they stop in Shreveport, Louisiana, to get lodging at a local motel. They enter the motel, tired, but excited about their prospective vacationing days under the California sun. As soon as they enter, the white clerk informs them, "We don't serve your kind here." The black couple, angry and embarrassed, get back into their car. They drive around Shreveport, until they see a hotel which is part of a national chain. Once inside, they are told, "Get your black asses out of here before I call the police." On the rest of their drive, through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, they are rebuffed at hotels and motels, sometimes politely, sometimes rudely. Each night, exhausted, they pull their car into a secluded area and sleep.
Today, the experiences of the African American couple would make national news. Their story would be discussed on the major television networks. The Internet account of their ordeal would "trend." Civil rights and human rights activists would retrace the couple's steps, protesting at and in the motels and hotels. Most, though certainly not all, Americans would say that the story was not true, could not be true-hopefully was not true-because these raw examples of racism rarely happen in contemporary society. Some book publisher would offer to pay for their story. The fact that their story would be national news is one measure of the progress that this nation has made.
Unfortunately, those African Americans who lived during the Jim Crow period often faced scenarios like the one described above. To have dark skin in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, even into the 1960s, meant that you were routinely denied accommodations in hotels, restaurants, and gas stations. And, if you protested these affronts to your dignity, you risked being jailed, beaten, and in some cases, killed.
So, if you were black and fortunate enough to have an automobile, what you needed was a guide to tell you which hotels, camping grounds, and restaurants would serve you. One of the best known guides was The Negro Motorist Green Book (later known as The Negro Travelers' Green Book), published from 1936 to 1966, by Victor Hugo Green. Green was an African American resident of Harlem. By trade he was a postal employee, by mission he was a business-minded civic leader.
In the 1930s, Green began to collect information on businesses in New York that accepted black customers. His first guide, published in 1936, only included information for Metropolitan New York, but later editions included information on other cities and towns. His book was especially useful because it included information about "tourist homes," which were homes whose owners rented out rooms to travelers. Obviously, this was useful information for those African Americans who wanted to avoid the experience described in the first paragraph of this article.
Green had found both a need in the African American community and a personal calling. In the first paragraph of the 1949 edition, he succinctly summarized his mission:
"With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable."
Green created a publishing office in Harlem. 15,000 copies of the book were published annually. He created a Vacation Reservation Service to book reservations at black-owned establishments. By 1949 the guide included destinations in Bermuda, Mexico and Canada. In 1952 Green changed the name to The Negro Travelers' Green Book. For the next decade and a half, the book was popular with African American travelers. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964-which outlawed, among other things, racial discrimination by facilities that serve the general public-made The Negro Travelers' Green Book less necessary for African Americans.
Today, there is renewed interest in The Negro Travelers' Green Book. I believe that much of this interest is related to scholarly curiosity about Jim Crow attitudes, values, norms, and behavior.
To answer your question, no, the Jim Crow Museum does not have a hard copy of The Negro Travelers' Green Book, though I hasten to add that if you know someone who wants to donate it to the museum please encourage them to do so. It would be an important teaching tool. To this time, we make use of copies of the book found on the Internet. Here is a link to a 1949 edition of the book: http://www.autolife.umd.umich.edu/Race/R_Casestudy/87_135_1736_GreenBk.pdf. It is a fairly long document; therefore, it will take a minute or so to download. Good luck with your research.
Dr. David Pilgrim
Curator / Jim Crow Museum