The Green Book: The Black Travelers’ Guide to Jim Crow America

The Green Book: The Black Travelers’ Guide to Jim Crow America

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“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.”

That was how the authors of the “Negro Motorist Green Book” ended the introduction to their 1948 edition. In the pages that followed, they provided a rundown of hotels, guest houses, service stations, drug stores, 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 or 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.”

First published in 1936, the Green Book was the brainchild of a Harlem-based postal carrier named Victor Hugo Green. Like most Africans 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 interstate was also fraught with risk for African Americans. “Whites Only” policies meant that black travelers often 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. As the foreword of the 1956 edition of the Green Book noted, “the White traveler has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different.”

READ MORE: Was Jim Crow A Real Person?

Inspired by earlier books published for Jewish audiences, Green developed a 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 from across the country, all of them either black-owned or verified to be non-discriminatory. The 1949 guide encouraged hungry motorists passing through Denver to stop for a bite at the Dew Drop Inn. Those looking for a bar in the Atlanta area were told to try the Yeah Man, Sportsman’s Smoke Shop or Butler’s. In Richmond, Virginia, Rest-a-Bit was the go-to spot for a ladies’ beauty parlor.

The Green Book’s listings were organized by state and city, with the vast majority located in major metropolises such as Chicago and Detroit. More remote places had fewer options—Alaska only had a lone entry in the 1960 guide—but even in cities with no black-friendly hotels, the book often listed the addresses of home owners who were willing to rent rooms. In 1954, it suggested that visitors to tiny Roswell, New Mexico, should stay at the home of a Mrs. Mary Collins.

READ MORE: How Freedom Rider Diane Nash Risked Her Life to Desegregate the South

The Green Book wasn’t the only handbook for black travelers—another publication called “Travelguide” was marketed with tagline “Vacation and Recreation Without Humiliation”—but it was by far the most popular. Thanks to a sponsorship deal with Standard Oil, the Green Book was available for purchase at Esso gas stations across the country. Though largely unknown to whites, it eventually sold upwards of 15,000 copies per year and was widely used by black business travelers and vacationers alike. In his memoir “A Colored Man’s Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America,” Earl Hutchinson Sr. described purchasing a copy in preparation for a road trip he and his wife took from Chicago to California. “The ‘Green Book’ was the bible of every Negro highway traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s,” he wrote. “You literally didn’t dare leave home without it.”

As its popularity grew, the Green Book expanded from a motorists’ companion to an international travel guide. Along with suggestions for the United States, later editions included information on airline and cruise ship journeys to places like Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. “We know a number of our race who have a long standing love affair with the tempestuous city of Paris,” the 1962 Green Book noted. The guide also offered travel tips and feature articles on certain cities. The 1949 edition shined 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.”

In offering advice to its readers, the Green Book adopted a pleasant and encouraging tone. It usually avoided discussing racism in explicit terms—one article simply noted that “the Negro travelers’ inconveniences are many”—but as the years passed it began to champion the achievements of the civil rights movement. In one of its last editions in 1963-64, it included a special “Your Rights, Briefly Speaking” feature that listed state statutes related to discrimination in travel accommodations. “The Negro is only demanding what everyone else wants,” the article stressed, “what is guaranteed all citizens by the Constitution of the United States.”

READ MORE: The Silent Protest That Kick-Started the Civil Rights Movement

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 had 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 ceased publication after nearly 30 years in print.

The Movie Green Book Is Named for a Real Guide to Travel in a Segregated World. Its Real History Offers a Key Lesson for Today

T he object that provides the title for the new movie Green Book is a Jim Crow-era travel guide with extensive listings of hotels, restaurants, gas stations, shops and tourist facilities that welcomed black patronage. The book doesn&rsquot actually get much screen time, but one small moment in the film shines a light on an oft-forgotten truth about the history of segregation in the United States: this was not just a Southern problem.

The film tells a loose version of the true story of an unlikely friendship between Dr. Don Walbridge Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) &mdash an African-American polyglot, pianist and PhD &mdash and Frank Anthony Vallelonga, known as Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen), a nightclub bouncer. In 1962, Vallelonga was hired by Shirley&rsquos record label, Cadence Records, to serve as the musician&rsquos chauffeur and bodyguard during a tour, which included gigs in the Deep South. Despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which dismantled de jure segregation in public education, de jure and de facto segregation remained the order of the day in public accommodations throughout the nation. Consequently, while Vallelonga and the white members of the Don Shirley Trio, bassist Ken Fricker and cellist Juri Taht, had access to white mainstream public accommodations, Shirley remained confined by the limits of Jim Crow.

To assist him in navigating this racial landmine, Vallelonga was provided a copy of what was informally known as the Green Book. Vallelonga is primarily concerned with the logistics of travel in the segregated South, and that&rsquos where the movie spends most of its time, but The Green Book was a valuable safety resource for black travelers in every region of the country. In fact, its initial focus was New York City, where Shirley and Vallelonga both resided. As Shirley tells his chauffeur, he doesn&rsquot have to leave home in order to experience discrimination.

In 1930, New Yorker and social critic George Schuyler admonished those blacks &ldquowho could afford to do so&rdquo to &ldquopurchase an automobile as soon as possible in order to be free of discomfort, discrimination, segregation and insult,&rdquo which was part and parcel of public transportation. For certain, private motorists were shielded from public assault, police encounters notwithstanding &mdash but blacks in cars still had to navigate the public landmines of restrooms, lodgings and eateries.

Hence, Victor H. Green, an African American New York City mail carrier, first published The Negro Motorist Green-Book in 1936 to assist black motorists in finding safe public accommodations during their travels. Green&rsquos publication became the Bible of black travel guides and was published annually until 1966.

In the introduction to the 1949 edition, Green provided a historical overview of the first decade of the publication, noting that his ideas for his own publication had come from researching earlier African America travel guides that were out-of-print, as well as from the Jewish press, which &ldquoprovided information about places that are restricted,&rdquo and from &ldquonumerous publications that give the genteel whites all kinds of information.&rdquo Green&rsquos intended purpose for his guide was &ldquoto give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties [and] embarrassments.&rdquo Green admonished the black motorist to &ldquoKeep this guide in your car for ready reference.&rdquo

In a 2010 NPR interview, civil rights icon Julian Bond recalled the importance of the Green Book during trips with his family while growing up. “It didn’t matter where you went &mdash Jim Crow was everywhere then,” he stated, “and black travelers needed this badly. My family had a &lsquoGreen Book&rsquo when I was young, and used it to travel in the South to find out where we could stop to eat, where we could spend the night in a hotel or somebody’s home.&rdquo

It would be easy to assume that the Green Book was just a Southern travel guide. But Green made no assumption that black people would only need his help while traveling in the South. Not only did the book include information about international travel, it also contained listings about areas in the country where segregation was less visible but no less felt. Indeed, the 1936 edition of the book was a 15-page pamphlet that focused on locales in the New York metropolitan area &mdash where a substantial part of the book&rsquos audience would have lived.

Despite its multicultural and liberal reputation, New York City has a sordid racial history, which dates back to the colonial era.

As Brian Purnell and Jeanne Theoharis have described for the Washington Post, racial animus in the Big Apple began with the colonization of Native Americans and importing of enslaved Africans in the 17th century. Despite gradual emancipation, which ended slavery in the state by the 1830s, and a strong abolitionist movement to eradicate slavery in the South, racial equality continued to be withheld from blacks New Yorkers. With the New York economy &ldquowedded to slavery,&rdquo the years leading up to the Civil War were dominated by pro-slavery sentiment that lead to racial violence in the city in 1863 when Lincoln called for a mandatory draft.

After the Civil War, New York mirrored the South as &ldquoblack people . . . suffered from written and unwritten rules against racial mixing in marriage, public accommodations and housing.&rdquo New York maintained its policy of segregation during the decades following WWII by constructing &ldquohousing, parks, playgrounds, highways and bridges,&rdquo Purnell and Theoharis write, which &ldquoadhered to ethnic composition rules for urban planning,&rdquo leaving segregated neighborhoods and subsequently schools intact. In 1964, the year President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which ended segregation in public accommodations and banned employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin, a New York Times poll showed that most white people in New York City believed that &ldquothe Civil Rights Movement had gone too far&rdquo in granting black demands for racial equality.

Green made clear in the 1949 edition that he was optimistic about the future of the United States, if not the future of his book. &ldquoThere will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,&rdquo he wrote. &ldquoThat 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.&rdquo

The Green Book was discontinued shortly after its founder&rsquos 1960 death, following a 1966-1967 Vacation Guide edition. That issue featured a statement assuring its patrons that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was fact and not fiction. The struggle was finally over.

But race still matters in the United States. As the incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia &mdash not in the South &mdash demonstrated this year, the nation is still full of spaces like parks, swimming pools , golf courses, sidewalks, and parking lots that are not welcoming to black Americans. During that 2010 Julian Bond interview with NPR, a caller stated, &ldquoWell, I was thinking that this [The Green Book] might be a useful tool still today . . . because in some parts of the country, there are places where black people &hellip dare not go.&rdquo

Indeed, sixty years after The Green Book was discontinued, the search for black safety continues.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

How the Green Book Helped African-American Tourists Navigate a Segregated Nation

For black Americans traveling by car in the era of segregation, the open road presented serious dangers. Driving interstate distances to unfamiliar locales, black motorists ran into institutionalized racism in a number of pernicious forms, from hotels and restaurants that refused to accommodate them to hostile “sundown towns,” where posted signs might warn people of color that they were banned after nightfall.

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Paula Wynter, a Manhattan-based artist, recalls a frightening road trip when she was a young girl during the 1950s. In North Carolina, her family hid in their Buick after a local sheriff passed them, made a U-turn and gave chase. Wynter’s father, Richard Irby, switched off his headlights and parked under a tree. “We sat until the sun came up,” she says. “We saw his lights pass back and forth. My sister was crying my mother was hysterical.”

“It didn’t matter if you were Lena Horne or Duke Ellington or Ralph Bunche traveling state to state, if the road was not friendly or obliging,” says New York City-based filmmaker and playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey. With director and co-producer Becky Wible Searles, he interviewed Wynter for their forthcoming documentary about the visionary entrepreneur who set out to make travel easier and safer for African-Americans. Victor H. Green, a 44-year-old black postal carrier in Harlem, relied on his own experiences and on recommendations from black members of his postal service union for the inaugural guide bearing his name, The Negro Motorist Green-Book, in 1937. The 15-page directory covered Green’s home turf, the New York metropolitan area, listing establishments that welcomed blacks. The power of the guide, says Ramsey, also the author of a children’s book and a play focused on Green-Book history, was that it “created a safety net. If a person could travel by car—and those who could, did—they would feel more in control of their destiny. The Green-Book was what they needed.”

The Green-Book final edition, in 1966-67, filled 99 pages and embraced the entire nation and even some international cities. The guide pointed black travelers to places including hotels, restaurants, beauty parlors, nightclubs, golf courses and state parks. (The 1941 edition above resides in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.)

Mail carriers, Ramsey explains, were uniquely situated to know which homes would accommodate travelers they mailed reams of listings to Green. And black travelers were soon assisting Green—submitting suggestions, in an early example of what today would be called user-generated content. Another of Green’s innovations prefigured today’s residential lodging networks like Airbnb, his guide listed private residences where black travelers could stay safely. Indeed, it was an honor to have one’s home listed as a rooming house in the Green-Book, though the listings themselves were minimalist: “ANDALUSIA (Alabama) TOURIST HOMES: Mrs. Ed. Andrews, 69 N. Cotton Street.”

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This story is a selection from the April issue of Smithsonian magazine

The Green-Book was indispensable to black-owned businesses. For historians, says Smithsonian curator Joanne Hyppolite, the listings offer a record of the “rise of the black middle class, and in particular, of the entrepreneurship of black women.”

In 1952, Green retired from the postal service to become a full-time publisher. He charged enough to make a modest profit󈟩 cents for the first edition, $1 for the last—but he never became rich. “It was really all about helping,” says Ramsey. At the height of its circulation, Green printed 20,000 books annually, which were sold at black churches, the Negro Urban League and Esso gas stations.

Writing in the 1948 edition, Green predicted, “There will be a day 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.” He died in 1960, four years before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

Green’s lasting influence, says Ramsey, “was showing the way for the next generation of black entrepreneurs.” Beyond that, he adds, “Think about asking people to open their homes to people traveling—just the beauty of that alone. Some folks charged a little, but many didn’t charge anything.”

Today, filmmaker Ric Burns is working on his own Green-Book documentary. “This project began with historian Gretchen Sorin, who knows more than anyone about the Green-Book,” says Burns. The film, he says, shows the open road as a place of “shadows, conflicts and excruciating circumstances.”

Washington, D.C.-based architectural historian Jennifer Reut, who created the blog “Mapping the Green Book” in 2011, travels the country to document surviving Green-Book sites, such as Las Vegas, Nevada’s Moulin Rouge casino and hotel, and the La Dale Motel in Los Angeles. Much of her focus, she says, is to look at places “in the middle of nowhere. That is where it was much more dangerous for people to go.”

About Jacinda Townsend

Jacinda Townsend is an author and a former broadcast journalist and lawyer. Her first novel is called Saint Monkey, and excerpts of her forthcoming second novel, Kif, have appeared in various literary magazines. She teaches creative writing at the University of California Davis.

‘Green Book’ Helped Keep African Americans Safe on the Road

In Soul Food Junkies, filmmaker Byron Hurt briefly describes what it used to be like for African Americans to travel in the United States. He talks about how blacks would take along boxed lunches in order to avoid being turned away from restaurants or dining cars. And he mentions in passing a guide called The Negro Motorist Green Book, later known as The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, or more commonly, simply The Green Book.

Because of the limitations of the film’s length, the documentary couldn’t devote much time exploring this sidebar in black history. So we decided to delve a little more deeply into the guide many considered indispensable for safe and “embarrassment-free” travel.

The Green Book, which was published from 1936 until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, listed establishments across the U.S. (and eventually North America) that welcomed blacks during a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws often made travel difficult — and sometimes dangerous.

“Carry The Green Book with you. You may need it,” advises the cover of the 1949 edition. And under that, a quote from Mark Twain, which is heartbreaking in this context: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”

The Green Book became very popular, with 15,000 copies sold per edition in its heyday. It was a necessary part of road trips for many families.

As horrendous as some of the issues African Americans were faced with, the guide referred to them in a sideways, almost genteel way. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the spring 1956 edition:

Millions of people hit the road each year, to get away from their old surroundings, to see and learn how people live, and meet new and old friends.

Modern travel has given millions of people an opportunity to see the wonders of the world. Thousands and thousands of dollars are spent each year on various modes of transportation. Money spent in this manner brings added revenue to tradesmen throughout the country.

The white traveler has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different. He, before the advent of a Negro travel guide, had to depend on word of mouth, and many times accommodations were not available.

Now things are different. The Negro traveler can depend on The Green Book for all the information he wants, and has a wide selection to choose from. Hence this guide has made traveling more popular, without encountering embarrassing situations.

The tone was the same throughout the guide’s history. Wendell P. Alston wrote in the 1949 edition that, “The Negro traveler’s inconveniences are many and they are increasing because today so many more are traveling, individually and in groups.” Inconveniences? Embarrassments? They abounded, to be sure, but the guide tended not to directly allude to the genuine dangers faced by black travelers in certain areas.

The Green Book, with its list of hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, barber shops and various other services can most certainly help solve your travel problems,” Alston wrote. “It was the idea of Victor H. Green, the publisher, in introducing The Green Book, to save the travelers of his race as many difficulties and embarrassments as possible.”

Green, a Harlem postal worker and activist, thought of the guide in 1932, and four years later the first edition rolled out. Writes Novera C. Dashiell in the spring 1956 edition:

The idea crystallized when, not only himself but several friends and acquaintances complained of the difficulties encountered oftentimes painful embarrassments suffered which ruined a vacation or business trip.

Our leaders and educators look forward to the day when as a racial group, we will enjoy the rights and privileges guaranteed us, but as of now withheld in certain areas of these United States.

In looking ahead…A trip to the moon? Who knows? It may not be so improbable as it sounds. A New York scientist is already offering for sale pieces of real estate on the moon. When travel of this kind becomes available, you can be sure your Green Book will have the recommended listings!

Green and others involved in the book had a wish that the publishers of most guidebooks and periodicals don’t: They looked forward to the time they would have to cease publishing.

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” Green himself wrote in one introduction. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”

The spring 1956 edition is available online.

An award-winning book, Ruth and the Green Book, is an excellent fictional introduction to The Green Book for children. And here’s an interactive map of the listings in the 1956 edition.

What are your thoughts about The Green Book? Do you find it hard to believe such a book was still necessary in the Mad Men and Kennedy eras? Did you or anyone you know anyone who used The Green Book? Please share your experiences!

The Green Book: Celebrating 'The Bible of Black Travel'

Contemporary reprints of original Green Books from 1940 (front) and 1954.

When Antonio Reliford was a child in New Jersey, he and his family did what a lot of African-American families did when it came to vacations: They hit the road to visit relatives in the South.

But this was back before the nation had a network of high-speed highways. Before major routes like the New Jersey Turnpike or Interstate 85, which goes through the Southeast.

And so the Reliford family had to use what everyone else did: two-lane roads that often went through picturesque rural areas.

Picturesque. And for African-American families, dangerous. Which meant black travelers had to choose carefully how they would go, and when, and where they would stop.

"Everything was planned," Reliford, now 62, remembers. Two or three families would travel in their cars together, as a caravan, "for safety."

He remembers leaving in the dark, "usually at daybreak or just before" so the families could travel as far as possible while it was light, in case some of the towns they passed through had Sundown Laws. (Those laws dictated that black people had to leave those towns by sunset, or face dire consequences.)

They'd drive continuously, he remembers, with food packed in coolers so they wouldn't have to search for — and perhaps be rejected by — an establishment that chose not to serve them, even from a back window.

Bathroom breaks? "Usually you had to pee at the side of the road because we had problems finding facilities that would allow us." And those that did? "You had to pay a token to get in."

Even fuel was problematic. "There were long lines where we knew the gas was," Reliford recalls. They knew which pumps to use because "it would actually say COLORED GAS." And in case that didn't sink in, the segregated service stations often had a separate attendant for black motorists. "Usually it was an elderly black man."

Safe passage along sometimes-perilous routes

This was the world The Negro Motorist Green Book was created to navigate. Listed in the slim little book were motels, diners, even gas stations that were black-owned or black-friendly. Postal worker Victor H. Green wrote and published the guide. He initially focused on his town— Harlem — but eventually the books expanded to cover almost every state.

These word-of-mouth suggestions for safe passage through a sometimes-hostile America were, "sort of a 20 th Century version of the Underground Railroad, and this annual travel guide was the Bible of black travel," says Brent Leggs, the director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

The fund seeks to help African-American communities to preserve and support sites with cultural significance. It's administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and seeks to, in its words "tell the full story" of America.

As the movie Green Book notes, Jim Crow was not impressed with an individual's wealth or talent. Whether you were a family, like the Relifords, or an icon, like Duke Ellington, there were many white-owned places — below and above the Mason-Dixon Line — that would not accept you. No hotels. No restaurants. No hospitals or auto repair shops.

The Green Books were one valuable way to get around that.

A way for future generations to remember

There was less of a need for the books after passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which legally mandated that public businesses should be open to all, regardless of race. In theory, segregation ended, although it would take years for some places to actually honor the law.

As segregation eroded, the need for separate accommodations faded, and with it, many of the businesses in the Green Book. It officially ceased publication in the late '60s.

Brent Leggs says the National Trust has a campaign to celebrate Route 66 as "the Main Street of America." The iconic highway goes from Chicago to Los Angeles, and while there weren't many Green Book motels along the way, there were a few.

The new movie will doubtless increase interest in the Green Book and its history. Brent Leggs welcomes that. "As a preservationist, it's exciting, because we can leverage the attention to celebrate the actual physical sites related to the Green Book."

He wants to make sure "that current and future generations never forget about this critical social movement and this story of black entrepreneurism, activism and achievement during the period of Jim Crow."

How Black travelers navigated Arizona during Jim Crow

The Open Road Wasn’t Quite Open to All

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.


Julian Bond, the civil rights leader who is now a faculty member at American University, will take on a cameo role. Mr. Bond recalled that his parents — his father, a college professor, became the first black president of Lincoln University, in southern Pennsylvania — used the book. “It was a guidebook that told you not where the best places were to eat,” he said, “but where there was any place.”

In November, Carolrhoda Books will release Mr. Ramsey’s “Ruth and the Green Book,” a children’s book with illustrations by the award-winning artist Floyd Cooper. It tells the story of a girl from Chicago in the 1950s and what she learns as she and her parents, driving their brand-new car to visit her grandmother in rural Alabama, finally luck into a copy of Victor Green’s guide. “Most kids today hear about the Underground Railroad, but this other thing has gone unnoticed,” said Mr. Ramsey. “It just fell on me, really, to tell the story.”

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.

For a large swath of the nation’s history “the American democratic idea of getting out on the open road, finding yourself, heading for distant horizons was only a privilege for white people,” said Cotton Seiler, the author of “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America,” who devoted a chapter of his book to the experience of black travelers.

William Daryl Williams, the director of the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati, in 2007 organized a traveling exhibition he called “The Dresser Trunk Project,” in which he and 11 other architects and artists used the “Green Book” to inform works that incorporated locations and artifacts from the history of black travel during segregation. Mr. Williams’s own piece, “Whitelaw Hotel,” referred to a well-known accommodation for African-Americans in Washington and included several pages from the “Green Book.”

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.

Mr. Bunch said he believes African American families are likely still have old copies sitting in attics and basements: “As segregation ended, people put such things away. They felt they didn’t need them anymore. It brought a sense of psychological liberation.”

Theater J in Washington, which specializes in Jewish-theme plays, is a co-producer of “The Green Book” reading. The “inconveniences” (as Green genteelly put it) of travel that African-Americans encountered were shared, albeit to a lesser extent and for a briefer period, by American Jews. In Mr. Ramsey’s play the Holocaust survivor comes to the tourist home after he’s appalled by a “No Negroes Allowed” sign posted in the lobby of the local hotel where he had planned to stay.

“The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted,” 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.

Travel guide helped African-Americans navigate tricky times

Atlanta (CNN) -- Ernest Green hit the roads of the segregated South as a teen in the 1950s, using a travel guide that pointed out safe havens where African-Americans could eat and stay.

The pamphlet promoted vacation without humiliation.

On that trip in the 1950s, Green journeyed the 1,000 miles from Arkansas to Virginia with his mother, aunt and brother to attend his sister's college graduation. His aunt and mother used the travel guide to plot the entire trip.

"It was one of the survival tools of segregated life," Green says.

Ernest Green became a symbol of the civil rights movement as one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who braved death threats and harassment to become the first black students at Central High School in the Arkansas state capital in 1957.

A man with the same last name, but no relation, was behind the African-American travel guide, an institution among black families as they traveled the nation at a time when many businesses wouldn't allow them inside.

Victor H. Green was a mail carrier in New York City's predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem. He was tall, handsome and personable. In 1932, he came up with the idea for a travel book to prevent African- Americans from being humiliated, especially in front of their families.

"The Green Book," as it was known, was first published in 1936. Initially, it pointed out friendly restaurants and hotels in New York. It eventually expanded to include everything from lodging and gas stations to tailor shops and doctor's offices across the nation, as well as in Bermuda, Mexico and Canada.

"Through this guide a number of white business places have come to value and desire your patronage," Victor Green wrote in the 20th anniversary of his travel guide. "Without your support (the guide) could not have remained in business and no doubt would have failed as others did.

"We trust, in the future, your faith will be justified as in the past and in so doing, you will tell others of your satisfaction."

In the guide's early years, Victor Green would travel to most locations his guide touted. But as the book expanded and he got older, he couldn't visit every spot.

In 1949, the Green Book -- officially called "The Negro Travelers' Green Book" -- noted Wrigley Field in Chicago as a great place to stop. The book especially recommended the town of Robbins, Illinois, for being "owned and operated by Negroes." In Boise, Idaho, Hotel California got a thumbs up.

Susan Sessions Rugh is the author of "Are We There Yet?" a book about how the road trip became part of the American lexicon after World War II. She says African-Americans had a much different experience than white travelers because they "were not free to travel throughout the nation," especially in the segregated South.

"They wanted to educate themselves and their children, and they had a desire to see the country and go on vacation just like anyone who was white. And so they set about doing that," she says.

"To know where to stay, they could consult the Green Book."

Cotten Seiler, an associate professor of American studies at Dickinson College who has written extensively about automobiles and American society, adds that the Green Book steered African-Americans "to these little oases for people of color."

"It gives us a history of what we might call 'driving while black,' " Seiler says.

History had largely forgotten about the Green Book. Then came author and playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey. He'd never heard of the book until the funeral of a family friend in Georgia about a decade ago. An older relative, coming from New York, asked him, "Do I need a Green Book?"

"I said, 'What's the Green Book?' . and that kind of sent me on a search."

Ramsey's play, "The Green Book," debuted last year in Washington and featured former NAACP head Julian Bond as Victor Green. Ramsey also wrote a children's book, "Ruth and the Green Book," about the perils a Chicago family faced while traveling to Alabama in 1952 to visit a grandmother. The family was welcomed at Esso gas stations, which sponsored the Green Book.

"People were traveling but they were still having difficulties," Ramsey says, adding that his works are a tribute to Victor Green for helping African-Americans navigate their first American road trips.

Ramsey recently read his children's book to a group of fifth graders at an Atlanta school for Black History Month.

He encouraged the children to never forget the past -- and to keep on journeying across the country.

The Green Book eventually stopped being published in the 1960s, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed forms of discrimination, including racial segregation.

Unlike most businessmen, Victor Green had always looked forward to the day his business would no longer be relevant.

"There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published," he wrote in his foreword in 1949. "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."

Activity 1. Time, Place, and the Green Book

Design questions to guide your investigation of multiple sources and text types to learn more about this era and phenomenon in U.S. history. Use newspapers published between 1937-1967 available through Chronicling America to construct the historical context of people's experiences, as well as maps, images, primary source texts, and more to develop a response to the guiding question: How did the Jim Crow era affect how African Americans traveled and worked in the U.S.? Your research may focus on specific places in the U.S., the lives of entertainers or athletes, why certain places added more businesses to the Green Book than others, patterns of migration following WWII and what this meant for shifts in population, or any other topics that interest you regarding the compelling question and this topic. Use the handout to assist with the organization of your questions and research.

The True Story Behind 'Green Book'

There are several scenes in the Oscar nominated film &ldquoGreen Book,&rdquo that are still up for debate in real life &mdash more than half a century later.

Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali plays Don Shirley, otherwise known as Doc Shirley, a Classical and Jazz pianist of Jamaican descent. He was deemed a prodigy who began playing the piano at just 2 years old.

Shirley rose to prominence in the 1940s, composing orchestras and playing the world over.

By the time he was 19, Shirley had already played with the Boston Pops and London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Shirley also earned a doctorate in music, psychology and liturgical arts.

He embarked on a tour in the 60's through the Jim Crow south, which led him to hire a bodyguard to chauffeur him.

Enter Tony &lsquoLip' Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen. He was a white Italian-American bouncer from The Bronx whom Shirley hired. Vallelonga has said he earned the nickname &ldquoLip&rdquo because he had a fast mouth.

In the film, Doc's record label gives Lip the "green book," which refers to the real-life "Negro Motorist Green Book" published from 1936-1967.

"The Negro Motorist Green Book" was written by Victor Hugo Green, a black postal worker from Harlem, New York City, as a guide to businesses in the south. It listed locations where black people could safely eat, gas up and lodge. It included everything from hair salons, to pharmacies, to theme parks like Disneyland.

It also helped African Americans travel the country with dignity. During that time, they were encouraged to buy cars if they could, in order to avoid segregation and embarrassment on public transportation.

The guide especially came in handy for travelers to avoid possibly deadly encounters in what were then known as "sundown towns" &mdash white only areas in the north and south where black people were not welcomed after dark.

Since 2013, author and cultural documentarian Candacy Taylor has been traveling around the country, chronicling the sites of the actual businesses featured in the guide.

Taylor has cataloged more than 9,600 Green Book listings in 48 states. She says less than 5 percent of the businesses featured in the guide are still open.

&ldquoThere were several other guides that served black travelers only one before the Green Book was published called &lsquoHackly and Harrison&rsquos.&rsquo But, out of all the black travel guides, the Green Book was in publication for the longest and had the largest exposure and distribution channels so it was the most popular and successful,&rdquo Taylor told

By 1962, "The Negro Motorist Green Book" had reached a circulation of two million people.

The movie follows the two as Lip, who is depicted as a casual racist, gets to know Doc during their journey through the south, with the green book as their guide. Doc reshapes Lip's view.

Vallelonga&rsquos son, Nick is a co-writer and producer on the film. He recalled meeting Shirley as a child.

"I met him when I was 5. I remember when I walked into his apartment over Carnegie Hall. There were floor to ceiling windows. He was like Liberace meets Beethoven and he came out in this long African robe and he was very, very interested that my father was a family man," Nick remembered in an interview with Universal Pictures.

Nick says he'd long wanted to make a film about his dad and Shirley. "This was a big story my father told me that I had on my mind basically my whole life. And luckily I had tape recorded my father," he stated.

According to Nick, Shirley granted his request with one condition.

"I got back in touch with Dr. Shirley as an adult and got his side of the story. He wanted me to tell the whole story. Everything that he told me, everything my father said. But he wanted me to wait until he had passed away."

Director Peter Farrelly helped comb through Nick&rsquos collection.

"We had a lot of material to go with. Hours and hours of tapes and we also had all the letters that he had written home on the trip and we listened to the story," Farrelly said.

However, Shirley's family maintains most of the movie is untrue or embellished.

Speaking to 1A's Movie Club right before the film's release last fall, 82-year-old Maurice Shirley &mdash Doc Shirley's youngest and last living brother &mdash told the podcast he refused to watch it.

Maurice stated &ldquoGreen Book&rdquo was full of lies and claimed Doc Shirley was neither estranged from his family nor the black community.

Doc Shirley&rsquos niece, Carole Kimble, echoed the sentiment, calling &ldquoGreen Book "a white man's depiction of a black man's life."

The film also depicts a gay sexual encounter Doc has during the tour, which raised questions about his sexuality.

Shirley married once and divorced, never having children. Nick said Shirley never came out in real life.

Nick maintains the story is true, and that only the timelines were bent. In real life, the pair's trip only lasted about two months. In the movie, it adds up to about a year.

Vallelonga&rsquos bouncing career inadvertently led him to become an actor. While working at New York City&rsquos Copacabana in the 1970s, director Francis Ford Coppola showed up looking for Italian-American extras for his film &ldquoThe Godfather.&rdquo Coppola found him to be just the right fit.

Vallelonga also took on several other roles in &ldquoGoodfellas,&rdquo &ldquoDonnie Brasco&rdquo and The Sopranos. Shirley continued to write, compose and record.

In the early &lsquo70s, Shirley developed tendonitis in his right hand. According to, that caused him to drop out of the public eye for nearly a decade. A 1982 New York Times article said he was staging a comeback and playing regular gigs in Greenwich Village.

Shirley released his last album in 2001.

Shirley and Vallelonga are the only two people who can truly refute or confirm what's factual in the film. They both died within three months of each other in 2013.

&ldquoGreen Book&rdquo is up for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Watch the video: The Green Book: A Historic Travel Guide for Black America, Part I (May 2022).