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Vacation Without Humiliation

Kelly Wallace, Librarian, History Department,
The Negro Motorist Green Book

As African American Heritage Month draws to a close, I would like to bring your attention to a largely unknown chapter of American history.

The segregation laws and practices collectively known as “Jim Crow” impacted the everyday life of African Americans long after the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery.  These laws enforced segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, restaurants, beaches, and hospitals.  Some of the “harshest indignities” occurred on public transit.  African Americans were forced to sit in the back of buses and streetcars and to give up their seats to whites upon demand.  On trains, they were confined to separate and inferior Jim Crow train cars and waiting rooms. 

Sign at Greyhound Bus Station in Rome, GA
Sign at a Greyhound Bus Station in Rome, GA
 

For blacks as well as whites, a car represented economic success and provided a means of getting to work, visiting family, and traveling.  For blacks, a car also provided the means to avoid the Jim Crow train cars and back-of-the-bus seats.  But for all the freedom a car provided, blacks still faced many hurdles while traveling.  Among the challenges: finding a place to stay, eat a meal, buy gas and use a restroom.  Black travelers often packed food, extra gasoline, blankets, and buckets to serve as portable toilets.  They also faced the dangers of being pulled over by law enforcement and forcibly expelled from “sundown towns,” municipalities that required all non-whites to leave by sunset. 

Photo of Victor H. Green from the 1956 Green Book
Photo of Victor H. Green from the 1956 Green Book
 

Postman Victor H. Green came up with the idea for The Green Book in 1932, after “several friends and acquaintances complained of the difficulties encountered; oftentimes painful embarrassments suffered which ruined a vacation or business trip.”  Inspired by similar handbooks published for the Jewish American community, Victor Green's guidebook would consist of listings for black-friendly hotels, restaurants and tourist homes, where safety and civility were assured.  He published the first edition of his guide in 1936, calling it The Negro Motorist Green Book (popularly known as The Green Book).  It covered just New York City and sold for 25 cents.

The guide proved so popular, it expanded to cover the entire country the following year.  By 1949, its coverage extended to Mexico, Bermuda, and Canada and included listings for barber shops, beauty parlors, tailors, and doctor’s offices.  In 1952, the name was changed to The Negro Travelers' Green Book.  At the height of its popularity, The Green Book sold 15,000 copies.  It became “the bible” of black travel during the Jim Crow era, helping thousands of businessmen and families.

Cover of 1949 Negro Motorist Green Book
Cover of the 1949 Negro Motorist Green Book.  Note the somber motto, "Carry your Green Book with you - you may need it."  This was printed on the cover of every edition.


Green book motto
 

After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, prohibiting discrimination in businesses and public places, the need for The Green Book diminished.  The 1966 edition was the last.  Though he passed away in 1960, this was an occasion Victor Green would have celebrated.  Looking forward to the day his publication would no longer be needed, he wrote, “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 rights 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.”

The Green Book has faded from memory, though many copies probably still exist, forgotten in the attics and basements of African American families.  Lonnie G. Bunch III, Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, believes “The lack of knowledge about The Green Book also tells us about the lack of knowledge many Americans have of how segregation really worked…the more people understand that through The Green Book, the more they’ll understand what has changed.”

Los Angeles Public Library has 11 of these unique guidebooks, 1951-1961 and the 1963/64 edition.  They are reference materials, not available for checkout, but patrons may view them in the History Department upon request.  

Partial listings for Los Angeles from the 1952 edition
Partial listings for Los Angeles from the 1952 edition
 

Additional online resources:

The Henry Ford Collection at the University of Michigan has digitized the 1949 edition.

In addition to digitizing the 1956 edition, the University of South Carolina has put together a custom, interactive Google Map compiled from over 1500 listings in the ’56 guide.
 

Additional reading:

Sundown towns: a hidden dimension of American racism by James W. Loewen

Are we there yet? The golden age of American family vacations by Susan Sessions Rugh
Contains a chapter on the experience of black travelers.

Republic of drivers: a cultural history of automobility in America by Cotten Seiler
Contains a chapter on the experience of black travelers.

Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey
An illustrated children’s book about a little girl traveling with her family from Chicago to Alabama to visit her grandmother. 

 


 

 

 

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