In the annals of American history, a remarkable chapter often overlooked emerges—one that weaves together the threads of transportation, dining, business ownership, and the enduring struggle against prejudice and racism.
The automobile, a symbol of liberation and autonomy, has always promised to take us wherever we desire, as long as there’s a road leading the way. Yet, for many African Americans in the early to mid-20th century, this promise remained elusive. The open road represented freedom, but for them, it often led to encounters with segregation and discrimination.
Unlike their white counterparts, African-American families embarking on road trips faced distinct challenges. Planning a lengthy journey meant packing enough food to last the entire trip, as there was no guarantee that restaurants along the way would serve them due to legalized discrimination. Similarly, the motels they stayed at were not always welcoming, so they had to carry their bedding. To navigate areas devoid of gas stations, they stashed extra cans of fuel in their trunks. Even basic needs like restroom facilities were denied to them, leading them to carry a bucket for such necessities.
In the racially segregated South, black drivers had to be cautious at all times. Some kept chauffeur’s hats handy in case white drivers ridiculed their vehicles, a strategy to deflect attention. Even passing a slow-moving car could provoke confrontations, as some white drivers took offense at the dust kicked up by black vehicles. The grim reality was that thousands of American towns were “sundown towns,” where minorities, including African Americans, risked violence if they were found there after sunset.
The epicenter of this discriminatory problem was the South, but it extended its reach far beyond, as exemplified by Hawthorne, California. In the mid-1930s, Victor Hugo Green, an African-American World War I veteran and mail carrier in New York City, decided it was time for change. Inspired by Jewish community directories that listed businesses welcoming Jews, he embarked on a mission to create a list of nondiscriminatory businesses in the New York City metropolitan area. This endeavor gave birth to the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” a 15-page pamphlet.
In the 1937 edition of the Green Book, Victor Hugo Green expressed his dedication: “We hope you will find the various references and material interesting and helpful. This, our Premiere Issue, is dedicated to the Negro Motorist.” With a price tag of 25¢ (equivalent to around $4 today), this pioneering publication became a lifeline for African-American travelers.
The Green Book featured listings like Gene’s Auto Repairs on West 155th Street, assuring African-American motorists that their vehicle repair needs would be met. The Ritz Beauty Salon on 7th Avenue, under the management of Bernice Bruton, welcomed all women seeking beauty treatments. Julia’s Dinners gained popularity for its excellent and reasonably priced meals, with weekday dinners priced at 35¢ and Sunday dinners at 50¢. For those looking for a night on the town, the Donhaven Country Club in Westchester County offered dinner dances accompanied by the enchanting music of Goldie Lucas and the Donhaven Country Club Band. The Green Book encompassed a wide array of listings, from pharmacies and barbershops to cleaners, liquor stores, golf courses, vacation destinations, state parks, and points of interest. It also provided safe driving guidelines and car care instructions.
The Green Book was not confined to a specific region; it extended its influence across the nation. While the South bore the brunt of segregation, the discriminatory practices found their way into various corners of the United States, exemplified by Hawthorne, California.
- While The Green Book is often associated with the American South due to its severe segregation, it originated in New York City. Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker, and activist from Harlem, saw the need for such a guide in the city and its surrounding areas.
- The Green Book wasn’t limited to the United States. There were international editions covering destinations in Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda. This expanded its usefulness to travelers beyond U.S. borders.
- The Green Book wasn’t exclusively for men. It included listings for businesses owned and operated by African-American women, providing them with a platform to advertise their services.
- The Green Book’s circulation increased significantly after World War II, as more African-American families acquired automobiles and began to explore the country. This surge in demand led to a broader range of listings.
- The Green Book was published annually, ensuring that the listings remained up to date. This commitment to accuracy and currency made it a reliable resource for travelers.
- The Green Book came in various sizes over the years, ranging from small pocket-sized editions that could easily fit in a glove compartment to larger versions with more extensive listings.
- Some editions of The Green Book featured cover art that depicted African-American travelers enjoying their journeys. These illustrations often depicted scenes of leisure and adventure.
- Esso, now known as Exxon, played a role in distributing The Green Book. Victor Hugo Green partnered with Esso to make the guide more widely available. Esso service stations prominently displayed The Green Book.
- The Green Book featured a network of recommended travel agents who could assist travelers in planning their trips. These agents specialized in arranging accommodations and services for African-American travelers.
- Ironically, the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s also marked the decline of The Green Book. As more establishments integrated and discrimination decreased, there was less need for a guide dedicated to navigating segregation.
The Historical Significance of The Green Book
The Green Book, formally known as the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” holds a profound historical significance in American history. First published in 1936, it emerged as a lifeline for African-American travelers during a time when segregation and discrimination were rampant.
The annual guidebook was a beacon of hope, allowing African Americans to safely navigate a segregated country. Victor Hugo Green, the visionary behind The Green Book, recognized the need for a guide that would help African Americans find essential services and welcoming places along the road. This included lodgings, businesses, and gas stations that would serve them, providing a sense of security on their journeys.
For nearly three decades, The Green Book served as a trusted companion for African-American travelers during the Jim Crow era. It provided valuable advice on safe places to eat, sleep, and seek services when venturing through a racially divided United States. The guide’s significance lay not only in its practical utility but also in the hope it offered—a vision of a future when such a guide would no longer be necessary.
The Discontinuation of The Green Book
The Green Book’s existence was deeply intertwined with the era of segregation and racial discrimination. As a result, its publication was closely tied to the social and legislative changes of the 1960s.
The Impact of the Civil Rights Act
Shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed the types of racial discrimination that had made The Green Book essential, its publication ceased. The Act marked a pivotal moment in American history, signaling the beginning of the end of legally sanctioned segregation. Consequently, The Green Book gradually faded into obscurity as racial barriers were dismantled.
Victor Hugo Green’s vision for The Green Book was not only to provide practical assistance to African-American travelers but also to inspire hope for a future where such a guide would become obsolete.
In a statement from the guide, Green expressed optimism about the future: “There will be a day sometime shortly when this guide will not have to be published.” These words encapsulated the aspiration of a society where racial discrimination would no longer dictate where one could travel or find accommodation and services.
While the historical significance of The Green Book as a travel guide is well-documented, it has also found its way into popular culture, offering unique perspectives on race relations and personal transformation.
The Green Book Film
The Green Book’s narrative reached a broader audience with the release of the film “Green Book.” Directed and written by white men, the film delves into the journey of a black pianist and his white driver as they navigate the racially charged Deep South in the 1960s. It highlights the challenges they face, the personal transformation they undergo, and the universal theme of confronting racism.
The Green Book’s legacy endures as a testament to the resilience of African Americans in the face of discrimination. It stands as a symbol of the community’s determination to find safe havens and welcoming businesses during an era marked by segregation.