WORDS Michael Hilton Illustration Sarah K. Kahn
In the early 1930s, a middle class of African-Americans emerged who could finally afford automobiles and no longer had to deal with public transportation or the cruel discrimination that came with it. For the first time, many African-Americans had the means to tour their country, but couldn't do so safely due to widespread racism and Jim Crow laws that encouraged societal segregation. Across the nation there were thousands of abhorrent “sundown towns” — communities where "negroes" weren't allowed after dark, where human beings could be lynched for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color.
Author John A. Williams wrote in his book, This Is My Country Too, that for an African-American to drive coast to coast in America, he or she needed "nerve, courage, and a great deal of luck," as well as "a rifle and shotgun, a road atlas, and a travel guide listing places in America where Negroes [could] stay without being embarrassed, insulted, or worse."
Created in 1936 by postal worker Victor Hugo Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book established a virtual safety net for African-American travelers by listing restaurants, lodging, and fueling stations that welcomed minorities. Green gathered field reports from other postal workers, offered cash to readers who submitted information about race-friendly spots, and listed thousands of these safe havens by state and city in his book. Most listings were for public businesses, but he even listed some individuals who opened their homes to travelers and offered rooms for rent.
“This was put together with love from black people for each other to keep each other safe," author Calvin Ramsey said. "The Green Book to me was a love letter of sorts. There was a time when we loved each other so much that we would open our homes just to keep another black person safe. It was about the love and ability to preserve our dignity.”
As its popularity increased, the Green Book expanded to become an international travel guide offering information on airlines and cruise ships as well as in-depth articles about cities around the world. Green had a unique hope that his creation would someday reach its end. 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 opportunities and privileges in the United States.”
Green passed away in 1960, four years before the Civil Rights Act banned segregation in all public places, and the Green Book quietly closed its doors after 30 years of publication. While it’s tragic that the Green Book ever needed to be published, it stands as a testament to the collective determination, grit, and unity of early twentieth-century African-Americans, as well as the citizens who fought to uphold ideals of equality.