By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Hotel History: The Negro Motorist Green Book
This series of AAA- like guides for black travelers was published by Victor H. Green from 1936 through 1966. It listed hotels, motels, service stations, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty and barber shops. Widely used when African American travelers faced a swamp of Jim Crow laws and racists attitudes which made travel difficult and sometimes dangerous.
The cover of the 1949 edition advised the black traveler, “Carry the Green Book with you. You may need it.” And under that instruction was 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 black families.
Although pervasive racial discrimination and poverty limited car ownership by most blacks, the emerging African American middle class bought automobiles as soon as they could. Still, they faced a variety of dangers and inconveniences along the road, from refusal of food and lodging to arbitrary arrest. Some gasoline stations would sell gas to black motorists but would not allow them to use the bathrooms.
In response, Victor H. Green created his guide for services and places relatively friendly to African Americans eventually expanding its coverage from the New York area to much of North America. Organized by states, each edition listed businesses that did not discriminate on the basis of race. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, described this feature of the Green Book as a tool that “allowed families to protect their children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which they might be thrown out or not be permitted to sit somewhere.”
The inaugural edition of the guide in 1936 contained 16 pages and focused on tourist areas in and around New York City. By the U.S. entry in World War II, it had expanded to 48 pages and covered nearly every state in the Union. Two decades later, the guide had expanded to 100 pages and offered advice for black tourists visiting Canada, Mexico, Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. The Green Book had distribution agreements with Standard Oil and Esso which sold two million copies by 1962. In addition, Green created a travel agency.
While the Green Books reflected the disturbing reality of American racial prejudice, they also enabled African Americans to travel with some degree of comfort and safety.
Victor H. Green, a Harlem-based U.S. postal workers published the first guide in 1936 with 14 pages of listings in the New York metropolitan area culled by a network of postal workers. By the 1960s, it had gown to nearly 100 pages, covering the 50 states. Over the years, they were used by black drivers who wanted to avoid the segregation of mass transit, job seekers relocating North during the Great Migration, newly-drafted soldiers heading South to World War II army bases, traveling businessmen and vacationing families.
It is a reminder that highways were among the country’s few unsegregated places and, as cars became more affordable in the 1920s, African Americans became more mobile than ever. In 1934, much roadside commerce was still off-limits to black travelers. Esso was the only chain of service stations that served black travelers. However, once the black motorist pulled off the interstate highway, the freedom of the open road proved illusory. Jim Crow still prohibited black travelers from pulling into most roadside motels and getting rooms for the night. Black families on vacation had to be ready for any circumstance should they be denied lodging or a meal in a restaurant or the use of a bathroom. They stuffed the trunk of their automobiles with food, blankets and pillows, even an old coffee can for those times when black motorists were denied the use of a bathroom.
The famous civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis recalled how his family prepared for a trip in 1951:
“There would be no restaurant for us to stop at until we were well out of the South, so we took our restaurant right in the car with us… Stopping for gas and to use the bathroom took careful planning. Uncle Otis had made this trip before, and he knew which places along the way offered “colored” bathrooms and which were better just to pass on by. Our map was marked and our route was planned that way, by the distances between service stations where it would be safe for us to stop.”
Finding accommodation was one of the greatest challenges faced by black travelers. Not only did many hotels, motels, and boarding houses refuse to serve black customers, but thousands of towns across the United States declared themselves “sundown towns,” which all non-whites had to leave by sunset. Huge numbers of towns across the country were effectively off-limits to African Americans. By the end of the 1960s, there were at least 10,000 sundown towns across the U.S. – including large suburbs such as Glendale, California (population 60,000 at the time); Levittown, New York (80,000); and Warren, Michigan (180,000). Over half the incorporated communities in Illinois were sundown towns. The unofficial slogan of Anna, Illinois, which had violently expelled its African-American population in 1909, was “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”. Even in towns which did not exclude overnight stays by blacks, accommodations were often very limited. African Americans migrating to California to find work in the early 1940s often found themselves camping by the roadside overnight for lack of any hotel accommodation along the way. They were acutely aware of the discriminatory treatment that they received.
African-American travelers faced real physical risks because of the widely differing rules of segregation that existed from place to place, and the possibility of extrajudicial violence against them. Activities that were accepted in one place could provoke violence a few miles down the road. Transgressing formal or unwritten racial codes, even inadvertently, could put travelers in considerable danger. Even driving etiquette was affected by racism; in the Mississippi Delta region, local custom prohibited blacks from overtaking whites, to prevent their raising dust from the unpaved roads to cover white-owned cars. A pattern emerged of whites purposefully damaging black-owned cars to put their owners “in their place”. Stopping anywhere that was not known to be safe, even to allow children in a car to relieve themselves, presented a risk; parents would urge their children to control their need to use a bathroom until they could find a safe place to stop, as “those backroads were simply too dangerous for parents to stop to let their little black children pee.”
According to the civil rights leader Julian Bond, recalling his parents use of the Green Book, “It was a guidebook that told you not where the best places were to eat, but where there was any place to eat. You think about the things that most travelers take for granted, or most people today take for granted. If I go to New York City and want a hair cut, it’s pretty easy for me to find a place where that can happen, but it wasn’t easy then. White barbers would not cut black peoples’ hair. White beauty parlors would not take black women as customers – hotels and so on, down the line. You needed the Green Book to tell you where you can go without having doors slammed in your face.”
As Victor Green wrote in the 1949 edition, “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 is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”
That day finally came when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became the law of the land. The last Negro Motorist Green Book was published in 1966. After fifty-one years, while Americas highway roadside services are more democratic than ever, there are still places where African Americans are not welcome.
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