How the Green Book Became Black Travelers Guide to Traveling in Jim Crow America

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Maybe Hollywood’s movie rendition is how you first heard the words “Green Book.” Or maybe (and more likely) you’re like a lot of people, and you’ve never heard of the “Negro Motorist Green Book”.

This iconic guidebook shaped how Americans traveled in the country for nearly 30 years! So, it’s an important piece of Black and American history that you might want to know. 

So, what is this “Green Book”? 

The Negro Motorist Green Book was a travel guide filled with a list of establishments that accepted African American customers. Its creator, Victor Hugo Green—a Black postal worker from Harlem—tediously compiled the directory to help fellow Black travelers find safe passages as they traveled throughout Jim Crow America. 

Green knew firsthand just how weary Black Americans felt traveling out of their familiar neighborhoods. As a result, he published the Green Book’s first edition in 1936. In its pages, you’d find a thorough rundown on all the inclusive hotels, restaurants, service stations, barbershops, drug stores, and the other essential establishments a person could need while traveling. 

The motto or words of caution on the book’s cover read, “Carry your Green Book with you—You may need it.” And that, they did.

The lure of the interstate 

Car production and ownership were increasing during and following the aftermath of World War II. In the 1940s, white and Black Americans alike wanted to take advantage of this new era of travel. But, for African Americans, there were way too many risks involved. 

They could have accidentally found themselves in a hostile establishment or, even worse, a Sundown town after dark. FInding basic accommodations were extremely difficult, and at times, fatal. Locating a gas station to fill up your tank or a place to sleep at night were far easier for White Americans. 

Green initially filled the pages of Green Book with safe destinations in the New York area. But it eventually grew beyond that thanks to intel and reports from fellow Black postal carriers around the country and even readers of the Green Book. By the Green Book’s second edition, it featured listings from all over the country. 

Green’s book exploded into something transformative for Black people. Green didn’t just stop at featuring a multitude of African American-friendly establishments. The guide featured articles and information on places to see and things to do, safe driving, travel topics, and even automobile reviews. 

Photographed by Lenzee in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 2020

Tulsa’s Greenwood District

One of the points of interest mentioned in the book included Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa, the once segregated southern town, happens to fall in line with Route 66. But, the reason Tulsa was included in the Green Book is because of the once illustrious areas for black Americans: The Black Wall Street.

Black Wall Street, or the Greenwood district, housed many black businesses, hotels, stores, and gas stations. It was a no-brainer that Green would include this area as one of the few safe places for black motorists to stop at.

There was one establishment along Route 66 that was included in the directory from 1939 to 1952 in Tulsa. This was Mince’s Service Station. Travelers could stop for service and get back on the road. Unfortunately, you will not find much history on Mince’s however the memory should live on!

How The Negro Motorist Green Book (Green Book) Shaped the Way Black Americans traveled

By 1947, Green Book was now known as Green-Book, and it had over 80 pages of helpful information and resources for Black travelers in America. The listings were organized by city and state, and of course, big cities like Chicago and New York had lots of options. But even for towns without Black-friendly hotels, the travel guide listed the information of Black locals who opened their homes to travelers. 

Needless to say, Victor Hugo Green did what needed to be done. Thanks to his efforts, who knows how many Black travelers could find safe passage when they needed it most. Green published the Green Book for more than two decades until he passed away in 1960. Notably, his death came four years before the Civil Rights Act passed and banned racial segregation in public places. 

Green’s wife, Alma, took over as editor after he passed away. Now that Alma had some control, the guide published its last edition two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, making Green’s wish come true. Penned in the introduction of the first Green Book publication, 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. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”

A New Day

The day finally did come. And so many African Americans probably have the Green Book to thank for those years of safe travels. What Green accomplished with his travel guide and the hope it contained inside is immeasurable. 

In a time when Black Americans had to fear the worst, and in a time when they literally had to rely on a guidebook to make it home alive, Victor Hugo Green gave them what they needed. Inside the Green Book’s pages, they could find community, peace of mind, and a reminder that there was a place for them no matter where they went. 

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