american history black history

What was The Green Book?

Now the inspiration for an Oscar winning film, the story of The Green Book is in fact one of the most vital, dark and yet uplifting chapters of black history

“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. But until that day comes, we will continue to publish this information for your convenience each year”- The Negro Travellers Green Book 1948

In 1936 New York mailman, Victor Hugo Green published a book that he hoped would help other black New Yorker’s travelling outside of their boroughs. It listed restaurants, bars and hotels that served ‘coloured’s’ and was immediately embraced by the African American community. However people wanted much more from Victor’s book. Because after all, why just explore New York when the whole United States was out there?

But there was a snag. The freedom of the American road trip wasn’t free. Not if you were black.

Just driving out of state, be it for work or pleasure, was a journey full of hidden perils and humiliation.

Want a hotel room? Somewhere to eat, a drink or get gas? Well the average black traveller was walking straight into a mine field. Businesses were able to pick and choose who they served, which meant the road was littered with whites only establishments. Some businesses even deliberately had three clear K’s in their names, e.g Mississippi motel Kozy Kottage Kourt. It could easily take hours of driving around before a sole ‘colored welcome’ sign finally came into view.

And that wasn’t just infuriating, it was dangerous.

‘Sundown towns’ were all over the USA. These all white communities operated a law that stated that by sundown all ‘colored people’ had to be out of town. Route 66, that pillar of American top down freedom; almost half of the counties lining it had sundown towns.

The penalty for being in a sundown town after dark was getting your arse thrown in jail. Or worse.

So when your were hitting an open road that was lined with signs that read ‘Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here’ and with the very real threat of violence hanging overhead, it was more than easy to feel like African American travellers had no friend. And that was why the green book was so important.

Front cover of the 1948 Green Book, from New York Public Library

By the early 1940s, Victor Hugo Green was printing a new issue of the Green Book every year.

The books information was crowd sourced, with readers sending in tips and locations, that were constantly checked and updated. The books popularity boomed, sold in churches, corner-shops and Esso stations (a rarity as a gas station that openly welcomed African Americans) with each print run snapped up immediately, communities had to start circulating sold out copies amongst themselves.

And you best believe that The Green Book lived up to its reputation that you should never leave home without a copy!

Let’s say for example that in 1947 your Gran asks you to come visit her in Georgia, it’s a long ride, which means you’ll have to have an overnight pit stop in Alabama.

Well thanks to the Green Book you know to plan your route well in advance,so you can make sure you hit one of only nine towns in the state that were known to have overnight accommodation for black travellers. Oh, and that five of those towns didn’t actually have open hotels, but homeowners who were happy to house African Americans. Which in turn saved you inadvertently driving round hostile sun down towns in the hopes of finding non existent hotels or facing the obvious dangers that came with sleeping at the side of an unknown road.

Victor Hugo Green, founded of The Green Book and owner of a pretty jazzy tie

Not only was The Green Book a life line in its own time, today its still an incredible resource, especially when it comes to tracking the civil rights strides being made in America during it’s time.

Each year the book got bigger and this was in part thanks to the rise in the black middle class and the expansion of black owned businesses. Which ultimately helped lead to more African Americans hitting the road and exploring the country that they’d been barred from for too long. By 1962 there were a whopping 2,000,000 Green Books in circulation.

But this isn’t just about the book selling more and getting heftier, you see it’s tone started to change too.

From the late 1940s The Green Book started to become less of a data bank of places that people were ‘allowed’ a respite from the daily barrage of discrimination, rather a tool that got people where they actively want to go.

As the travel pages became more aspirational, time was taken to highlight the African American owned businesses that travellers would pass. Everything from shops, funeral parlours and insurance brokers were celebrated. With full articles detailing the jobs these companies were making, the communities being built around them and the local political influence all this way having.

The Green Book wasn’t a getaway around Jim Crow laws, it was about bounding over them towards a better future.

The 1961 Green Book, now also featuring travel outside of the US in major resort countries, from New York Public Library

Despite their immense popularity Victor Hugo Green never earned a fortune from his books. Concentrating profits on further expanding the green book.

Victor died in 1960, his wife Alma picking up the role of editor and pushing The Green Book forward as America entered an era of growing civil rights.

Then in 1964’s the Civil Rights Act, made segregation illegal for public businesses. And just like that, the Green Book was obsolete, closing in 1966.

It was exactly what Victor Hugo Green had dreamed of, writing almost twenty years before ‘it will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please’. Finally that day had come.

Further Reading: The New York Public Library has an amazing collection of digitised Green Books that you can read through HERE.

More Like this:

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. This is very interesting, but also sad. I live near a sundown town, and until just a few years ago a nearby café known for their pie had three K’s in the name. They’ve dropped the “Kafe” now, but it’s still very obvious. In some ways, the green book would still be helpful. Great post!

    Like

  2. What a horrible time in America. Thank you for sharing this important piece of history. Thank goodness that Victor Hugo Green was forward-thinking and compassionate enough to conceive and offer this invaluable resource to African-American travelers.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s