The Negro Motorist Green Book

The Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual guidebook for African-American roadtrippers. It was originated and published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966, during the era of Jim Crow laws, when open and often legally prescribed discrimination against non-whites was widespread.

Although pervasive racial discrimination and poverty limited black car ownership, the emerging African-American middle class bought automobiles as soon as they could, but faced a variety of dangers and inconveniences along the road, from refusal of food and lodging to arbitrary arrest. In response, Green wrote his guide to services and places relatively friendly to African-Americans, eventually expanding its coverage from the New York area to much of North America, as well as founding a travel agency.

Many Black Americans took to driving, in part to avoid segregation on public transportation. As the writer George Schuyler put it in 1930, ‘all Negroes who can do so purchase an automobile as soon as possible in order to be free of discomfort, discrimination, segregation and insult.’ Black Americans employed as athletes, entertainers, and salesmen also traveled frequently for work purposes.

African-American travelers faced hardships such as white-owned businesses refusing to serve them or repair their vehicles, being refused accommodation or food by white-owned hotels, and threats of physical violence and forcible expulsion from whites-only ‘sundown towns’ (municipalities that required blacks to leave by sunset). By the end of the 1960s, there were an estimated 10,000 sundown towns across the U.S. – including large suburbs such as Glendale, California; Levittown, New York; and Warren, Michigan. 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.’

Green founded and published the Green Book to avoid such problems, compiling resources ‘to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.’

Shortly after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed the types of racial discrimination that had made the Green Book necessary, publication ceased and it fell into obscurity. Before the legislative accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, black travelers in the United States faced major problems unknown to most whites. Simple auto journeys for black people were fraught with difficulty and potential danger. They were subjected to racial profiling by police departments (‘driving while black’ or ‘DWB’), sometimes seen as ‘uppity’ or ‘too prosperous’ just for the act of driving, which many whites regarded as a white prerogative.

Such restrictions dated back to colonial times, and were found throughout the United States. After the end of legal slavery in the North and later in the South after the Civil War, most freedmen continued to live at little more than a subsistence level, but a minority of African Americans gained a measure of prosperity. They could plan leisure travel for the first time. Well-to-do blacks arranged large group excursions for as many as 2000 people at a time, for instance traveling by rail from New Orleans to resorts along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In the pre-Jim Crow era this necessarily meant mingling with whites in hotels, transportation and leisure facilities. They were aided in this by the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had made it illegal to discriminate against African Americans in public accommodations and public transportation.

They encountered a white backlash, particularly in the South, where by 1877 white Democrats controlled every state government. The Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883, resulting in states and cities passing numerous segregation laws. White governments in the South required even interstate railroads to enforce their segregation laws, despite national legislation requiring equal treatment of passengers. SCOTUS ruled in ‘Plessy v. Ferguson’ (1896) that ‘separate but equal’ accommodations were constitutional, but in practice, facilities for blacks were far from equal, generally being of lesser quality and underfunded. Blacks faced restrictions and exclusion throughout the United States: if not barred entirely from facilities, they could use them only at different times from whites or in (usually inferior) ‘colored sections.’

In 1917, the black writer W. E. B. Du Bois observed that the impact of ‘ever-recurring race discrimination’ had made it so difficult to travel to any number of destinations, from popular resorts to major cities, that it was now ‘a puzzling query as to what to do with vacations.’ It was a problem that came to affect an increasing number of black people in the first decades of the 20th century. Tens of thousands of southern African Americans migrated from farms in the south to factories and domestic service in the north. No longer confined to living at a subsistence level, many gained enough disposable income and time to engage in leisure travel.

The development of affordable mass-produced automobiles liberated black Americans from having to rely on the Jim Crow cars – smoky, battered and uncomfortable railroad carriages which were the separate but decidedly unequal alternatives to more salubrious whites-only carriages. As one black magazine writer commented in 1933, in an automobile it’s mighty good to be the skipper for a change, and pilot our craft whither and where we will. We feel like Vikings. What if our craft is blunt of nose and limited of power and our sea is macademized; it’s good for the spirit to just give the old railroad Jim Crow the laugh.

While automobiles made it much easier for black Americans to be independently mobile, the difficulties they faced in traveling were such that, as Lester B. Granger of the National Urban League put it, ‘so far as travel is concerned, Negroes are America’s last pioneers.’ Black travelers often had to carry buckets or portable toilets in the trunks of their cars because they were usually barred from bathrooms and rest areas in service stations and roadside stops. They also often traveled with their own meals and carried containers of gasoline.

One black motorist observed in the early 1940s that while black travelers felt free in the mornings, by the early afternoon a ‘small cloud’ had appeared. By the late afternoon, ‘it casts a shadow of apprehension on our hearts and sours us a little. ‘Where,’ it asks us, ‘will you stay tonight?’ They often had to spend hours in the evening trying to find somewhere to stay, sometimes resorting to sleeping in haylofts or in their own cars if they could not find anywhere. One alternative, if it was available, was to arrange in advance to sleep at the homes of black friends in towns or cities along their route. However, this meant detours and an abandonment of the spontaneity that for many was a key attraction of motoring.

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.’

Even foreign black dignitaries were not immune to the discrimination that African-American travelers routinely encountered. In one high-profile incident, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, the finance minister of newly independent Ghana, was refused service at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant at Dover, Delaware, while traveling to Washington, D.C., even after identifying himself by his state position to the restaurant staff. The snub caused an international incident, to which an embarrassed President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by inviting Gbedemah to breakfast at the White House. Repeated and sometimes violent incidents of discrimination directed against black African diplomats, particularly on U.S. Route 40 between New York and Washington, D.C., led to the administration of President John F. Kennedy setting up a Special Protocol Service Section within the State Department to assist black diplomats traveling and living within the United States. The State Department considered issuing copies of ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’ to black diplomats, but eventually decided against steering them to black-friendly public accommodations as it wanted them ‘to have all of the privileges of whiteness.’

John A. Williams wrote in his 1965 book, ‘This Is My Country Too,’ that he did not believe ‘white travelers have any idea of how much nerve and courage it requires for a Negro to drive coast to coast in America.’ He noted that black drivers needed to be particularly cautious in the South, where they were advised to wear a chauffeur’s cap or have one visible on the front seat and pretend they were delivering a car for a white person. Along the way, he had to endure a stream of ‘insults of clerks, bellboys, attendants, cops, and strangers in passing cars.’ There was a constant need to keep his mind on the danger he faced; as he was well aware, ‘[black] people have a way of disappearing on the road.’

Segregation meant that facilities for African-American motorists were limited, but entrepreneurs of both races realized the lucrative opportunities in marketing goods and services to black patrons. The challenge for travelers was to find such oases in the middle of a desert of discrimination. To address this problem, African-American writers produced a number of guides to provide travel advice. These included directories of hotels, camps, road houses, and restaurants which would serve African Americans. Jewish travelers, who had long experienced discrimination at many vacation spots, created guides for their own community, though they were at least able to visibly blend in more easily with the general population. African Americans followed suit with publications such as ‘Hackley and Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers’ in 1930.

‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’ was one of the best known of the African-American travel guides. It was conceived in 1932 and first published in 1936 by Victor H. Green, a World War I veteran from New York City who worked as a mail carrier and later as a travel agent. Green asked his readers to provide information ‘on the Negro motoring conditions, scenic wonders in your travels, places visited of interest and short stories on one’s motoring experience.’ He offered a reward of one dollar for each accepted account, which he increased to five dollars by 1941. He also obtained information from colleagues in the US Postal Service, who would ‘ask around on their routes’ to find suitable public accommodations. The Postal Service was (and is) one of the largest employers of African Americans, and its employees were ideally situated to inform Green of which places were safe and hospitable to African-American travelers.

The Green Book’s motto, displayed on the front cover, urged black travelers to ‘Carry your Green Book with you – You may need it.’ The 1949 edition included a quote from Mark Twain: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice,’ inverting Twain’s original meaning; as Cotton Seiler puts it, ‘here it was the visited, rather than the visitors, who would find themselves enriched by the encounter.’ The listings focused on four main categories – hotels, motels, tourist homes (private residences, usually owned by African Americans, which provided accommodation to travelers), and restaurants. They were arranged by state and subdivided by city, giving the name and address of each business. For an extra payment, businesses could have their listing displayed in bold type or have a star next to it to denote that they were ‘recommended.’

Many such establishments were run by and for African Americans and in some cases were named after prominent figures in African-American history. In North Carolina, such black-owned businesses included the Carver, Lincoln, and Booker T. Washington hotels, the Friendly City beauty parlor, the Black Beauty Tea Room, the New Progressive tailor shop, the Big Buster tavern, and the Blue Duck Inn. Each edition also included feature articles on travel and destinations, and included a listing of black resorts such as Idlewild, Michigan; Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts; and Belmar, New Jersey. The state of New Mexico was particularly recommended as a place where most motels would welcome ‘guests on the basis of ‘cash rather than color.”

The Green Book attracted sponsorship from a number of businesses, including the African-American newspapers ‘Call and Post’ of Cleveland, Ohio, and the ‘Louisville Leader’ of Louisville, Kentucky. Standard Oil (later Esso) was also a sponsor, owing to the efforts of James ‘Billboard’ Jackson, a pioneering African-American Esso sales representative. Esso’s ‘race group,’ part of its marketing division, promoted the Green Book as enabling Esso’s black customers to ‘go further with less anxiety.’ By contrast, Shell gas stations were known to refuse black customers. The 1949 edition included an Esso endorsement message that told readers: ‘As representatives of the Esso Standard Oil Co., we are pleased to recommend the Green Book for your travel convenience. Keep one on hand each year and when you are planning your trips, let Esso Touring Service supply you with maps and complete routings, and for real ‘Happy Motoring’ – use Esso Products and Esso Service wherever you find the Esso sign.’

The Green Book was published locally in New York, but its popularity was such that from 1937 it was distributed nationally with input from Charles McDowell, a collaborator on Negro Affairs for the United States Travel Bureau, a government agency. With new editions published annually from 1936 to 1940, the Green Book’s publication was suspended during World War II and resumed in 1946. Its scope expanded greatly during its years of publication; from covering only the New York City metropolitan area in the first edition, it eventually covered facilities in most of the United States and parts of Canada (primarily Montreal), Mexico and Bermuda. Coverage was good in the eastern US and weak in Great Plains states such as North Dakota, where there were few black residents.

It originally sold for 25 cents, increasing to $1.25 by 1957. With the book’s growing success, Green retired from the post office and hired a small publishing staff that operated from 200 West 135th Street in Harlem. He also established a vacation reservation service in 1947 to take advantage of the post-war boom in automobile travel. From 10 pages in its first edition, by 1949 he had expanded the Green Book to more than 80 pages, including advertisements.

The 1951 Green Book recommended that black-owned businesses raise their standards, as travelers were ‘no longer content to pay top prices for inferior accommodations and services.’ The quality of black-owned lodgings was coming under scrutiny, as many prosperous blacks found them to be second-rate compared to the white-owned lodgings from which they were excluded. In 1952, Green renamed the publication ‘The Negro Travelers’ Green Book,’ in recognition of its coverage of international destinations requiring travel by plane and ship. Although segregation was still in force, by state laws in the South and often by practice elsewhere, the wide circulation of the Green Book had attracted growing interest from white businesses that wanted to tap into the potential sales of the black market.

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