CHARLOTTE, N.C., February 14, 2018: Have you ever heard of “The Green Book”? Back in the middle of the 19th century, as the world became increasingly mobile, Karl Baedeker first set the standard for travel guidebooks. He was just in time for the beginning of the Golden Age of Travel, when steamships and railroads provided greater access to new and exciting destinations than ever before.
With the advent of automobiles combined with new upward mobility, the same wanderlust spirit that attracted white travelers nearly a century earlier was now spreading into black communities as well. It was no surprise then that in 1936, a new travel guide arrived on the scene. It was relatively unknown at first, especially in white communities. Eventually referred to as “The Green Book,” its contents proved far more valuable to a new class of black travelers than Baedeker could have imagined in his time.
When first published, “The Green Book” was officially called “The Negro Motorist Green-Book.” The information contained inside was priceless to its readers. Published by a New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green during the Jim Crow era, “The Green Book” gradually evolved between its first appearance through 1966. In the process, it also became known as”The Negro Travelers’ Green-Book.”
As writer George Schuyler observed 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.” Preferring not to use bus transportation where blacks were most often required to sit in the back, personal ownership of a motorized vehicle logically represented a bold new era of travel freedom.
Freedom that is, up to a point.
While motorcars provided access to destinations that had once seemed far out of reach, the problem for blacks was not getting to a place. It involved what to do when they got there.
Unlike whites who could fill up their tanks at any gas station, check in to any hotel they desired, or eat at whatever restaurant they chose, blacks were more often than not denied such privileges. Therefore, the allure of travel for people of color often meant adjusting to conditions that were far from ideal.
When accommodations and dining facilities were available, black travelers often wasted hours of valuable time searching for places where they would be accepted. The alternatives frequently meant sleeping in their cars or some remote barn.
Advance planning was critical for black travelers. Often they brought buckets in the trunks of their cars to use as portable toilets. The same was true when planning gasoline stops as well as packing food from home, just to avoid such simple problems during long trips away from home.
That’s why, in fairly short order, the “The Green Book” soon became the black traveler’s Bible, simply by advising where and how to avoid infinite travel inconveniences, not the least of which involved the embarrassment of being denied food, lodging or, on occasion, even the possibility of arbitrary arrest.
At first, the 10-page guidebook focused primarily on New York. But, as its popularity quickly grew, the publication expanded to cover most of North America, including parts of Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
“The Green Book” was arguably the first real attempt to evade Jim Crow on the road. Seeking to restrict black mobility in the early- to mid-20th century, white supremacists in most states were actively inhospitable and hostile to African-American strangers. Thus, despite the so-called promise of “freedom” to be gained by automobile ownership, journeys for blacks could be fraught with danger as well as additional difficulties when on the road.
A biting article published in 1947 in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) magazine summed up the plight of black travelers in a single paragraph:
“Would a Negro like to pursue a little happiness at a theater, a beach, pool, hotel, restaurant, on a train, plane, or ship, a golf course, summer or winter resort? Would he like to stop overnight at a tourist camp while he motors about his native land ‘Seeing America First’? Well, just let him try!”
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 had ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations were constitutional, blacks quickly learned that “separate” was one thing while “equal” was another. Even in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in many places in the south there were still separate restroom facilities and drinking fountains for blacks and whites.
It wasn’t just drinking fountains, either. Trains, for example, reserved what were known as “Jim Crow cars” for black passengers. These segregated railroad coaches for blacks only were dirty, battered and uncomfortable. They were anything but “equal” compared to the quality and comfort of coaches reserved for whites. “So far as travel is concerned,” observed Lester B. Granger of the National Urban League, “Negroes are America’s last pioneers.”
With the rapid growth in black travel, hundreds, if not thousands, of communities throughout the U.S. began to declare themselves “sundown towns.” In a sundown town, all non-whites were required to leave before sunset.
These laws and related customes became absurd in the extreme. In the Mississippi Delta region, for example, one local custom banned black motorists from passing whites so the dust from the unpaved roads would not cover white-owned vehicles.
All this and more was what eventually inspired “The Green Book.” Unlike Baedeker, “The Green Book” was not a reference book of choice so much as it was a necessary guide that informed black travelers of ANY place or facility that might be available without the usual problems. Though Victor Hugo Green rarely editorialized in his publication, to emphasize this point, he did include testimonials from his readers to inform others about their treatment.
In a sense, it was Green’s hope that his guidebook would eventually go out of business by becoming obsolete. Eventually, it did. “The Green Book” ceased publication in 1966. But for the three previous decades, Victor Hugo Green was arguably the black traveler’s Martin Luther King, championing for blacks the freedom of the road that white travelers had long regarded as their birthright.
Today, the freedom to travel is enjoyed by all American citizens, thanks at least in part to the pioneering efforts of Victor Hugo Green.
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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