CHARLOTTE, NC. One of the best movies this past holiday season was a picture called The Green Book. Based on a true story, the film takes the audience on an eight-week road trip into the American Deep South back in the 1960s. The voyage is undertaken by an educated black pianist and his street-savvy, temporarily out of work Italian driver.
The film’s narrative focuses on relationships, friendship, race relations, cultural differences and other social subjects that are as relevant today as they were during that turbulent decade.
The title of the film is actually a reference to a uniquely real guidebook used by black American travelers and vacationers in the mid-20th century. But the movie’s script only tiptoes into the background of this now legendary guide. The Green Book became the black traveler’s Bible for a brief during a brief span of 20th Century US history. The story behind the actual Green Book guide adds considerable insight into the movie. That, in turn, offers an even greater understanding of the relationship between the film’s primary characters.
The Green Book: The black travelers’ Bible to a mysterious country
In 1936, a new travel guide to America quietly appeared. Yet it remained relatively unknown, especially in white communities across the USA. Ultimately, it became known as “The Green Book” but its contents were extremely valuable to a new class of traveler.
Published by a New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green during the era of Jim Crow laws, “The Green Book” evolved between 1936 and 1966. It was also known as “The Negro Motorist Green-Book” or “The Negro Traveler’s Green-Book.” It’s information could not have been more useful to its avid readers in the black community.
An automobile meant freedom. But for some, it was under a caution flag
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. Grasping this social sea change, in 1930, writer George Schuyler encouraged “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, motorized vehicles represented a bold new era of freedom for black American travelers. 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 in getting to a place but 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 often denied such privileges. Therefore, the allure of travel for people of color often meant adjusting to conditions that were far from ideal.
Black travelers often wasted hours of valuable time searching for places where they would be accepted, even in destinations where accommodations and dining facilities were available. The alternatives frequently meant sleeping in their cars or some remote barn.
Advance planning was a must, particularly for black travelers heading South
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 with gasoline and packing food from home, just to avoid problems on long trips.
Thus the “The Green Book” became invaluable for black traveler’s by saving constant inconveniences, not the least of which was the embarrassment of being denied food or lodging or, sometimes, even arrest.
At first the 10-page guidebook primarily focused 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 Dangers of Travel for Blacks
Seeking to restrict black mobility, white supremacists were frequently inhospitable and hostile to African-American strangers. Thus, despite the so-called promise of “freedom” from access to an automobile, journeys for blacks could be fraught with danger and additional difficulties.
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!”
SCOTUS: Separate but Equal
Though the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that “separate but equal” accommodations were constitutional, blacks quickly learned that “separate” was one thing while “equal” was often something else entirely. Even in the late 50’s and early 60s many places in the south had separate restroom facilities and drinking fountains for blacks and whites.
Trains, for example, had “Jim Crow cars” which were dirty, battered and uncomfortable railroad coaches for blacks that were anything but “equal” in the quality and comfort afforded to whites.
“So far as travel is concerned,” wrote 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. declared themselves “sundown towns” in which all non-whites were required to leave before sunset or be subject to arrest. This aspect of the era is clearly referenced during one sequence in the current film.
The laws became so absurd in some places that in the Mississippi Delta region, for example, one local custom banned black motorists from passing whites so the dust from unpaved roads would not cover white-owned vehicles.
The Green Book
Thus the advent of “The Green Book.” Unlike Baedeker, the most popular, and unpc, white guidebook of the day, “The Green Book” was not a reference book of choice so much as it was a necessary guide that informed travelers of any place that might be available.
Though Victor Hugo Green rarely editorialized in his publication, he did use testimonials from 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.
“The Green Book” ceased publication in 1966, but for three decades Victor Hugo Green was the black traveler’s Martin Luther King.
With that bit of background, here’s hoping The Green Book will be an even more enjoyable viewing experience.
(This article is updated from an earlier February 14, 2018 posting.)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is anaward-winningg 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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