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The story behind the Green Book: The Black persons guide to America

Written By | Jan 1, 2019
The Green Book, Negro, Allan C. Brownfeld

WASHINGTON:  Universal Picture – Dreamworks has released a movie based on the 1936 travel guide The Negro Motorist Green-Book.

 For those of us who are old enough, and lived in the South, the years of segregation remain an indelible memory. I remember a time, not that long ago, when restaurants, rest-rooms, trains, buses and almost every aspect of life was segregated.

When I taught a course in international law at the Pentagon, I asked one of my students why there were so many rest-rooms along the hallways. I was told that the Pentagon, located in Virginia, was built during the years of segregation and that on the halls there were four sets of rest-rooms, for white men, black men, white women, and black women.

As portrayed in this movie, Hidden Figures, the story of NASA in the 1960s.

The Green Book Movie

The recent movie “The Green Book” shows the travail endured by black travelers in those days. It tells the true story of Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class African-American pianist who is about to embark on a concert tour in the South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, he recruits Tony Valielonga, a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx.

Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger. Tony is given a copy of “The Green Book” by the recording studio, a guide for black travelers to find safe havens throughout the South. It guides them to the few establishments that were then safe for African Americans.

The history behind The Negro Motorists Green-Book

“The Negro Motorist Green Book” was originated and published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966 as a guide to places and services relatively friendly to blacks. Many black Americans took to driving to avoid segregation on public transportation.

The black journalist George Schuyler wrote in 1930 that,

“All Negroes who can do so purchase an automobile as soon as possible in order to be free of discomfort, discrimination, segregation, and insult.”

Victor Green compiled resources “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into discrimination. That it will make his trip more enjoyable.”

In 1917 the black scholar 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 what to do with vacations.”

It was not only in the South that black travelers were not welcome.

In Cincinnati, the African American editor Wendell Dabney wrote of the situation in the 1920s that,

“Hotels, restaurants, eating and drinking places almost universally are closed to all people in whom the least tincture of colored blood can be detected.”

Not one hotel or other accommodation was open to blacks in Salt Lake City in the 1920s. Only 6 percent of the more than 100 motels on Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico admitted black customers. Across the whole state of New Hampshire, only three motels in 1956 served African Americans.

In 1943, George Schuyler wrote:

“Many colored families have motored all across the United States without being able to secure overnight accommodations at a single tourist camp or hotel.”

He suggested that they would find it easier to travel abroad than in their own country.

In Chicago in 1945, St. Clair Drake and Horace A. Clayton reported that

“The city’s hotel managers by general agreement do not sanction the use of hotel facilities by Negroes, particularly sleeping accommodations.”

Lester Granger of the National Urban League reports that black travelers had to carry buckets or portable toilets.  They usually were unable to use bathrooms and rest areas in service stations. African American travelers often packed meals and carried cans of gasoline because many service stations did not welcome them as customers.

Civil rights leader Julian Bond recalled that his parents used “The Green Book,” He notes that,

“It told you not where the best places were to eat but where there was anyplace. You needed The Green Book to tell you where you could go without having doors slammed in your face.”

Victor Green looked forward to a time when such guidebooks would no longer be necessary:

“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 as we please without embarrassment.”

The 1966 edition was the last to be published after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations. We have come a long way since then. While in college, in the years of segregation, Ii anyone suggested that we would live to see a black Supreme Court Justice, Secretary of State, and President, that person would have been considered mad. However, it has happened.

Our society has shown a great capacity to change, for the better.

However, the story is not over.

Even today, we have politicians who seek to divide us by race. Too often, innocent people have been killed by the police, mainly because of race. In December, a black man was escorted from the lobby of a hotel in Portland, Oregon because he was innocently speaking on his telephone in the lobby—even though he was a guest at the hotel. The news, unfortunately, has too many such stories.

Reviewing the history of “The Green Book” is instructive. We have come a long way. However, our journey is ongoing. Moreover, sadly, divisions of people based on race, religion, and ethnicity is hardly a uniquely American problem. The growth of nationalism—often a euphemism for tribalism of one kind or another—is growing throughout the world. Hopefully, we—-and people of good will everywhere —will learn some lessons from the story, of “The Green Book.”

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.