During Jim Crow segregation, black motorists turned to the “Green Book” to guide them to safe accomodations and restaurants.
During the era of Jim Crow segregation, Black Americans faced grave dangers while traveling the highways and byways of the United States. Many hotels and restaurants refused to serve Black customers and certain “sundown” cities went so far as to ban all Black travelers after nightfall.
These harsh realities created a demand for an authoritative guide known as the Negro Motorist Green Book (or Green Book for short) listing safe havens for Black folks to frequent while traveling. First released in 1936, the book was the brainchild of a Harlem‐based postal carrier named Victor Hugo Green. Inspired by similar works published for Jewish travelers trying to avoid anti‐Semitic locations, the goal of the guide was to help Black Americans travel without fear.
When the Green Book was created, Victor and his wife Alma Green lived in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem, across the street from Duke Ellington. Sugar Hill was a symbolic reference to the “sweet life” found in this illustrious neighborhood that was filled with Black luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Thurgood Marshall.
But like most Black Americans in the mid‐20th century, the Greens had grown tired of the discrimination Blacks faced whenever they traveled outside of their neighborhoods. Being subjected to “Whites Only” policies meant they often couldn’t find safe places to eat or sleep.
The need for the Greens’ book wasn’t confined to the Jim Crow South. As the motto emblazoned on the guide’s cover said, “Carry Your Green Book With You — You May Need It.” 1
The book began as a short, 15‐page list of hotels and restaurants in the New York metropolitan area, which was Green’s home territory. But its coverage grew rapidly thanks to the support of his fellow postal carriers, who gathered field reports to support the guide. Soon, black travelers themselves, in a modern‐day form of crowdsourcing, became the eyes and eyes for the guide.
In later years, cash payments were sent to readers who forwarded useful information. For many Black Americans it became an honor to have one’s home or business listed in the Green Book.
During the guide’s early days, the Green Book’s taxonomy of locales were organized by city and state, with the vast majority of listings centered in major urban centers like New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Over time it became a rich source for Black travelers seeking safe havens at hotels, guest houses, nightclubs, restaurants, service stations, state parks, golf courses, drug stores, and barber shops.
Listings in the guide were either Black‐owned or, if not, known to be non‐discriminatory. According to Candacy Taylor author of the book, Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America:
More than 80 percent of the listings were clustered in traditional African American neighborhoods such as Harlem, South Central Los Angeles, and Bronzeville in Chicago. The majority were black‐owned, but there were also black‐friendly white‐owned establishments, such as Macy’s, Brooks Brothers, the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the Hotel Bel‐Air in Los Angeles, and even Disneyland.2
The Green Book also reflected Black advancement in the world of free enterprise and entrepreneurship. The guide became an indispensable marketing tool for Black‐owned business establishments interested in serving travelers seeking safe harbors. Says author Taylor:
By 1930, Blacks in the United States owned approximately 70,000 small businesses and over the Green Book’s nearly thirty‐year reign, it listed more than 9,500 of these, including hotels, restaurants, gas stations, department stores, tailors, nightclubs, drugstores, hair salons, haberdashers, sanitariums, funeral homes, real estate offices, and even a dude ranch. 3
By the early 1940s, the Green Book boasted that it covered thousands of establishments nationwide. As Evan Andrews wrote for History.com:
The 1949 guide encouraged hungry motorists passing through Denver to stop for a bite at the Dew Drop Inn. Those looking for a bar in the Atlanta area were told to try the Yeah Man, Sportsman’s Smoke Shop or Butler’s. In Richmond, Virginia, Rest‐a‐Bit was the go‐to spot for a ladies’ beauty parlor.
In 1952, Green retired from the postal service and became a full‐time publisher. He was able to yield a modest profit from the Green Book — 25 cents for each copy sold of the first edition, $1 for the last edition—but never became wealthy. At the height of the guide’s circulation, 20,000 books were sold annually through outlets like the Negro Urban League, Esso gas stations, and Black churches.
The Green Book expanded from its origins catering strictly to motorists into a guide to international travel; later editions included listings on airline and cruise ship travel to numerous global destinations.
In 1960, Victor Green died after more than two decades of publishing the travel guide. His wife assumed the editorial role and continued to release updated editions of the Green Book. But in 1964, with the advent of the Civil Rights Act which banned racial segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks and other public places, the Green Book quietly ceased publication.
The enduring legacy of the Negro Motorist Green Book in fostering travel freedom and independence is best captured in the introduction of the 1948 edition.
“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.” 4