March 04, 2022
As Black History Month came to an end the Sunday edition of my local newspaper printed a front-page article on the Green Book and its impact on Black History in our area. Tour Guides have been a popular way to direct travelers to needed services since the Middle Ages. These were originally designed for the European rich, but in the US westward expansion, then trains, and later automobiles made these vital sources of information for the masses. While cars opened travel for the Black middle class, Jim Crow laws and discrimination limited available amenities. The Green Book listed locations that were friendly (or at least tolerant) of Black travelers. Most of these sites were located near larger cities, but attention was also given to ways to traverse between cities. Arkansas had around 230 listings, including four tourist homes in Fort Smith. Two of these homes are still standing.
When I looked online, I found the Negro Motorist Green Book (The Negro Motorist Green-Book, The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, or the Green Book) was an annual guidebook for African American travelers. It originated and was published by a Black New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966. This was during the Jim Crow era when open and often legally prescribed discrimination existed against Blacks and other non-whites. Although racial discrimination and poverty limited Black car ownership, the emerging Black middle class began to buy automobiles during the late 1920’s to avoid the discrimination of mass transit. Blacks still faced a variety of dangers along the road, including refusal of food and lodging and arbitrary arrest. In response, Green wrote his guide to services and places relatively friendly to Blacks travelers, and eventually founded a travel agency.
From a New York-focused first edition in 1936, Green expanded the work to cover much of North America, including most of the US and parts of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. While the Green Book became “the bible of black travel during Jim Crow”, enabling black travelers to find lodgings, businesses, and gas stations that would serve them along the road, it was little known outside the Black community. The Green Book was intended to make life easier for those living under Jim Crow, but its publisher looked forward to a time when such guidebooks would not be necessary. Green wrote, “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, and without embarrassment.” Shortly after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, publication ceased, and the book fell into obscurity.
THOUGHTS: The Green Book inspired a 2018 movie of the same name that won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor. The Green Book was a vital aid to travel for some, while nearly unknown to others. Even though the book included locations around my birth state, the movie was the first time I recall hearing the term. While the Green Book ceased publication, the discrimination it addressed still exists. Not having a book does not make discrimination go away. That only happens when we all change our attitude. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.