So, scouting around the interwebs, I somehow came across a curious snippet of information that led me to the discovery of the Negro Motorist Green Book, an old travel guide book series designed for African-American car drivers who may have been looking for a safe space to have a drink, eat some food, or get some sleep when they were on the road.
Published annually between 1936 and 1966 when Jim Crow laws were abound in the U.S. and as African-Americans earned their way into the middle class and car ownership, these guides would help drivers know of safe places to travel to (or through) until they reached their destination. Car ownership was also necessary for African-Americans to avoid using public transportation and the problems that would be encountered there, so these guides played an important role for a lot of families.
Open widespread discrimination and arbitrary rules were not uncommon for the African-American car driver, from restaurants who would refuse to serve African-Americans to “sundown”* towns to communities with a police force who would enforce laws with a very heavy racially-biased hand. Thus, seeing a need for some reliable and up-to-date info, newspaper man Victor Hugo Green began to publish this guide in New York.
Originally, the guide (or the Green Book, as it was known) was published only with a focus on New York City, but as its circulation grew, the geographic areas that the guide covered expanded until it covered the entirety of North America and Canada (and even Bermuda and parts of the Caribbean) by the end of its run. Written by Green, it was a directory that was really important and was effectively crowd-sourced from its readers as new entries were added by word-of-mouth via personal experience.
The annual guides included names and addresses of cities and towns with safe restaurants, safe hotels, or night clubs, and even, in the particularly small communities, the contact info to stay in someone’s private house if there were no hotels or inns that would house you. It’s incredible that this was the case, but that’s Jim Crow for you. Interestingly, the city where I now live does not have any entries in the Green Book for the year that I looked. I can only imagine that this meant that there were few (or no) safe places for African-American travelers. 😦
This led to a fascinating journey down some wormholes to learn about this neglected and shameful piece of history. I have never heard of these guides before. Have you?
- ”Sundown” towns were all-white municipalities (in both the north and the south) that practiced segregation by enforcing impossible and awful restrictions such as all non-white/non-Christian people had to leave town by sundown. Not only was it impossible for African-Americans to purchase land or housing in such a town through extensive exclusionary housing agreements, it was also highly likely that such folks would be run out of town or lynched. (There are a couple of places that didn’t actually remove their anti-Jewish and anti-African-American covenants until 1990!! Shameful.)
ETA 03/2019: Tracked this down about the city in which I live. Unfortunately, the ramifications of this restrictive policy live on to present day 😦 :
In 1923, the [town] City Council established an ordinance that forbade people with more than “one-eighth negro blood” to reside outside the area “lying south of 16th Street and east of Avenue C except servants who were expected to live in the place where employed” (Amin, 1989). To this day, that part of the city, East [Town], remains predominantly a separate community of citizens of color that now includes a sizeable Hispanic population in addition to its historically African American residents, and suffers disproportionately under the burdens of high rates of crime, poverty, ill health, and low academic achievement.
For more info, try the review of “Driving While Black” by Gretchen Sorin (2020). Fascinating. Plus learn how the Green Book has a new iteration!