THE OVERGROUND RAILROAD
THE GREEN BOOK AND THE ROOTS OF BLACK TRAVEL IN AMERICA
The American road trip is the essence of the American dream. Hitting the open road on a desolate highway symbolizes a pathway to opportunity and easier times. Take Route 66 for example, it was one of the few U.S. highways laid out diagonally, and it cut across the country like a shortcut to freedom.
Although the message of freedom went out to all Americans, it was really only meant for white Americans. Not only were they shut out of pools, parks and beaches, blacks couldn’t eat, sleep, or even get gas at most white-owned businesses. To avoid the humiliation of being turned away, they often traveled with portable toilets, bedding, gas cans, and ice coolers. Even Coca-Cola machines had “White Customers Only” printed on them. In 1930, 44 out of the 89 counties that lined Route 66 were all-white communities also known as “Sundown Towns,” which were places that banned blacks from entering city limits after dark. Some posted signs that read, “N*gger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Understand?”
THE GREEN BOOK
Despite the dangers, millions of black vacationers hit the road and relied on a travel guide called, The Negro Motorist Green Book. Victor H. Green, a black postal worker from Harlem, New York, created this guide and it was published from 1936 until 1967. The “Green Book” featured barbershops, beauty salons, tailors, department stores, taverns, gas stations, garages, and even real-estate offices that were willing to serve blacks. A page inside boasted, “Just What You Have Been Looking For!! NOW WE CAN TRAVEL WITHOUT EMBARRASSMENT.”
Green modeled his guide after Jewish travel guides created for the Borsht Belt in the 1930s. Other black travelers’ guides existed—Hackley and Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers (1930-1931), Travel Guide(1947-1963), and Grayson’s Guide: The Go Guide to Pleasant Motoring (1953-1959)—but the Green Book was published for the longest period of time and had the widest readership. It was promoted by word of mouth, and a national network of postal workers led by Green who solicited advertisers. By 1962, the Green Book reached a circulation of two million people.
The Green Book covered the entire United States and later editions stretched to Canada, Bermuda and the Congo. During the time it was published automobile travel symbolized freedom in America, and the Green Book was a resourceful and innovative solution to a horrific problem. People called it the “Bible of black travel” and a “AAA for blacks,” but it was so much more. It was a powerful tool for blacks to persevere and literally move forward in the face of racism.
During the Great Migration six million blacks hit the road to escape the Jim Crow South, but they quickly learned that Jim Crow had no borders. Segregation was in full force throughout the country. Route 66 was easily the most popular road in America, and out of the eight states along it (Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California), six had official segregation laws as far west as Arizona—and all of these places had unofficial rules about race that changed from county to county. Even once black travelers reached a multiracial city, such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, only six percent of the more than 100 motels along Albuquerque’s slice of Route 66 admitted them. And although there were no formal segregation laws on the books in California, Glendale and Culver City were sundown towns and the sun-kissed beaches of Santa Monica were segregated.
I produced the video above in partnership with the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.
It was assumed the West was more liberated than the South, but thanks to the enormity of the American West’s expanses, in some ways it was even more dangerous. The farther west people traveled, limited services were available—for whites and especially for blacks. Food and lodging were scattered over long distances and fewer black people in particular, lived out west which made it even more difficult for black travelers to find help in case they had car trouble. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, writer Isabel Wilkerson recounts Dr. Robert Foster’s harrowing journey in the West, where he would fall asleep at the wheel from exhaustion simply because he had been turned away from every motel he stopped at for being black. This is why the cover of the Green Book warned, “Always Carry Your Green Book With You—You May Need It.”
The Mother Road certainly did not mean freedom for everyone. Route 66 bore witness to some of the nation’s worst acts of racial terror and the American ideals associated with it, then and now, have usurped the narrative, erasing the more harrowing aspects of the nation’s past. Although today’s, politicians and television anchors speak of “terrorism” as though it is a new phenomenon to the United States, terrorism isn’t new and to think so is a grievous slight to the nation’s native peoples, to its multitudes of immigrants, and to its legions of black Americans—all of whom have long been terrorized for calling America home.
Take, for example, one violent night in 1906 in Springfield, Missouri, which would soon become the birthplace of Route 66. During a grisly lynching on Easter weekend, a vigilante white mob dragged Horace Duncan and Fred Coker to the town square, hanged them, burned their bodies while thousands watched, and then distributed their body parts among the crowd as keepsakes.
In 1921, the Tulsa Race Riot erupted in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was one of the nation’s most devastating acts of terrorism against black Americans. Greenwood was a vibrant community of successful black entrepreneurs, doctors, and lawyers. Booker T. Washington called it “Black Wall Street of America,” and it was arguably the wealthiest black neighborhood in the South. But, after a young black man was wrongfully accused of assaulting a white woman, an angry lynch mob broke out. Long-held jealousies over black prosperity and Greenwood’s wealth ignited a riot. The white mob set the neighborhood on fire. After 16 hours, over 300 people died, 35 blocks of the Greenwood District burned to the ground, and more than 10,000 black residents were homeless.
The road was wide open but every mile was like a minefield. Businesses with three “K”s in the title, such as the Kozy Kottage Kamp or the Klean Kountry Kottages, were possibly code for the Ku Klux Klan. Black motorists of course also avoided sundown towns like Edmond, Oklahoma. In the 1940s, the Royce Café, proudly announced on its postcards that Edmond was “‘A Good Place to Live.’ 6,000 Live Citizens. No Negroes.”
The humiliation of being shut out of not only public spaces but out of entire towns was bad enough, but for blacks, the threat of lynching was of particular concern when they traveled through the Ozarks. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan operated Fantastic Caverns, a popular tourist site near Springfield where they held their cross burnings inside.
For many, the vulnerability of the road meant always having a plan, a cover story, or even a disguise. One popular safety precaution? A chauffeur’s hat. Black motorists who drove nice cars were especially susceptible to regular harassment by law enforcement. In 1930, the black columnist George Schuyler said, “Blacks who drove expensive cars offended white sensibilities,” and some blacks “kept to older models so as not to give the dangerous impression of being above themselves.”
In the 1950s, my stepfather, Ron, experienced this firsthand as a child. His father had a good job with the railroad and owned a nice car. After being stopped by a sheriff while on vacation with his family, the sheriff asked Ron’s dad where he got the car. Knowing better than to say it was his, Ron’s father pretended to be a chauffeur. When the sheriff asked about the other people in the car, Ron’s dad pretended they weren’t his family. He said the woman sitting next to him (his wife) was his employer’s maid, and he was taking her and her son (Ron) home. The sheriff asked, “Where’s your chauffeur hat?” Ron’s dad was ready; he had one in the car: “Hanging right up in the back, Officer.”
FUTURE OF THE GREEN BOOK PROJECT
I have cataloged nearly 9,000 Green Book listings, scouted over 3,200 Green Book sites in 48 US States, and photographed over 150 Green Book properties. I have discovered that less than one-third of these sites are still standing and fewer than 5% are still in operation. The fact that we have these buildings as physical evidence of racial discrimination is a rich opportunity to re-examine America’s troubled history of segregation, black migration and the rise of the black leisure class. This extensive field research will be incorporated in my upcoming book, traveling exhibition, digital interactive map, board game, mobile app and virtual reality platform.
This project has been awarded fellowships from Harvard University (The Hutchins Center, directed by Henry Louis Gates Jr.), The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Graham Foundation, The California Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).
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