OVERGROUND RAILROAD

THE GREEN BOOK AND THE ROOTS OF BLACK TRAVEL IN AMERICA

 

On Aug. 29, 1925, The Chicago Tribune stated, “We should be doing no service to the Negroes if we did not point out that to a very large section of the white population the presence of a Negro, however well behaved, among white bathers is an irritation…Under the circumstances it would seem that the Negroes could make a definite contribution to good race relationship by remaining away from beaches where their presence is resented.”

Not only were black Americans shut out of pools, parks, and beaches, they 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. Moreover, they had to navigate a country with thousands of “Sundown Towns,” all-white communities which banned blacks from their city limits after dark. Nearly half of the counties that lined Route 66 were “Sundown Towns.” Some posted signs that read, “N*gger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Understand?”

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.”

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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. Green modeled it after Jewish travel guides created for the Borsht Belt in the 1930s. It was promoted by word of mouth, Esso Service Stations, 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 was published from 1936 to 1967 and helped black people travel the country with dignity. It featured hotels, restaurants, beauty salons, department stores, barbershops, taverns, nightclubs, tailors, garages and real estate offices. It even included parks such as Disneyland, golf courses, and Murray’s Dude Ranch, a place billed as the “Only Negro Dude Ranch in the World”. A page inside boasted, “Just What You Have Been Looking For!! NOW WE CAN TRAVEL WITHOUT EMBARRASSMENT.”

The Green Book provided critical, life-saving information and offered shelter in an unsafe world during a shameful chapter in American history. People called it the “Bible of Black Travel,” and an AAA guide for blacks, but it was much more than that. It was a powerful tool which helped blacks to persevere and literally move forward in the face of racism.

 

THE GREEN BOOK PROJECT

I have been working on this project since 2013. I have cataloged over 9,600 Green Book listings, scouted over 3,600 Green Book sites in 48 US States, and photographed over 160 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 Overground Railroad (Abrams Books), traveling exhibition, digital interactive map, board game, mobile app, and virtual reality platform. 

This project has been awarded fellowships and grants from Harvard University (The Hutchins Center, directed by Henry Louis Gates Jr.), The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, National Geographic, The National Park Service, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Graham Foundation, The California Humanities, and The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). 

I produced the video above in partnership with the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. 


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