During the Jim Crow era, traveling in the United States for African-Americans was difficult and often dangerous. Motels and restaurants didn’t have to serve you if they didn’t want to. “Sundown towns”—places where it was unsafe to be black at night—dotted the nation’s geography. If you were driving around the country, the only way to know if you were safe was by word-of-mouth.
But a black civic leader named Victor H. Green came up with a better, more permanent solution. In the early 1930s, he began publishing a compendium of tips and wisdom for black travelers called The Negro Motorist’s Green Book, which would become better known as just the Green Book.
In its heyday, each edition of the Green Book was selling around 15,000 copies. Green’s guidebook was horrifyingly, frustratingly necessary for African-American motorists, business travelers, and vacationers to use while driving the roads and interstates of this country.
Indeed, the 1949 edition featured an ominous warning on the cover: “Carry The Green Book with you. You may need it.”
Thanks to the digital collection at the University of South Carolina Libraries, we were given the opportunity to examine the 1956 edition of the Green Book. Reading the Green Book itself doesn’t cause shock, but remembering its context certainly does.
In the foreword, Green reiterates with very subtle language why a guidebook for black travelers was necessary. He writes: “The Negro traveler can depend on the “GREEN BOOK” for all the information…this guide has made traveling more popular, without encountering embarrassing situations.”
“Embarrassing situations” could refer to a motel owner refusing to rent you a room, a greasy spoon diner rejecting your patronage, or other forms of harassment and outright violence. Mr. Green’s choice of words is almost too courteous—but his readers surely knew what he really meant.
Going through the listings in the Green Book, the recommended lodgings are largely located in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. New York City’s listing, for example, shows mostly places in Harlem.
Green later dedicates a short feature in the guide to sightseeing in New York and even recommends tourists visit him in his home.
On page 54, the Green Book begins listing a set of instructions on how to not draw too much attention to yourself while driving and avoid potentially getting pulled over for capricious reasons. (This is one of many sections that is unfortunately still resonant today.) The list includes:
Obey all traffic regulations.
Be sportsmanlike with fellow-drivers.
Start earlier, progress slower and keep speed reasonable.
The Green Book also encourages travelers to avoid littering, since you could be in a county where that is an arrest-worthy offense. In general, it says, black travelers should “behave in a way to show we’ve been nicely bred and was taught good manners…don’t leave these valuable commodities home…We are good-will ambassadors of our race among those who perhaps are unfamiliar with us.”
Over pages 55 and 56, the Green Book praises New Mexico, which it says contains “little if any racial friction.” .
In the introduction of the 1949 edition, Green wrote, perhaps too hopefully, “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.”
The last edition of the Green Book was published in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Visit the University of South Carolina Libraries’ digital collection to learn more about the history of the Green Book, read the entire book (it’s only 88 pages), and view an interactive map plotting the restaurants, motels, and resorts that were willing to serve and house African-American travelers.