The Jim Crow Laws made discrimination legal. For nearly a century, black American citizens had to live under a “separate but equal” status, which cut them off from countless resources and services. At the same time, the African-American middle class began buying cars whenever they could. The motivation was in part to avoid the segregation found on public transportation, but it created a new set of problems.
The Jim Crow era
These issues included uncertainty about where to get essentials, like gas, food, and a place to stay. While white citizens could get in a car and drive cross-country without ever worrying about being refused service, black families would prep in advance. Many black drivers even traveled with buckets or portable toilets, because public rest stops banned them.
This was the world of Victor Hugo Green. He worked as a mailman in New York City, and in 1932, decided to write a travel book devoted to chronicling restaurants and hotels in the city that would provide service to African-Americans. The concept wasn’t unknown; a similar guide for Jewish-Americans existed, as they also experienced discrimination. Called The Green Book, Green’s guide was instantly popular. The next year, he began covering other services, like gas stations, tailors, and doctor’s offices. Over the years, he also expanded territory into Canada, Mexico, and even Bermuda.
The Green Book was seen as a “Bible” and must-have for black travelers. Ernest Green (no relation), one of the first nine black students at Central High School in Arkansas, traveled 1,000 miles with his family to see his sister graduate college, using the guide to plan the whole trip. Because of the book’s popularity, Victor Green retired from his mailman job and opened a travel agency in 1947. He focused on finding black-friendly businesses for his customers. Meanwhile, he kept publishing new editions of the book, printing up to 15,000 copies per edition.
“The Green Book” today
Green looked forward to the day when his book wasn’t needed. In the foreword to the 1949 edition, he wrote, “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published.” He died in 1960, and four years later, the Civil Rights Act passed. The Green Book was not published again, and for some time, it was somewhat forgotten by the generations growing up without Jim Crow. In recent years, the book has come back into the public eye as academics began studying travel during Jim Crow more closely. It’s astounding to look back in our not-so-distant history and see how legal discrimination affected what we take for granted now, like taking a road trip through your own state.
While not quite mainstream knowledge yet, The Green Book is becoming more known. You can find it online, and if you go here, you can see a Google Map with marks on over 1500 listings from the 1956 edition. In his 2016 novel Lovecraft Country, which is being developed as a TV show by Jordan Peele (director/writer of “Get Out”), Matt Ruff features a fictionalized version of Victor Green, The Green Book, and his travel agency.
The Green Book contained a quote by Mark Twain in the first edition: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” Travel has a lot of benefits, which you can read about here.