The “Negro Motorist Green Book,” later known as the “Negro Travelers’ Green Book,” or, more commonly, simply the “Green Book,” is a publication that a lot of people may not have known existed before the 2019 Academy Award-winning movie “Green Book.” This series of guides for African-American travelers, published from 1936 through 1966, was an indispensable tool providing “the Negro traveler with information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”
Throughout the Jim Crow era, and not just in the southern states, black people were not allowed to eat, sleep and even obtain gas at many white-owned businesses. There were even towns known as “Sundown Towns” that banned blacks from entering city limits after dark.
The Eastern Lincoln Historical Society held a program Monday evening at Tucker’s Grove Campground to look at this historical publication. The two speakers were Dr. Herman Thomas, a retired professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Jermaine Blackmon, owner of the Chicken ’n Ribs restaurant on Beatties Ford Road in Charlotte, a restaurant which was listed in the Green Book as being one friendly to blacks.
The adage of “you don’t want to leave home without it” applied to the Green Book during this time of great migration, Jim Crow laws and segregation.
“You couldn’t stop at restaurants,” Betty Quinn said before the program began. “You had to be prepared and pack all your food, water and gas. We had a jar in the back for the children to use to go to the bathroom and, as adults, we had to stand with two doors open in the car to go.”
The guide, organized by state and city, pointed black travelers to places including hotels, restaurants, beauty parlors, nightclubs, golf courses and state parks that they could utilize during their trips.
First published in 1936, the Green Book was the creation of a Harlem-based postal carrier named Victor Hugo Green. Rates of car ownership exploded in the years before and after World War II, but the lure of the interstate was also plagued with risk for African Americans.
The foreword of the 1956 edition of the Green Book noted, “the White traveler has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different.”
“I didn’t know about the Green Book until the movie came out,” said Blackmon who is the fourth generation to operate Chicken ’n Ribs in Charlotte, which was listed on page 54 of the 1963 and 1964 editions of the Green Book. “I did know about Jim Crow and segregation and the places we were allowed and not allowed to go to.”
The restaurant is still in the same spot and offers many of the same items that were on its menu in the 1960s.
“The advent of motor vehicles changed America and the way of traveling for African-Americans,” Thomas said. “This invited opportunity for movement throughout the land. Economic discrimination was and remains an important issue. Many African Americans found ways to advance and thus the need for advice/assistance in travel.”
The automobile allowed African-Americans to avoid the crowded, often filthy conditions common in segregated public transportation. It was an “escape to freedom” and the Green Book was essentially a post-slavery underground railroad guide, Thomas said. Prejudices against blacks was and is not just a Southern thing.
“You had to know where you were going because one wrong turn could end you up in jail,” he said.
For much of the evening, Thomas entertained the audience reading listings contained in various years of the Green Book, as well as stories of his travels as a young man through the segregated south.
“The Green Book is no longer published but one of the issues which precipitated its publication persists though not to the same degree,” he said. “Incidents of racial discrimination or racial profiling prevail. We have gone from ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ to a black concert pianist being chauffeured by a white man but we are not there yet.”