‘The Green Book’: How Folks Survived Traveling While Black in the Good Old Days

As if we needed further reminders that the Good Old Days of the early and mid-20th centuries weren’t so good at all for a lot of people, Smithsonian has dusted off a fascinating publication called The Green Book.

Image for post
Image for post

It’s been more than a half century since the last edition came out, but it still tells a vivid story that is recounted nicely in The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, a documentary that premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on the Smithsonian channel.

The Green Book was a guidebook for black travelers, started in 1936 by a black postal worker named Victor Green.

It listed hotels, restaurants, beauty parlors, gas stations, resorts, swimming pools, beaches, drug stores and a wide range of service facilities that would actually welcome and serve black people.

In the Good Old Days, that often did not include the majority of establishments in any town.

North or South.

While most of us have seen vintage signs from Southern restaurants and hotels saying things like “We Cater to White Trade Only,” this documentary notes that this was only one jagged tip of an iceberg.

Thousands of municipalities around America were “sunset towns,” where blacks were not allowed on the streets after sundown. Violating that statute could mean being escorted out of town, jailed or worse.

Mississippi had 13 sunset towns. Illinois had several hundred.

Beyond the fundamental outrage of the whole idea, the “sunset town” designation meant a black traveler — like a black person who worked in town — could not stay in a hotel, find a bathroom or get anything to eat after sundown.

That was more than a minor inconvenience, needless to say, and it’s the main reason Victor Green started publishing the Green Book — so black folks would know before they hit the road where they could — and by default, could not — plan to stay or stop.

Image for post
Image for post
Patrons of Michigan’s famous Idlewild resort.

“Carry your Green Book with you,” the cover of the Green Book read. “You may need it.”

Victor Green himself lived in Harlem and originally focused on facilities around his home neighborhood. While Harlem was one of the centers of black life and culture in America, some of its marquee attractions and institutions did not allow black patronage. While black musicians were the attraction at the Cotton Club, for instance, blacks were not permitted in the audience.

The Green Book soon became so popular Green expanded it, eventually covering the whole country and international destinations like the Caribbean.

As black families migrated North and got jobs in places like the Detroit auto assembly lines, The Green Book notes, they slowly and often painfully inched toward the middle class, which meant more black families owned cars and took vacations.

Victor Green said his dream was that one day no one would need his book, that one day black families could hop in the car and simply access all the services and facilities available to white families.

Today that might seem like simple reality. Back in the 1940s, more than half the counties along Route 66, the iconic highway that runs from Chicago to L.A., were “sunset.”

Historians in this documentary argue that the book itself is a critical piece of American cultural and racial history. In the most irrefutable way, it shows how black Americans, almost a century after the end of slavery, still lived under their own set of cruel and repressive laws and rules.

Wisely, the documentary also spends considerable time saluting those entrepreneurs who did open black-friendly businesses and accommodations.

Modjeska Simkins bought an old hospital in South Carolina and repurposed it as a hotel that welcomed black travelers. She also convinced her niece to apply to the then-segregated University of South Carolina, a move that sparked the lawsuit that required USC to accept black students.

A.O. Gaston, a black entrepreneur in Birmingham, ran a motel at which he provided free rooms to civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After King was jailed in Birmingham and wrote his famous letter, Gaston paid thes bond to get him out.

Gaston himself was not an activist. He felt he had succeeded largely by working with the white Birmingham community and abiding by segregation strictures. That ended when he saw one of Police Chief Bull Connor’s men turn a high-powered fire hose on a young black girl demonstrating on a Birmingham street.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in facilities open to the public, accomplished much of Green’s stated goal. Green had died by then, and his successors marked his victory by terminating the Green Book after the 1966–67 edition.

Image for post
Image for post
The Idlewild community is still populated and active today.

On a more somber note, the opening of public accommodations put a number of black establishments out of business, since they now had to compete with chains and other better-financed alternatives.

Of the approximately 9,500 facilities once listed in the Green Book, historians estimate only a third are still standing, many in ill repair. These historians argue that we need to save and designate at least some of them, thus preserving that part of the American story.

Early in The Green Book, a woman in her 70s recalls taking road trips with her family when she was very young. The father would get out at a restaurant, or a gas station, or a hotel, and tell the family to wait in the car while he determined whether colored folks could be served. If he returned and just got back in, that meant that no matter how tired or hungry anyone was, or how badly anyone had to go to the bathroom, those options were only available to the white folks.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store