The Untold Story of Black Travel in America

On the Green Book, a guide that kept black travelers safe from 1936 to 1967.

More From Lenny Letter No. 75
5 articles
Back Pocket Pasta
Unspeakable Appetites
Rent Girl Grows Up
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"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."

—The Chicago Tribune, Aug. 29, 1925

Eleven years after this was printed in the Chicago Tribune, Victor H. Green, a black postal worker from Harlem, published the Negro Motorist Green Book to help his race travel with dignity. The Green Book listed everything from hotels to restaurants to haberdashers that were willing to serve blacks. Mark Twain's quote "Travel is fatal to prejudice" graced the cover and advertisements inside boasted: "Just What You Have Been Looking For!! NOW WE CAN TRAVEL WITHOUT EMBARRASSMENT."

The Green Book did more than save black travelers from embarrassment; it was a resourceful solution to a horrific problem, and it saved lives. It was published from 1936 to 1967 — a time when automobile travel symbolized freedom in America. It was widely used during the Great Migration, but blacks who traveled north to escape legalized segregation quickly learned that Jim Crow had no borders and segregation was in full force throughout the country. Blacks couldn't eat, sleep, or get gas in many white-owned businesses. Even Coca-Cola had "White Customers Only" printed on their machines. Moreover, blacks had to carefully navigate a country with thousands of "sundown towns," which were all-white communities that banned blacks within city limits after dark. Some towns rang a bell at 6 p.m., alerting blacks that they had to leave, while others posted signs at the county line that read, "Nigger, Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here, Understand?"

More From Lenny Letter No. 75
5 articles
Back Pocket Pasta
Unspeakable Appetites
Rent Girl Grows Up
Big Data, Big Problems

Considering the terror blacks encountered on the road, the Green Book provided protection in an unsafe world during a shameful chapter in American history. People called the Green Book the "Bible of Black Travel" and a AAA guide for blacks, but it was so much more. It was a powerful tool that helped blacks persevere and literally move forward in the face of racism.

Victor Green modeled his guide after Jewish travel guides created for the Borscht Belt in the 1930s, but the Green Book covered the entire United States, and later editions stretched to Canada, Bermuda and the Congo. Other black travelers' guides existed — Hackley and Harrison's Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers (1930 to 1931), Travel Guide (1947 to 1963), and Grayson's Guide: The Go Guide to Pleasant Motoring (1953 to 1959) — but the Green Book was published for the longest period of time and had the widest readership. It was distributed by word of mouth, black-owned businesses, mail order, and through a national network of postal workers, led by Green, who sought advertisers on their postal routes. Esso (Standard Oil, which operates as Exxon today) sold the Green Book in its gas stations and assigned two of the company's black marketing executives to promote and distribute the guide. By 1962, the Green Book had a circulation of 2 million readers.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The vast American landscape had long, lonely stretches of perilously empty roads, and Green Book properties were vital sources of refuge. Today, they play a critical role in revealing the untold story of black travel in America. They are physical evidence of racial discrimination, providing a rich opportunity to reexamine America's story of segregation, black migration, and the rise of the black leisure class, but in light of gentrification and suburban sprawl, most Green Book properties have been razed and many are slated for demolition. That is why the National Park Service's Route 66 Preservation Program approached me in 2014 to document Green Book sites on Route 66 and to produce a short video. I've estimated that nearly 75 percent of Green Book sites have been demolished or radically modified, so it is crucial to preserve the sites that are left, nationwide.

CLIFTON'S CAFETERIA

One Green Book business that is still alive and well is Clifton's, a fabulous Depression-era cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles. Clifton's closed for a few years starting in 2011 to undergo a $10 million renovation before reopening last year. It is now possibly the largest and most unusual cafeteria in the world — with five floors of history and taxidermy and a giant fake redwood tree rising up through the center. In the evenings, classic drinks like absinthe are served at a bar that has a 250-pound meteorite sitting on it.

The original owner, Clifford Clinton — a white man, a Christian, and the son of missionaries — had traveled with his parents to China, where he witnessed that country's brutal and abject poverty firsthand. He couldn't understand how America, a country with so much wealth, could allow its citizens to go hungry. So he never turned away anyone — even those who couldn't afford to pay. Clinton followed what he called the "Cafeteria Golden Rule." His menu read "Pay What You Wish" and "Dine Free Unless Delighted."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

MURRAY'S DUDE RANCH

One of the Green Book's most unusual sites was Murray's Dude Ranch. This lost gem was billed as "The Only Negro Dude Ranch in the World" — which it very likely was. The 40-acre ranch sat on the edge of the Mojave Desert, with Joshua, yucca, and mesquite trees dotting the landscape. A black couple, Nolie and Lela Murray, owned the property and offered black travelers on Route 66 much-needed lodging and some good old-fashioned Western recreation. Black and white celebrities visited, from Lena Horne and Joe Louis to Hedda Hopper and Clara Bow. Pearl Bailey ultimately bought the property in 1955 but sold it in the mid-1960s. Sadly, today there's no physical evidence that Murray's ever existed.

Most Popular

JACK'S BASKET ROOM

Jack's Basket Room, also called Jack's Chicken Basket and Bird in the Basket, was an after-hours jazz club and restaurant in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. Jack's was open from 1939 to 1951 and was known as "the place where everyone comes to play." Cab Calloway's lyric "A chicken ain't nothin' but a bird" was painted outside. Inside, chicken, steaks, ham, bacon, and barbecue were dished out until 2 a.m. and the music lasted until dawn.

This legendary nightclub hosted the nation's top entertainers. It served the black bourgeoisie and was owned by Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. Being at Jack's was an all night affair. Disc jockeys spun vinyl in the radio booth until 3 a.m. Other nights hosted Joe Lutcher's band and female impersonators entertained crowds with two floor shows between 12:30 a.m. and 3:15 a.m. People even stayed for the breakfast dance at 6 a.m.

THE DUNBAR HOTEL

After being repeatedly being denied rooms in white hotels, a prominent black dentist, Dr. John Alexander Somerville, built the Dunbar (named the Somerville at the time) in 1928. It's reportedly the first American hotel built expressly for black people, and for years it was one of the only major hotels in Los Angeles that served blacks. People called it the Waldorf-Astoria of black America.

It wasn't long before the Dunbar became the social and cultural hub for the black intelligentsia. During its illustrious reign, the brick and brownstone landmark served legendary talents such as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Cab Calloway, Red Foxx, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington. Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald played next door at Club Alabam (also a Green Book business).

The Dunbar was listed in the Green Book for fourteen years along with the adjoining beauty parlor and liquor store. It fell into decline during the civil-rights movement, forced integration, and the Watts riots. In 1974, the building was shuttered because it didn't meet minimal fire codes, and by 1987, the Dunbar deteriorated into a graffiti-scarred ruin. The Community Development Department and Community Redevelopment Agency spent $2.9 million renovating the hotel in 1987, and today, the Dunbar is listed on the National Historic Register and operates as housing for low-income seniors.

* * * * *

The Green Book ceased publication a few years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. But the Civil Rights Act did not fix racism. Discrimination and institutional racism, enacted by the government, continued. The Federal Housing Association redlined neighborhoods and denied loans to blacks, preventing them from accessing wealth-building opportunities freely given to whites. Black veterans were blocked from the GI Bill, missing out on valuable educational resources. And since the 1970s, the black male prison population has skyrocketed by 700 percent. Justice Department data now predicts that one in three black male babies born in America will be incarcerated in his lifetime. The struggle is also apparent today with black travel companies, such as Noirbnb, that are developed in response to widespread discrimination experienced by black Airbnb customers. Clearly, America, we still have a problem.

Despite our attempt to ignore these staggering statistics, we are still seduced by the promise of freedom, equality, and the American Dream. Given this mass denial, it's not surprising that the country is weighted down, blanketed with nostalgia, and suffocating from an idealized America that never was. It's time to honor the past, not romanticize it. As Leonard Cohen says, "Forget your perfect offering. There's a crack in everything, that's what lets the light in."

Candacy Taylor is an award-winning author, photographer and cultural documentarian. Taylor's Green Book project has been commissioned and funded by the National Park Service, Harvard University, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Graham Foundation, the California Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), and the Schomburg Center for Black Culture.

More from Lenny Letter: