"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?"
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.
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.