Once upon a time, not too many years ago, traveling to the South for Black Americans was almost as challenging as the forces their ancestors faced as runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.
During slavery times, fugitives on the Underground Railroad had many conductors, such as Harriet Tubman, William Lambert and David Ruggles, to help them negotiate their escape to freedom. For Black Americans interested in returning to the South to visit relatives and loved ones in later years, there was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” widely known as the “Green Book.”
The book was an absolute necessity for Black travelers, no matter which way they were moving across racially segregated America, in which they were advised on what route to take, what “sundown” towns to avoid, where to get gas and where to stop and rest.
It was the ingenuity and vision of Victor Hugo Green that brought about the publication of the book in 1936. Green, an African-American employed by the U.S. Postal Service and based in Harlem, created the guide book that, in its original version, mainly focused on metropolitan New York. But the following year, the book was expanded considerably, with a concentration in other states, and it eventually included most of the southern states. The last publication of the book was in 1964, just as the Civil Rights Act was passed.
“In the 1930s,” according to the Black Past website, “Green began his work by compiling data on stores in the New York area that accepted Black travelers, and published his first guide in 1936. Similar guides had been published for Jewish travelers, who sometimes faced discrimination. Green’s guide was so popular that he immediately began to expand its coverage the next year to other U.S. destinations, adding hotels and restaurants as well. After retiring from the Postal Service, Green continued to work on updating issues of the ‘Green Book.’ In addition, he developed the related travel agency business he had established in 1947.”
One of the best sources of information about the ‘Green Book’ comes from Richard Kennedy’s master’s thesis in 2013. He does a marvelous job of putting the ‘Green Book’ into political, social and geographical history, but we learn little about Green, other than he’s a retired postal worker living in Harlem. We do learn that he was born Nov. 9, 1892 in New York City.
He grew up in Hackensack, N. J., and in 1913 he began working as a mail carrier for the U.S.P.S. In 1918, he married Alma Duke of Richmond, Va. Later the couple moved to Harlem. At one time, they lived in an apartment at 580 St. Nicholas Ave. near 139th Street. Mrs. Green died in 1978.
There are several quotations from Green in Kennedy’s thesis, including “Carry your Green Book with you—You may need it.” Whether Green’s motivation was the result of any personal encounter that might have necessitated the book is not disclosed. It should be noted that Kennedy conducted interviews with various people who had encountered racism, but Green died in 1960, so there was no opportunity to interview him. On the book’s cover there is a quote from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
Besides Kennedy’s important research, there’s been the tireless efforts of author/playwright Calvin A. Ramsey to provide the world with a better understanding of the ‘Green Book.” He has done this goal through his award-winning play and book, and a series of documentaries. Although there is not much information about the personal life of Green, Ramsey has provided some interesting connections, including Green’s niece by marriage, Ramona Green and her grandson, Brian Green. According to the information from Ramsey’s documentary, Green had a partner in his enterprise, his brother William.
It may take a while to gather more information on Green, in the meantime, we can enjoy what Kennedy and Ramsey have done and are doing to keep his innovation alive and placed in the increasing canon of African-American literature and creativity.
In addition, there is a need to understand what endeavors had occurred along the same lines before Green’s venture. Some of this information is explored with insight by Kennedy in his thesis.
Kennedy believed that further research was needed on the relationship between Green and the Standard Oil Company. “As one of the largest petroleum companies of the era,” Kennedy wrote, “and the fact that Standard Oil was usually unrestricted in hiring, granting of franchise licenses and servicing African-Americans in their pursuit of unobstructed automobility, a fact that Calvin Ramsey decided to highlight in his children’s book.”
Over the more than a generation of its existence, the “Green Book” underwent various changes. Between 1949 and 1959, the listings were expanded to all 48 states, thereby undergoing a 13 percent increase. There was a great distinction, however, the 1959 edition listed only hotels, motels, and tourist homes. We should also note that by the time the 1956 version came out, the creation of the national highway system began to minimize the importance of the book.
Nowadays to have an original copy of the “Green Book” is to possess a real collector’s item. Some antiquarians report seeing one at Swann’s gallery several years ago at an exorbitant price. Several copies may still be available in the Schomburg’s rare books and manuscripts section.
A few older Black Americans, certainly not old enough to personally recall the Underground Railroad, do remember when advice about “The Negro Motorist Green Book” could have been the same as the slogan once used in advertisements for the American Express card: “Never leave home without it.”