If you, like so many Americans, are not familiar with “The Green Book” and its publisher, Victor Green, then you’ve probably never heard of his wife, Alma. Memories of them surfaced recently in conversation with Yoruba Richens, who is currently at the helm of a documentary on the life and times of Rosa Parks. Several years ago, she was a panelist dealing with the history and impact of “The Green Book,” a guidebook for African Americans to successfully navigate the treacherous Jim Crow terrain and officially known as “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” and she reminded me of that during the Pittsburgh occasion.
It also put Alma Green on my mind and thus this week’s profile of the woman who was indispensable in creating “The Green Book” and who kept it going years after her husband’s death. Born in Richmond, Virginia on June 9, 1889, Alma knew firsthand the dangers of Jim Crow and even more so when she began working as a dressmaker when she was 18. She was also a live-in servant for William Morton, a prominent tobacco merchant. Apparently, she traveled to other parts of the country, including New Jersey where a newspaper reported a surprise party for “Miss Alma Duke by a number of her friends at the residence of Mr. and Mr. William Watson…it was a most enjoyable evening.” (Three years ago, Victoria Martinez, recounted this story on her A Bit of Historyblog.)
How and when she settled up north in New York and New Jersey is not clear, but the family may have made the move after the death of her brother in 1915 who had been ill with tuberculosis meningitis. From several historical documents, the Greens moved from New Jersey to New York in the late 1920s or early 1930s. It was perhaps in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance they began conceiving the plan for the publication, based mainly on what they knew personally of the traveling and living accommodations in the South and impressions gathered from others.
They issued the first edition in 1936, and while there is no mention of Alma in the book, she must have been a decisive factor in helping to compile the hotel, restaurants, rest stops, and, most crucially the Esso gas stations, along routes that covered nearly every state in the union.
“With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936,” the publication began, “it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable. The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted and there are numerous publications that give gentile whites all kinds of information.
“But during these long years discrimination, before 1936 other guides have been published for the Negro, some are still published, but the majority have gone out of business for various reasons.” They go on to explain that the publication consists of 80 pages denoting places owned by Blacks and whites that cater to their needs. In a closing paragraph they state there may come a time when such a guidebook will not be necessary and that “will be a great day for us to suspend this publication.” And that they will do until the last edition of the publication in 1966, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Victor died in 1960 and Alma, no longer the unofficial co-publisher and editor, became the sole publisher and kept the publication going for the next six years, finally ending it with the same words they wrote at the beginning. In 1978, Alma died just short of her 89th birthday in Harlem, where she had lived for almost 50 years. Maybe one day markers will be placed on 135th Street where they first published the book or on St. Nicholas the subsequent locations.