Travel For African Americans Was Dangerous
During the 1940s and 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the system of interstate highways crisscrossing the nation. Unfortunately, it was also the time of the Jim Crow laws enacted upon African Americans designed to keep them from voting or using white businesses. As a result, automobiles became a lifesaver for the blacks. No longer would they have to use public transportation and subject themselves to humiliation. All Negroes would purchase a car ASAP to be free of discomfort, discrimination, and insults. However, their travels would not be easy travel.
This was the era of the 'Great Migration,' With the automobile; blacks began moving north for better opportunities and employment. But, unfortunately, they soon found that travel accommodations, places to eat or spend the night, or even get gas were severely limited for them. It was also the height of the Jim Crow laws and the discrimination of African Americans.
That's when Victor Hugo Green began to realize his dream to provide a book that provided places for them to stay, eat, or get automobile service or even gas. So In 1936, he published the Green Book, the bible for blacks to travel safely. The book was 48 pages and cost $.25 at the time. Each state had a separate listing. Demand was so great Victor reached out to his fellow postal workers to gather information for the Green Book. Green's book was published from 1936 to 1966.
Victor was born in 1892 in Manhattan and worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a mailman and served in the U.S. Army during WW I.
The Green Book would list safe places to stay, eat, service stations, and repair shops for each state. It also listed private homes that would welcome them in their travels. It would also list taverns, nightclubs, and articles on travel tips.
All 50 states were represented, and Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
On The Road
A trip by African Americans was complicated and full of risks all along the way. Not DWB (driving while black) scary, but the term "Sundown Town" was even worse. Sundown Towns were white communities that practiced racial segregation, posting signs "colored people" had to leave town by sundown or face fines. In the 1960s, there were over 10,000 of these sundown towns across the nation. So, by 6 P.M., blacks made sure they were out of the city limits.
Signs were posted entering the town, or a whistle or bell would sound warning at dusk; the signs would read:
"If you can read....You better run. If you can't read...You better run anyway."
Or, it might say, "Don't Let The Sun Shine On You."
Their road trips had to be carefully planned. Many service stations would not allow black patrons to use their services. Shell Gas Stations commonly refused the. Fortunately, Esso (formerly Standard Oil Co) serviced black customers and sold the Green Book in their stations. One could say the Negroes were America's last pioneers. Esso Gas allowed black travelers to use their restrooms and treated them with respect, so a debt of gratitude to them.
The Chitlin Circuit
The Chitlin Circuit was a collection of performance venues in parts of the U.S. that provided commercial and cultured acceptance for African American musicians, comedians, and entertainers during racial segregation.
Some of the well-known musicians included James Brown, Tina Turner, Jim Hendrix, Duke Ellington, and many others. They played, gathered, and danced in black-owned nightclubs, dance halls, roadside shacks, juke joints, and theaters.
The End of The Green Book
After the Civil Rights Act, the Green Book would finally be obsolete. It was something Victor had always said with his word, "the time will come when the book will no longer be needed.
The Green Book was a guide to freedom for the black traveler and a life or death for those traveling. It forever changed how black people traveled. The book was a survival tool for segregated life.
The Green Book is included in an exhibit, America On The Move, at the Natural Museum of American History. In addition, the New York Public Library has digitalized copies of the Green Book.