The discriminatory laws and practices of the Jim Crow era made traveling by car a dangerous experience for Black families. Travelers were denied access to basic services including gas, hotels and public restrooms along the nation’s highways. Many were greeted with humiliation, threats, and physical violence because a wrong exit was taken. These Sundown Towns, or municipalities that banned Blacks after dark, were scattered across the country.
The desperate need for safe and friendly accommodations brought about the start of a necessary network of shared word-of-mouth advice. Victor Hugo Green, a Harlem-based postal carrier, had grown tired of the maltreatment received by Blacks who dared venture outside of their neighborhoods.
In 1936, he published the first version of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook for Black travelers that provided a list of hotels, boarding houses, taverns, restaurants, service stations and other establishments throughout the country that served African American patrons.
Green drew his inspiration from guidebooks published for Jewish travelers. He wanted Blacks to also have the freedom to travel without facing hostility. The first edition listed hotels and restaurants in the New York area. But after gathering information from his fellow postal workers throughout the states and offering payment for viable information, Green began to expand later editions.
By the early 1940s, the Green Book boasted listings of thousands of establishments from across the country. Each was either Black-owned or proven to be non-discriminatory. Travelers were able to visit bars and restaurants, enjoy movie theaters, spruce up at a local beauty salon, or simply pass through a town for a quick tour, all without fear.
Rev. Dorothy Wells of Tennessee said that her parents, in 1959, used the Negro Motorist Green Book to plan their honeymoon. The newlyweds drove through the segregated South from Mobile, Ala., to Roanoke, Va.
“It took them about six days, one way, to make the trip,” Wells said during an interview with WMC Action News 5. “… if you wandered into a place where African Americans are not welcome, it could be worse than not safe. You could end up actually being killed.”
Author Kym Clark wrote: “When I was a little girl … I remember us all piling into the car to take trips home to Georgia. Now that was in the early to mid-1960s … we never stopped, not for a hotel, a restaurant or a restroom. My mom would fry up a big batch of chicken that we’d eat along the way, fill up a big thermos with soup and another big thermos with coffee and off we’d go. Now, mind you, that was an 18- to 20-hour trip. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized why.”
Green died in 1960. His wife, Alma, then took over as editor. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act banned racial segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks and other public places. Two years later, after nearly 30 years in print, the Green Book ceased publication.