Victor Hugo Green (1892-1960), Creator of the Green Book–First Travel Guide for African-Americans
During the 1940s and ‘50s, Americans began taking to the road. Increasingly, more conventions were being held in various parts of the country, and salesmen, athletes, and entertainers were also traveling for business. People were also beginning to take car trips for pleasure.
African-Americans were as eager as all other Americans to see the United States via automobile. They also had the added incentive that if they had their own transportation they could avoid being relegated to the “colored” sections of public transportation.
Traveling for African Americans was Uncertain and Risky
Car travel for African-Americans, however, was fraught with difficulties because of racial segregation. Finding a place to buy gas, food, use the bathroom, or sleep overnight were among the challenges faced. People generally packed food to carry with them, brought along extra gasoline, and if they were worried about bathroom facilities they brought along something to use as a portable toilet. Those who traveled for business generally arranged to stay with relatives or friends as they knew locating a motel or a friendly restaurant would not be easy. If families were to take to the road to visit relatives, parents wanted to spare their children from the humiliation of being refused service or admittance.
The problems involved were not simply a matter of inconvenience. A road trip in many parts of the country could entail uncertainty and risk. Racial profiling was done by police, and some travelers simply “disappeared.” In addition, there were at least 10,000 “sundown towns” in the United States as late as the 1960s; in a “sundown town” nonwhites had to leave the city limits by dusk, or they could be picked up by the police or worse. These towns were not limited to the South—they ranged from Levittown, New York to Glendale, California and included the majority of municipalities in Illinois.
Drivers were told to travel in a chauffeur cap (or at least have one beside you) so if stopped, they could announce that they were delivering a car for a white person.
Green Saw a Need
Victor H. Green (1892-1960) started his adult work life delivering mail in Hackensack, New Jersey. (While he and his family eventually settled in Harlem, he always maintained his job with the New Jersey Postal Service.) While in Harlem he began managing his brother-in-law who was a musician. Perhaps through the musicians, Green began hearing the terrible tales of what befell African-Americans who traveled.
For several years there had been travel guides for Jewish people, because they, too, encountered discrimination on the road. Green began developing plans for his own guide, reaching out for information about different areas using his connections within the National Association of Letter Carriers.
In 1936 he published the first edition of his book, The Negro Motorist Green Book, providing information related to the New York area as to where it was safe for blacks to stop, buy gas, eat, and spend the night. In some places, there were no hotels or motels that would accept African-American guests, so Green listed “tourist homes,” where families would rent a room to a traveler.
Word spread about the guide book, and Green sold it by mail order and through black-owned businesses. Esso was one of the few gas stations that offered franchises to African-Americans, so Green soon found that they were a perfect place to sell the book.
The book also attracted the attention of Charles A.R. McDowell who was the collaborator on Negro Affairs for the United States Travel Bureau, and he began working with Green to secure more broad-based information.
“One of the Survival Tools of Segregated Life”
When Julian Bond was president of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) he said, “It was a guidebook that told you not where the best places were to eat, but where there was any place.”
From 1942-46, publication of the book was suspended because of the war, but Green began publication again in 1947, and that year he also started a Reservation Service located on West 135th Street in Harlem. The Service operated as a travel agency that could book travel plans according to where an African-American traveler wanted to go.
By the 1950s, the book had been renamed The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, and Green eventually expanded it to make recommendations throughout the U.S. and in Bermuda and parts of Mexico and Canada. Green also began to list other services, including barber and beauty shops, drugstores, and night clubs where African-Americans were welcomed.
In the introduction to his first guide in 1936 Green wrote: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.”
This eventually proved more or less true with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the beginning of laws that prevented racial discrimination. Green passed away in 1960, so he did not live to see this day.His family kept the book going until 1966 when the last edition was published.
Some say the Green Book might have been all but forgotten had not author Calvin A. Ramsey been planning to travel to a friend’s funeral in Atlanta in 2004. The deceased’s grandfather lived in New York and had not been in the South in recent years, and he asked Ramsey where he could get a “Green Book.” This set Ramsey on a path to uncover the story and write a play and a children’s book about the travel challenges confronted by African-Americans.
Making the Story Local
The Henry Ford Collection at the University of Michigan has a 1949 edition of the Green Book, which has been posted online as a PDF. This permits today’s readers to check out what was happening in their communities in the late 1940s.
I grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, so I immediately turned to the section on Colorado and saw that there was one hotel and one tourist home listed in Pueblo; no service station, no drug store, and no restaurants. Once a visitor arrived at one of the places mentioned, it was probably possible to get a few local recommendations for other services, but the paucity of listings certainly paints a clear picture of the traveler’s dilemma. In Colorado during that time, African-American travelers would want to travel to Denver to be assured of finding food, gas, and lodging.
To see how your community fares, click here.
For a story of Jackie Robinson’s experience trying to fly from Los Angeles to Florida for spring training click here.