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The real story of the Green Book, the guide that changed how black people traveled in America

Vox.com logo Vox.com 2/25/2019 P.R. Lockhart
a vintage photo of a group of people posing for the camera: From the 1930s to 1960s, black drivers used Victor Green’s Negro Motorist’s Guide to travel across the country. © Green Book: Guide to Freedom/Lake County Historical Society From the 1930s to 1960s, black drivers used Victor Green’s Negro Motorist’s Guide to travel across the country.

A new documentary, The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, looks at how the historic travel guide helped black motorists.

In the 1930s, as the spread of automobiles spurred American drivers to take long trips to explore the country, black drivers who took to America’s roads regularly experienced discrimination during their travels.

But in 1936, Victor Hugo Green, a black postal worker, created a guide that would allow African Americans to embrace the adventure and road trips enjoyed by their white counterparts. The result was The Negro Motorist Green Book, the most popular guide for black travelers for three decades.

In production from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, the book offered a road map for African Americans navigating roads across the country, showing where black drivers and their families could eat, find lodgings, and enjoy themselves without concerns of experiencing racism or humiliation.

The guide has seen a resurgence in attention of late, especially after the release of the controversial Oscar-winning Green Book — a dramatized biopic focused on black musician Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga, his Italian-American chauffeur and bodyguard — travels through the Deep South during a music tour in the early 1960s.

But Victor Green’s guide has a much richer history than the one depicted in the film, which only briefly mentions the Green Book, and centers a white character in a film named after a guide aimed at helping black motorists. In their heyday, Green Books were used not only to help black drivers find safety and avoid humiliation but also to find entertainment and vacation spots. Activists used the Green Book as part of their work, regularly using black hotels and businesses as meeting spots.

And the books, which advertised locations in every state in the US, were relevant for African Americans across the country, not just in the Deep South. More than a tool for navigating Jim Crow, Green Books also enabled black travelers to navigate less formal systems of discrimination in the North and West, where black people still were often not allowed access to the same spaces as whites.

“It was much harder to navigate in the North and the West because you didn’t have the signs,” says filmmaker Yoruba Richen, whose new documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on February 25. “You didn’t know what places were dangerous and what places you weren’t supposed to go into.”

I spoke with Richen about the history of the Green Book, how the book was used to build community among African Americans during a time of formal and informal segregation, and why the Green Book’s existence refutes the idea that racism was only a Southern problem.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Promotional art for The Green Book: Guide to Freedom documentary. © Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Channel Promotional art for The Green Book: Guide to Freedom documentary.
Promotional art for The Green Book: Guide to Freedom documentary.

The Green Book didn’t just help black travelers in the South. It helped them across the country.

P.R. Lockhart

When we spoke last year, you were promoting your short film on the black anti-abortion movement in the US. What led you to work on a documentary about the Green Book as your next project?

Yoruba Richen

Back in 2017, a production company based in London called Impossible Factual reached out with the idea of doing a film about the Green Book. I had never heard of the Green Book before we started talking, but I was immediately interested and intrigued. I thought I knew my African-American history, but I hadn’t heard this part of it. [Doing a project on the Green Book] seemed to be such a good way to tell different themes and stories that we don’t often get to see when we talk about the black experience.

P.R. Lockhart

When the documentary opens, it walks us through how, from the 1930s onward, the spread of cars and the fact that Americans began to have more disposable income made road trips and extensive travel across the US possible. But the film also shows that truly uninhibited travel was something that only white people were able to access until the Green Book was introduced and helped open up leisure travel to African Americans. Can you talk about the story behind the Green Book’s creation, you know, when and why it happened?

Yoruba Richen

The Green Book was first published in 1936 by Victor Green. He was a postal worker, and he has a Jewish friend who had a book that listed places in the Catskills where Jewish people could go to. And Green says, “This would be great for black people — we need a book like this.”

Green also had a wife who had family in Virginia. And they would travel down to Virginia, so he had that experience of “traveling while black” and what it entailed. That’s why he created the Green Book; he saw a need and then decided to fulfill that need.

P.R. Lockhart

What type of information was included in the Green Book?

Yoruba Richen

When the Green Book is first published, it is just listings in New York (where Green lived), but it quickly spreads all over the country and internationally. It has listings for everything from where black people can stay — hotels, motels, things called tourist homes where people opened up their houses to travelers. It has restaurants, barbershops, gas stations, clubs, liquor stores. And then it has places where we could go and vacation, recreation spots. Starting in the early 1940s, the book is called The Negro Motorist’s Guide to Travel and Vacations, and that’s a big part of what the book was providing.

P.R. Lockhart

One of the things that really sticks out in some recent depictions of the Green Book, namely in the Oscar-nominated film named after Victor Green’s guide, is this very persistent framing that racism against black Americans was concentrated in the Deep South. Your film notes that the Green Book was helpful for travelers all over the country. Can you talk about how the Green Book is really a national resource instead of a Southern one?

Yoruba Richen

I think the first step is really making sure that we talk about it as a national thing. I recently saw the fiction film, and you only see them use the Green Book in the South, and that perpetuates the mythology that racism and segregation is just in the South, and obviously, it is all over. It was a national issue.

In fact, in terms of navigation, it was much harder to navigate in the North and the West because you didn’t have the signs. You didn’t know what places were dangerous and what places you weren’t supposed to go into. So I think the first thing is acknowledging it as a national guide.

When Green started the Green Book, he lived in New York, in Harlem. And in the 1930s, there were places that African Americans were not allowed to go into. And from the research people have done on the Green Book, it was used in myriad ways, from finding a place to stay to finding places where people could go and have fun. The Great Migration is all through this time period, and there are black people who moved to the North who talk about using the Green Book when they went back to visit relatives in the South.

a close up of text on a green background: The cover of the 1947 Green Book. © Image courtesy of the New York Public Library The cover of the 1947 Green Book.
The cover of the 1947 Green Book. The Green Book was published annually and regularly updated to include new locations.

P.R. Lockhart

Staying on this point of how racism and discrimination were bigger than the South, the documentary takes a look at towns and counties across the US known as “sundown towns.” (The film notes that many of these cities and counties existed in the North and West, and some Northern states had far more sundown areas than their Southern counterparts.) Can you talk to me a bit about what those were?

Yoruba Richen

Sundown towns were places that were off limits to African Americans after the sun went down. Sometimes there would be a sign; sometimes there was a bell that was rung for black workers to leave the town. In the documentary, we look at Pierce City, Missouri, which had a riot where they ran all the African Americans out of town [the town’s white residents burned down the black side of town shortly after lynching a black man falsely accused of murder], and from that time period to very recently, there were no African Americans who lived in that town.

The Green Book was a key tool for black drivers seeking safety. But it also helped them find entertainment, leisure, and community.

P.R. Lockhart

How does the spread of the Green Book intersect with the rise of the black middle class in the middle of the 20th century?

Yoruba Richen

The Green Book comes out in 1936 during the rise of automobiles and America becoming more of a car country. With that is the rise of the main decades of the Great Migration, the movement of black people from the South for economic and safety reasons to the North and West for job opportunities like the car industry in Detroit and other states. As blacks leave the South, there are more opportunities economically, and the middle class grows at the same time that people are fighting for their rights and working in the civil rights movement.

a vintage photo of a house: The Hotel Casa Blanca in Idlewild, Michigan was one of thousands of businesses promoted in the Green Book. © Green Book: Guide to Freedom/Lake County Historical Society The Hotel Casa Blanca in Idlewild, Michigan was one of thousands of businesses promoted in the Green Book.
The Hotel Casa Blanca in Idlewild, Michigan, was one of thousands of businesses promoted in the Green Book.

P.R. Lockhart

There’s been increased attention to the history of the Green Book in the past few years. And I think one of the most interesting parts of this documentary is how it looks at how the Green Book wasn’t just used as a tool for survival or safety — black people also used it to find community and entertainment in places like Idlewild, Michigan, and at stops like Alberta’s Hotel in Springfield, Missouri. Can you talk about how the Green Book served this other purpose beyond just providing safety?

Yoruba Richen

The film discusses a “parallel universe” that was created where these listings and businesses were known by African Americans. They were where thriving businesses allowed for us to go and be safe and have fun. These places provided a sense of haven for us.

We interview people in the film and they talk about the community the Green Book documented. And one of the people in the film says, “If you don’t have evidence, how can you say it happened?” The Green Book gives you the evidence.

P.R. Lockhart

Going off that, the documentary also provides a deep look at the black business owners who ran the places seen in the Green Book. The film pays particular attention to black women business owners, some of whom were also activists working in the civil rights movement. Why did you want to include these women’s stories in the documentary?

Yoruba Richen

One of the reasons we looked at it was that to ignore it would be false. We started looking through the Green Book and we saw so many women who advertised in the book and had restaurants and hotels and motels. Entrepreneurship among black women has always been in our community by necessity. It still is now. And it’s wrong that we don’t know that history about black women business owners. That means they’ve been left out of the narrative. And that absence isn’t true.

P.R. Lockhart

How did the Green Book help activists in the civil rights movement?

Yoruba Richen

The Gaston Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama, is a prime example, as is Modjeska Monteith Simkins’s Motel Simbeth in South Carolina. These are people who helped activists. A.G. Gaston actually funds the Birmingham campaign. He’s a black business owner, he’s prosperous, and part of this success is due to him owning the Gaston Hotel, which is included in the Green Book. Gaston’s hotel actually gets used as a headquarters for Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy during their work in Birmingham. Motel Simbeth as well; Modjeska is an activist. You never think that activism costs money, but people had to use their businesses to fund the work they were doing. So that’s one of the ways the Green Book is used.

(In the exclusive clip below, historical experts and members of A.G. Gaston’s family discuss how his hotel played a role in Birmingham’s civil rights movement.)

The Green Book is a little-known piece of American history — and many of its sites are in desperate need of preservation

P.R. Lockhart

So we have the Green Book, and it’s in production from 1936 to the mid-1960s, but it goes out of production once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes. You’ve noted in other interviews that currently just one-third of the businesses in the Green Book are still standing, and most of those need to be preserved before they are lost to history. How does the passage of the Civil Rights Act affect the businesses included in the Green Book?

Yoruba Richen

It was an unintended consequence, but the passage of the Civil Rights Act sort of helps speed up the demise of a lot of these industries. We know that during segregation, we had more businesses out of necessity. When the Civil Rights Act gets rid of this de jour legal segregation is when some of these businesses begin to decline. When we look at integration, we need to look at some of the results and consequences of it, and this was one of them.

P.R. Lockhart

You are someone who dug deep into the history of the Green Book, spoke with people who used the Green Book, or had relatives running the businesses listed in its pages. In light of being exposed to all that, what did you think of the Green Book movie that came out last year?

Yoruba Richen

I saw the movie recently, and what stood out to me is the fact that — well, obviously the film isn’t really about the Green Book — but even what you saw of the Green Book when they use it, they go to places that are sort of dumps. And that really was frustrating because that wasn’t the only type of place listed in the Green Book. The Green Book has 9,500 listings, among them places like the Gaston Hotel, which was considered the finest black hotel in the country in its time. So for people to leave with that impression is upsetting because that isn’t the extent of the Green Book.

I will say that I’m pleased about the timing of all of this, because the movie came out, now more people have heard of the Green Book, and they can watch [my] film and go deeper and learn more about the actual history behind it.

P.R. Lockhart

What do you hope viewers of the documentary walk away with?

Yoruba Richen

I want them to leave with an understanding of what it felt like to be an African American at the time. I also think it is important for them to understand that the Green Book was a guide, but what was in those pages is where the real stories and histories are.

There’s so many stories about the black experience that haven’t been told. And I want this film and my other work to be seen as uncovering parts of those stories and bringing them to the public. It’s important for the country to understand, because these are American stories.

The Green Book: Guide to Freedom premieres Monday, February 25, at 8 pm on the Smithsonian Channel and is available to stream on the Smithsonian Channel app.

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