The Green Book

A country without a memory
is a country of madmen.
— George Santayana, 1863 − 1962

The New York Times evoked a memory recently with a story about the Green Book, published between 1936 and 1964 by Harlem’s Victor H. Green.

To really understand it, you need its full title: “The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide.” It was a guide to lodgings, restaurants, gas stations, barbershops and so on, where blacks were welcome.

All those great AAA guidebooks didn’t cover this America, so Victor Green did.

To read the entire New York Times story, click here.

This wasn’t a political statement. It was about avoiding the humiliation of being told — often in the most hurtful language possible — that “your kind” wasn’t welcome.

Sometimes, the stakes were higher, and meaner, than that. So you took precautions.

You kept your fuel tank full, just in case. You packed an ice chest with soft drinks and sandwiches, in case you couldn’t find an eatery. And if you pulled into a town that didn’t “feel” right,” you just kept going — no matter how tired or hungry you were. Even if it meant driving all night.

Was this dangerous? Yes. But maybe not as dangerous as stopping.

Even if you didn’t have the Green Book — you had your own list of folks who could put you up. Where you didn’t know anyone, you knew to locate “your” side of town. Once there, you’d find some little cafe or shop, and start asking around.

There was no need to ask where the black part of town was. You had only to ask “Where can we get something to eat?” or “Where can we find a room for the night?” — with a little added inflection on the “we.”

The answer might come politely or it might come rudely, but it always came.

Someone would point you to a motel, or just point you to a neighborhood where you might run into someone who might let you spend the night on their couch — or on the floor if the couch was too short. Maybe even throw in a meal or two.

Sometimes, there was no need to find the black folks in town. They would find you.

While en route to Chicago in 1966, my family’s Buick collided head-on with a Pontiac on a lonely two-lane Wyoming highway. One person was killed. The nearest hospital was 100 miles away, in Laramie.

There were less than a dozen black folks in Laramie back then. Nearly all of them found their way to the hospital. They kept us company, answered our questions, told us where we could find what and who would be willing to do what for “us.”

Above all, they made sure that we knew we were not alone in Laramie.

They became our Green Book.

Victor Green’s paperback has been rendered obsolete by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it is as much a part or our national travel heritage as the Chisholm Trail, the Natchez Trace or Route 66.

For more details about the Green Book, you might enjoy reading the Perceptive Travel blog.

Surviving copies exist at the National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, TN, and at the newly opened International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC.

Thank to IBIT friend Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, I’ve just learned that the Green Book has been digitally scanned by the South Carolina Digital Library, which means you can view its contents online.

Many thanks, Kaetrena!


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