Where did Blacks use the bathroom, get a drink, safely stop for gas and perform all the other quotidian acts of road tripping under Jim Crow segregation?
I had seen references to a “Negro” guidebook in the New York Times, but never actually read one until a good friend, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, posted the link to the 1949 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book on Facebook (download it here).
The book, named after Victor H. Green, a Harlem postal employee and activist who initiated the annual pamphlet in 1936, was published for three decades to help Black travelers avoid the humiliations and confrontations of passing through a segregated North America. Or, as the cover reads, it was “An International Travel Guide: USA, Alaska, Bermuda, Mexico, Canada.” [Note to Tea birthers: Alaska, like Hawaii, became a state in 1959.]
There are several striking aspects to this fascinating artifact of American history, not the least of which is that it guides African Americans through the racial minefields of the supposedly integrated American North and West.
Like the early twentieth century Jewish guides that warned travelers of that faith about restricted areas, The Green Book was a crucial resource for an increasingly mobile Black working class during and after the war, when 5 million are estimated to have left the South for jobs and lives elsewhere in a second wave of migration.
The 1949 edition, taken from the collections of Henry Ford, was not only sponsored by small businesses that catered to Blacks, but by Ford Motor Co. and Esso Oil, who were among the early corporations to explicitly market to an African American audience. Esso punctuates this point with a photo of two stern and successful looking Black businessmen, James Jackson and Wendell Alston, “special representatives of the Esso marketers in their New York office.”
Given Henry Ford’s well-known collaboration with the Nazi regime, his company’s sponsorship is notable for its plying for business among both murderous racists and the rising postwar Black American working class. Esso, the precursor to Exxon, of course made its billions off extracting wealth from lands largely inhabited by non-whites and to this day is guilty of environmental racism.
But Blacks were a growing market in 1949 and the ideology of Corporate America has always been profits first. This explains their corporate imprimatur on a guidebook whose introduction reads:
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 opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.
Inside, each state, large city and country is listed with the names of beauty parlors, taverns, drug stores, garages and nightclubs where Blacks were welcome. Addresses only, no telephone numbers, are typed alongside the names, and users of the guidebook are asked to write to the publication’s Harlem address to comment on any problems or inconveniences so that the guidebook could be properly updated each year.
Those familiar with major Northern cities like Chicago and New York will note that the only addresses listed for tourist homes and hotels are in the traditional Black enclaves of those towns. So much for the formal integration of the North—the book tacitly acknowledges the de facto segregation of every American city in that era. Though Chicago’s extensive write-up includes attractions in that city’s Jewish and Chinese quarters as well, indicating that these were more tolerant, or at least less intolerant venues for African Americans to visit.
A Chicago amusement park on the north side provides travel directions with the assumption that a Black visitor must be arriving there from the South Side. I’m sorry to report, however, that the location given is today the coordinates of a rather large police precinct at Belmont and Western.
After passing along the guidebook to my partner, who is Black, she passed it on to her 5th-grade daughter’s teacher who had recently assigned her class a magnificent novel that teaches 10-year-olds about the civil rights era, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. In that book, the Watsons, a Black family, must pack along food to avoid stopping in places where no accommodations were available to them.
Next year, the teacher plans to distribute copies of The Green Book as part of the lesson plan so that young children can begin to grapple with the realities of this nation’s racial past. I think it’s a magnificent idea for a teaching tool, especially for a generation that is being falsely taught to believe that racism is a thing of the past.
The guidebook ceased publication in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed. Today, it provides an amazing window into the criminal realities of American life not so many years ago. And some context for the ongoing institutional racism and informal segregation of our society to this day. Pass it on.