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The segregation-era travel guide that saved black Americans from having to sleep in their cars

Cover of the 1960 (Negro) Traveler's Green Book.
Cover of the 1960 (Negro) Traveler's Green Book.
(via New York Public Library)

It's been exactly 50 years since the last edition of The Green Book was published. And that's exactly how its publishers wanted it.

The Green Book, which was published from 1936 to 1966, was probably the only travel guide in American history that looked forward to its own obsolescence. It was designed explicitly to help African-American travelers find hotels, restaurants, and gas stations that would accommodate them during the era of segregation, and it was often optimistic about the day that no American taking a road trip would need to consult a special, separate book to let him know where it would be safe to stop for the night.

"There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published," the editor and publisher, Victor H. Green, wrote in the introduction to the 1948 edition. "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."

In 2015, the New York Public Library digitized copies of most of the Green Books published throughout the guide's 30-year history. The books offer a window into one of the forgotten injustices of the Jim Crow era — and into black attitudes toward that injustice. While Green and his colleagues appear to have been unaware of it at the time, the Green Books show how black America became increasingly willing to call out discrimination where they saw it — and to stand up to it — in the years before federal law stood up for them.

Before the Civil Rights Act, a simple road trip could be life-threatening to a black tourist

Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination by private business owners, it was often hard enough for African Americans to find businesses that would serve them in their own hometowns. But on the road, it was nearly impossible to know in advance which places would accommodate them and which wouldn't — and the AAA, which was supposed to help motorists find accommodations, openly discriminated against accepting black members.

Tourists had to choose between stopping at a promising-looking hotel early in the day and pressing on to cover more ground — risking the chance that they wouldn't find another hotel willing to house them. Meal and bathroom breaks were at the mercy of local restaurant and service station owners.

Wherever African Americans were discriminated against, this was a problem. Travelers who didn't happen to know people along the route couldn't plan in advance; travelers who didn't plan in advance ran serious risks to their health and safety.

A segregated "day hotel" in Alabama in 1950 included different water fountains for white and black patrons.
At least this "day hotel" served black patrons.
Mondadori Archive via Getty

In historian Isabel Wilkerson's terrific book The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African Americans out of the Deep South in the middle of the 20th century, one of her protagonists — a man named Robert — is turned away from two different hotels while driving through Arizona. Unable to find a place to sleep, Robert ends up so exhausted that driving further puts his life in danger. He has to pull over and take a nap at the side of the road.

Even when their lives weren't in danger, their dignity surely was. In Master of the Senate, Robert Caro recounts an anecdote Lyndon B. Johnson started using in the late 1950s, as he began to become aware of the problems of Jim Crow:

My cook, Zephyr Wright, who has been working for me for many years— she’s a college graduate— and her husband drove my official car from Washington down to Texas [...] they got hungry, they stopped at grocery stores on the edge of town in colored areas and bought Vienna sausages and beans and ate them with a plastic spoon. And when they had to go to the bathroom, they would stop, pull off on a side road, and Zephyr Wright, the cook of the Vice President of the United States, would squat in the road to pee.

The Negro Motorist's Green Book: a travel guide to help black tourists know of safe places to stop

This is the problem that Victor H. Green, the editor and publisher of The Green Book (originally called The Negro Motorist's Green Book), had attempted to solve 20 years before Robert took his life-threatening trip through Arizona. Green published the first edition of The Green Book in 1936, covering travel locations that were convenient to tourists from New York City — but the book quickly expanded as he realized he'd found a ready audience. By 1937, it covered the US east of the Mississippi River; by 1938, it covered the entire Lower 48. By its later years, The Green Book included hotels and "tourist homes" (private homes that rented rooms) in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the West Indies. (The 1962 edition joked that eventually, The Green Book would offer listings for vacations to the moon.)

The cover of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book, 1956. (Negro Travelers’ Green Book via New York Public Library)

Of course, the guide never purported to be complete — and it always warned travelers that because circumstances could change at any time, its business listings might not be up to date. But as it became the best established travel guide to serve African Americans — and after the US Travel Bureau (a federal agency housed in the Department of Commerce, which closed in the 1950s) started assisting Green and his colleagues, it started to build out relatively complete listings. The first time The Green Book covered Alabama, for example, in 1938, it listed only three hotels in six cities; by 1957, it covered 13 hotels and motels in nine towns and cities in the state.

Green, who was a mail carrier by day, believed firmly in the power of black-owned business — and specifically in the power of black advertising. The Green Book celebrated the fact that African Americans were a growing consumer market, who were taking road trips just as white travelers had done for decades — and urged black business owners to take advantage of the growing market and "create our own 'name brands.'" The idea of The Green Book was to make black travelers' lives easier, while promoting the businesses that were willing to serve them.

Esso was one company that used the Green Book to openly court black customers.
Esso marketing executives.
(Negro Motorist’s Green Book 1947 via New York Public Library)

Reading over editions of The Green Book, it's easy to see that some businesses and industries were extremely enthusiastic about courting the black consumer. One of the earliest editions of The Green Book contains an essay that today would probably be labeled "sponsored content," bragging about how great the automobile industry has been for black workers. The oil company Esso (originally called Standard Oil and now called Exxon) had black marketing executives contribute their reminiscences about how difficult it had been to get lodging "back in the Nineties" and how much they wished The Green Book had been around then. And while the book was originally called The Negro Motorist's Green Book, big sections in 1950s editions about train travel and air travel happened to coincide with the guide getting renamed for the "Negro Traveler."

Of course, not every business in every town was interested in courting black customers.

In Shelby, Montana, for example, businesses weren't willing to be listed in The Green Book because they worried they'd be overwhelmed by black tourists dying to see Montana: "They believe Negro patrons have a right to fair consideration," a letter to Green (published in the 1948 edition of the book) says, "but they would hesitate to put their names in your directory for fear of finding all touring Negroes near here over-crowding the facilities to the ex-clusion of old customers." In North Dakota, another correspondent wrote the same year, business owners were okay with taking black patrons' money quietly, but "do not care to advertise the Negro trade."

An increasing willingness to call out discrimination by name

The 1948 edition of The Green Book — in which those letters from North Dakota and Montana were published — is the first edition that explicitly acknowledged the reason for the guide's existence, and used the word "discrimination" by name. When The Green Book was first published in the 1930s, it presented itself merely as a convenience, not as a reaction to discrimination. But after World War II, African Americans — led by veterans — got more vocal in calling out the injustices under which they lived, and The Green Book followed suit. The passage about "it will be a great day for us to suspend this publication" comes from Green's introduction to the 1948 edition.

Reading through the NYPL's digital archive makes it clear that the progress of the civil rights movement — even in allowing African Americans to publicly acknowledge the discrimination they were suffering — was stop-and-start right through to the Civil Rights Act itself.

By the mid-1950s, The Green Book stopped using the word "discrimination"; by the late 1950s, during the backlash against Brown v. Board of Education, it dropped the "Negro" from its title and was almost as coy about the book's reason for existing as it had been in the 1930s. But the 1961 edition opens with this line: "Every age across recorded time, had its minority group pinioned in the talons of prejudice." And the 1963 edition (the last one included in the NYPL archives) includes not only references to sit-ins, but also a list of state laws permitting discrimination.

Traveler's Green Book 1963 via New York Public Library

In retrospect, it seems like a list of state segregation laws would have been an obvious component of The Green Book from its founding — since, after all, those laws were the foundation of the discrimination The Green Book was trying to help travelers work around.

But that's not how social change works. For most of The Green Book's history, discrimination was a simple fact of life: something to be lived in and worked around. No black American would have described roadside discrimination as just. They had their hands full simply surviving under it — they didn't need to spend time discussing the broader injustices of segregation and Jim Crow.

By the time The Green Book was interested in educating its users about the terms of the state laws that had forced them to use the book for decades, those laws' days were numbered.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act made it illegal for business owners to refuse to serve African Americans — outlawing the very thing that had rendered The Green Book necessary. In 1966, the book published its last edition. The Green Book didn't last long enough to give black tourists a guide to the hotels that would accommodate them on the moon. It got something better: victory.