A look inside the Green Book, which guided Black travelers through a segregated and hostile America
(USA Today) - The guide's creator knew the racist dangers Black motorists faced in the 1940s through the 1960s and hoped one day his Green Books wouldn't be needed.
For Black travelers driving across segregated America in the '40s, '50s and '60s, the Negro Motorist Green Book was more than a travel aid – it was a guide for keeping them safe.
The Green Book – named after its creator, not the color of its covers – was pocket-sized, about 5 by 7 inches, and published nearly every year from 1937 to 1966.
The guide was an indispensable list of Black-friendly businesses essential to travel: hotels, restaurants, gas stations, garages and more.
"It was one of many things African Americans had to develop to survive a hostile environment," says Scot Brown, professor of African American Studies and history at the University of California-Los Angeles. "A modern-day equivalent could be a Black GPS."
African Americans of that time were restricted by Jim Crow laws, harsh legislation passed in Southern states that limited rights of Black people from 1877 to the mid-1960s.
Those laws promoted white supremacy in every aspect of daily life, including travel. White-owned businesses could legally turn away Black travelers seeking a meal, a room for the night or even a restroom. Those who protested risked horrific violence or worse.
"They were a series of laws designed to impose segregation," Brown says. "They restricted voting rights, limited access to mobility and controlled Black bodies, turning them into a pliant labor force."
The Green Book was in response to Jim Crow.
It was created by Victor Hugo Green – reputedly named after Victor Hugo, French author of "Les Misérables" and other works – a Black postal worker and entrepreneur in Harlem who saw the need for a guide.
The guide was established in 1936, but "there's no known copy of a 1936 edition," Maira Liriano of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library, told USA TODAY.
"Some have suggested that the Green Book was established in 1936 but that 1937 was the first printed guide," Liriano says. "There is no way to know for sure."
The 1937 edition, titled "The Negro Motorist Green Book," had 16 pages and focused on New York City businesses. It cost 25 cents, about $4.60 today, calculating for inflation.
The guide proved popular, and Green expanded it to 24 pages covering 21 states and the District of Columbia the following year. It doubled in size in 1939, to 48 pages and 44 states. Though other guides for Black travelers existed, none was published as long as the Green Book.
The Green Book appeared as Black Americans were on the move. The First and Second Great Migrations saw as many as 6 million African Americans relocate from the South to the North and West from 1910 to 1970, according to the Schomburg Center.
They sought better economic opportunities and wanted to escape the violence – the legalized racism of Jim Crow, the lynchings and attacks such as the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
Those who moved left family members behind. They naturally returned to visit, which often meant long trips through unfriendly or even hostile areas.
"It wasn't just about safety, it was also knowing about problem areas, where police could be very aggressive in handling Black motorists," Brown says.
Some of those travels can be heard in the stories of the Macmillan Podcast series "Driving the Green Book," which launched in September. It's available on multiple platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher:
Better-paying jobs in Northern cities made it possible for African Americans to purchase automobiles and avoid indignities and confrontations of bus and train travel.
But problems remained. For traveling, Black motorists had to pack their cars with extra food and water in case they could not find a restaurant that would serve them, blankets and bedding if motels turned them away, and coffee cans for roadside bathroom breaks if service stations refused entry.
By word of mouth and advertising, Black motorists began using the Green Book to find safer places for meals, lodging and gas. The guides were sold at churches, Black businesses and at Esso gas stations, the only major retailer to offer them. Esso not only welcomed Black customers – more than a third of its dealers in the 1940s were African American.