At a time of segregation in America, Jim Crow laws and “sundown towns” threatened African American travelers’ lives. The Negro Motorist Green Book (also known as The Travelers Green Book) was first published in 1936 and served as a lifesaver for Black travelers for 30 years.
Victor Green and his wife Alma authored this book as a resource for businesses and services that were welcoming of black customers, many owned by African American entrepreneurs. These included gas stations, barbershops, haberdashers, tailors, resorts, restaurants and liquor stores – all named after their creators.
Therefore, it was an invaluable resource for Black travelers while they traversed America visiting family or friends. The first and second great migrations saw millions of African Americans flee from South to North and West in search of better economic prospects as well as an escape from violence.
Most Black Americans traveled by bus or train, but car travel became increasingly popular for those with money to spare. The Green Book provided guidance to black motorists on long journeys, helping them locate safe hotels and restaurants at reasonable prices that offered nutritious meals.
Car ownership provided African Americans with the freedom to escape lynchings and attacks that plagued Southern states, but it also came with risks. According to Hall, “Black people had to be aware of unwritten, sometimes capricious area-specific restrictions in Southern States and potential life-threatening reactions if they violated them.”
Awareness was often spread through word of mouth. The Green Book proved especially useful for travelers visiting so-called “sundown towns,” where white communities would post signs instructing black travelers to leave by sundown.
Hall, an expert on travel and tourism, conducted research with hundreds of Black Americans to uncover how the Green Book had become a crucial tool for them during their travels. It helped them navigate confusing interactions, frightening experiences, as well as strict instructions from parents or elders.
African Americans traveling by car had to ensure they weren’t driving too fast or swerving into oncoming traffic, and were aware of “sundown towns,” where there could be lynching or death if seen at night. For these risks, African Americans rely on the Green Book, which they often consult while staying in motels or hotels along the way.
The book’s success, with a circulation of over 2 million copies by 1962, led to its revival during this time of renewed interest in Black history and the Civil Rights movement.
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Green Book is its emphasis on women’s role during this era. Even under Jim Crow laws, Black women were needed to run households or work as employees in local businesses – something which The Green Book celebrated throughout its run from 1950-1959. Furthermore, with a woman editor by 1950s end, The Green Book featured articles about female business owners who actively welcomed black customers.