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Share Our History: During the Jim Crow Era, Blacks Used ‘The Green Book’ to avoid being harassed by Whites when they traveled

As we are in full swing of the holiday season, millions of Americans are traveling throughout the country. Not so long ago, traveling while Black was a treacherous endeavor. Black families traveling throughout the country would usually have to pack their own food and gas for the trip. The reason for this was because they would have no idea where would be a safe place to have a meal or get gasoline without being harassed. Realizing the perils Black people faced while traveling, a Black mailman from New York City, Victor Hugo Green, created the The Negro Motorist Green Book. Commonly referred to simply as the Green Book, the guide was printed and circulated annually between 1936 and 1966, during the Jim Crow era (1877-mid 1960s).

victor-greenMr. Green said he published the guide in order “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.” The guide was first published in 1936 and primarily focused on New York. It soon was expanded to include most of America, parts of Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The book was described as a love letter from Victor Green to the Black community, so that Black travelers could move about the country more freely, knowing where they wouldn’t be discrimanated against. The guide was in circulation for thirty years but soon became obsolete with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned the types of racial discrimination that made the Green Book necessary in the first place. The book was a compiled resource on places to eat, sleep, purchase gas, and have your car repaired if necessary, without being denied service by businesses that catered to whites only.

Much of the history surrounding the Green Book was soon to be forgotten until 2001, when author and playwright Calvin Ramsey stumbled upon the story of the book. During a conversation, Calvin was asked if he could find a copy of the Green Book for his friend’s grandfather. At the age of 80, the older gentleman still was under the assumption he needed the guide in order to travel to the South for a funeral. Intrigued by the question, Calvin started asking “…college educated people, librarians, and not one time did these people mention the Green Book or talk about how hard it was for us on the road.” What started as a simple question, has turned into his life’s work for Calvin Ramsey. He is making sure the work Victor Green did isn’t forgotten by creating a documentary on the history of the Green Book. Calvin also has a website dedicated to providing information on how the guide helped Black travelers move about America more freely.

green-bookMr. Green was able to compile such an extensive list of places that were friendly and welcoming to Black travelers because he “…used his contacts in the postal workers union to find out where Black people could stay” around the U.S. according to the Julian Bond. With its initial publication in 1936, the book was approximately 16 pages but towards the end of its time in print, the Green Book was a guide that grew to be over 100 pages. The book was little known outside of the Black community but  was essential in Black households that planned on traveling anywhere outside of their own towns.

The Green Book became an integral part of Black lives because in the early parts of the 20th century, the availability of affordable mass-produced cars gave Black people the freedom to not have to rely on “Jim Crow cars,” which were smoky, battered, and uncomfortable railroad coaches. From Black athletes, to entertainers, to the common man, the automobile gave Black people in the early 1900s the chance to move about more freely but they all encountered the same types of racism. And the Green Book gave them all, the chance to travel America with some peace of mind of knowing where they would be accommodated without discrimination.

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