In 1936, during the age of automotive expansion, a travel guide was published for black travellers in the United States. It became so important that it was described as “the bible of every Negro traveller in the 1950s and early 1960s. You literally didn’t dare leave home without it.’’ The guide was called The Negro Motorist Green Book, and was created by a man called Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker from New York.
The growing accessibility of the automobile for the emerging African-American middle class enabled those that could afford it an escape from the segregation that was prevalent on public transport. It was impossible, however, to escape segregation on the roads in an America. The guide covered hotels, motels, restaurants, petrol stations, grocery stores and more as African-American families would often find themselves sleeping in their cars and having to pack meals for entire days of travelling because they were not able to access facilities.
The author Cotten Setter in his book Republic of Drivers remarked that “it was precisely in the act of driving through unfamiliar territory that the inescapability of race became, for many African Americans, so apparent.” The inhospitable nature of America’s roads meant that fewer than 6% of the over 100 motels on Route 66 in Albuquerque served African-Americans.
In the 1960s there were over 10,000 “sundown” towns in the US which prohibited “non-whites” from being in the town after dusk. One such sundown town, Hawthorne in California, had a border sign which read “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne”.
The threat of violence was very real. In 1948 Robert Mallard, a 37 year old black man was driving through Toombs County in Georgia with his family when he was lynched in his new car by a white mob.
Consequently, the guide was an essential safety precaution for black people in unfamiliar parts of the country that were wracked by hostility. The guide described itself as setting out to “give the negro traveller information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable” and went on to cover not only just the US, but Canada, Mexico and Bermuda.
It eventually reached a circulation of 2,000,000 and was supported in its early years by Victor Green’s postal colleagues around the country. It was also boosted by being distributed by the franchises of the oil company Esso (now Exxon Mobil); one of the few oil companies to serve African-Americans.
The Negro Motorist Green Book was a powerful resource for black Americans to be able to traverse the country using the new-found freedom of the automobile in a nation that had abolished the slave trade only a few decades before. This growing class of consumers also prompted business minded establishments to cater to the growing trade of black people that could enjoy leisure activity away from the urban centres of the north where they often lived.
Over time, the guide attracted criticism from some in the Civil Rights Movement who believed that it accommodated Jim Crow laws rather than challenging then. Indeed Green himself said of the book:
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 as we please, and without embarrassment.
Eventually the imposition of the Civil Rights Act meant that the Green Book’s necessity and purpose diminished and the final edition was published in 1964. Nevertheless, the guide remains of symbolic importance and in March 2015 a 1941 edition sold for $22,500.
Victor Green demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit that enabled black Americans to feel more safe and able to see and enjoy the America in which they lived. Its very existence is a harrowing reminder of the conditions that had to be navigated by black people, especially during a time of such great material change.
The 1949 edition of the Green book included a quote from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” The Negro Motorist Green Book made that quote possible.