How Did Blacks Travel During Segregation?

The Negro Motorist Green Book was helpful for navigating Jim Crow America.


(The Root) — In 1936 a Harlem postal worker and activist named Victor H. Green decided to develop a guide that would help African Americans travel throughout the country in a safe and comfortable manner. The Negro Motorist Green Book (also called The Negro Travelers’ Green Book), often simply known as The Green Book, identified places that welcomed black people during an era when Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation made it difficult for them to travel domestically without fear of racial backlash.

The Green Book listed businesses and places of interest such as nightclubs, beauty salons, barbershops, gas stations and garages that catered to black road-trippers. For almost three decades, travelers could request (for just 10 cents’ postage) and receive a guide from Green. Eventually the guide expanded to encompass information about Canada and Mexico.

Like users of today’s popular recommendation sites such as TripAdvisor, travelers collected information during their journeys, which they shared with Green and his team of editors. The data were then incorporated into future editions. “Historically, The Green Book falls in line with the underreported activism of black postal workers and the heightened awareness of driving while black in certain regions of the country,” says Robert Smith, associate professor of African-American and civil rights history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Although many think of this book in historical terms, the challenges facing black travelers then resonate with black travelers now, particularly as it relates to racial profiling and stop-and-frisk laws.”

The Green Book has recently been rediscovered in popular culture. Atlanta playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey wrote a play entitled The Green Book, in which a black military officer and his wife stay in a “tourist home” (private homes identified as safe places for travel) with a Holocaust survivor on the eve of a speech being given by W.E.B. Du Bois in Jefferson City, Mo. Ramsey also published a children’s book, Ruth and the Green Book, illustrated by legendary artist Floyd Cooper that follows a young girl’s journey with her family in an expensive car from Chicago to Alabama.

In a New York Times article, Ramsey recalled having to pack a big lunch when his family traveled from Baltimore to Roxboro, N.C., so they wouldn’t have to stop along the way. Food historian Jessica Harris recently discussed The Green Book in Byron Hurt‘s award-winning documentary Soul Food Junkies. Harris shared that the guide highlighted not only safe places but also the best places to eat and to find soul food while traveling. A traveling exhibition, “The Dresser Trunk Project,” also pays homage to the places of refuge, comfort and familiarity found in the guide.

Some of the locations mentioned in the books are still standing today. But not surprisingly, many, if not most, of the businesses that The Root contacted or attempted to locate on foot or by car in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore no longer exist.

Some of the names of the places, like the Casbah restaurant found in the 1956 guide for Washington, D.C., still exist. But this Casbah Café has a different address and has been in existence only for about eight years, so we know it isn’t the Casbah of The Green Book.

We did get a kick out of seeing Republic Gardens listed as a nightclub in the 1956 edition, knowing that most college-educated blacks who have spent any time in D.C. — certainly in the last 25 years — have frequented the hot spot. The venue opened its doors in 1920 on the historic U Street corridor. But we were surprised to find that the Excelsior Club, located in Charlotte, N.C., and the oldest supper club founded by blacks in the Southeast, was not listed in the 1949 or 1956 version of the guide.