How Did Blacks Travel During Segregation?

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

Through a search that The Root conducted, we also found that many of the historical places of interest in cities like Chicago — including Navy Pier, the Water Tower and the Merchandise Mart — were open to blacks. Meanwhile, Robbins, Ill., located 17 miles outside of Chicago, was listed in the 1949 edition as a city “owned and operated by Negroes” that proclaimed “no prejudice or restrictions.” Robbins had more than 60 businesses, two physicians and nightclubs that would “do justice to Chicago and New York’s brightest.”

The New York City area, including all five boroughs and New Jersey, had pages and pages of businesses that were safe. Buffalo, N.Y., also had scores of businesses listed in the guide, while Lackawanna, N.Y. had only two, one of which was the Little Harlem Tavern, which was demolished in 1999.

As expected, in many cities the YWCA and YMCA allowed blacks to stay there during travel, business and college matriculation, but what was unexpected was the drop in the number of businesses identified as safe in some cities from the 1949 version to the 1956 version. For example, Columbia, S.C., had 35 businesses listed in the 1949 version of the guide but only 12 in the 1956 version. 

For the 1956 edition, Green and his editorial staff may have decided to be more discerning in the places that they identified as “safe,” paying closer attention to the quality of the accommodations available. A number of other factors could also explain the lower number, including post-World War II industrialization, increased costs associated with retail merchants associations, the Great Migration and fallout over the continued struggle over civil rights in the U.S.

Most of the businesses in The Green Book don’t include captions, so in 2012 the book raises many more questions than it answers — making tracing the locales a worthwhile pursuit, particularly along famous routes (i.e., Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway and the Blue Ridge Parkway) but also on some lesser-known ones (such as the Lincoln Highway and the Blue and Gray Trail).

If tourists and history buffs are willing to re-create Civil War battles or trace the Trail of Tears, then it would also seem worthwhile to spend some time finding out which locales in The Green Book are still standing or which establishments have taken their place. With the help of augmented-reality apps and the forthcoming Google Goggles, a lot of passion and a strong interest in black history, plotting a Green Book path during your summer travels is now much easier than Victor Green could probably ever have imagined.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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