There are moments where you don't fully realize the history of discrimination against the African-American community until it hits you right in the face. There are the well-known photos of black slaves in history textbooks, families lined up against ramshackle cabins, an old man with his whip-scarred back facing the camera, and dusty cotton crops with small children holding huge bags of cotton against the hot South sun.
They become intellectual examples, far removed from history as the voices who directly experienced the discrimination died out, leaving behind written and visual records. It doesn't become concrete until you face something like this, a written guidebook for African-Americans in the 1930s on how to avoid dangerous places, where to sleep, eat, and shop on their road trips.
As someone who is an avid user of guidebooks and travel books, it hit me and left me stunned.
Here was one aspect of discrimination that I hadn't thought about. That isn't what you find in most history textbooks these days, and neither would you find an example of why African-Americans needed guidebooks like the one above in these textbooks. Imagine what real history being taught in our classrooms would be like---it certainly wouldn't give us the particularly unique American belief of exceptionalism that we so freely enjoy today.
The guidebook for African-Americans in their travels during the 1930s made me think about why it was needed. It was needed to keep themselves and their families safe during travels through the country, hence the caption at the bottom of the guidebook, "Carry Your Green Book With You--You May Need It." The last part of the caption is striking in its implication. Here's more of the write-up on this guidebook from Jalopnik:
Launched in 1936 as an annual booklet for the New York area, by 1949 the guide was the only national publication of its kind. In addition to the 50-state listings, it covered Mexico and the Bahamas, included listings for tailors and beauty parlors and even provided encouragement from Mark Twain: "Travel is fatal to prejudice." Supported in part by advertising from the businesses it highlighted, only two large corporations put their name in the '49 edition: Esso Oil and Ford.
Looking back, Green's book offers a reminder of how race warped the freedom that driving made possible. Black motorists in those eras frequently kept extra fuel, food and portable toilets on hand to avoid stopping in unfriendly locations. Even outside the South, roadside motels and diners often wouldn't serve black customers. As for the Deep South itself, the Green Book spoke warnings by omission; the '49 edition lists no restaurants available in all of Alabama.
And the author of the book, Victor Green, wrote this in the introduction of his 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 wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.
The publication of the book ceased with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the civil rights movement by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The entire .pdf of the guidebook can be seen here at the Henry Ford Museum.
UPDATE (h/t to indycam): There's also more on NPR, including an interview with Julian Bond, the former President of the NAACP, and his personal recollections of the book:
Mr. BOND: Well, when I - my family had a "Green Book" when I was young, and used it to travel in the South to find out where we could stop to eat, where we could spend the night in a hotel or somebody's home. And I always thought it was called the "Green Book" because it was green. But it's actually named after the man who started the "Green Book" whose name was Green.
CONAN: Who was Mr. Green?
Mr. BOND: He was a postal worker, and he used his contacts in the Postal Workers Union to set up - to find out where black people could stay in various spots around the United States. And the "Green Book," at its height, covered all 50 of the states, as well as two - there was Barbados and I think someplace else. So, you know, it didn't matter where you went, Jim Crow was everywhere then, and black travelers needed this badly.
UPDATE 2: There's a children's book available on Amazon called "Ruth and the Green Book"to share this bit of American history with your children.