In the years just before and just after World War II, automobile ownership in the United States exploded. More and more people were buying cars and with cars came the freedom to travel. While this meant a greater freedom for white Americans, it did not afford Black Americans the same kind of freedom. Though the period of the Jim Crow laws were gradually nearing their end, America remained painfully segregated. Black travelers encountered institutional racism at every turn. Blacks were still not welcome in many places including restaurants, hotels, service stations and shops. Entire towns were known as “Sundown Towns,” where Black Americans were banned after dark. Even encounters with sheriffs were often hostile and frightening. This made travel for Black Americans extremely difficult and even dangerous- and thus out of necessity, the Negro Motorist Green Book was born. The first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book, later renamed The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, was written in 1936 as a guide to help Black travelers find safe places to eat, sleep, and service their cars while enjoying the luxury of travel by automobile across the United States.
Inspired by previous books written to help protect Jewish people, Harlem postal worker Victor Hugo Green wrote the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book, commonly known as “the Green Book” in 1936. He wanted to help Black Americans indulge in the luxury of travel by automobile without the fear of encountering racism when they hit the open road. This first edition included hotels and restaurants in and around metropolitan New York City, Green’s home town. But Green began collecting information from fellow postal carriers in order to expand his coverage. The US Postal Service was known for employing many African Americans in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and these postal carriers were in a unique position to get to know local businesses on their routes and would share this information with Green for his books. Green also began offering small cash payments to readers who sent in useful information he could include in his guide, allowing him to expand to covering the whole country! Green was ahead of his time- creating a book “user-generated content” before “user generated content” was even a term. He also organized a house-sharing system that could be compared to modern day companies like AirBnB or VRBO. Green’s books included homes across the country that welcomed Black travelers to stay overnight as they passed through.
By 1940, Green’s travel guide listed thousands of locations across the US that were safe havens for Black travelers. He included Black owned restaurants, hotels and service stations as well as white-owned businesses that were verified to be non-discriminatory and welcoming of Black travelers. Categorized by city and state, most establishments centered around large cities- but he also included safe locations in more rural areas. The rural locations were of critical importance as discrimination was much more common outside of the big cities, making travel through rural areas far more dangerous. By 1962, the book expanded to include international travel, including Black owned and Black friendly businesses in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.
Victor Hugo Green published updated editions of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book until his death in 1960. At that time, his wife took over the role of publishing updated editions until 1964 when Victor’s original dream came true. It’s not often that a writer pens a book in hopes that someday it will become totally and completely obsolete- but that’s exactly what Green dreamed of. In an early edition Green wrote, “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.”
And in 1964, racial segregation in public places was banned with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Two years later in the year 1966, Green’s wife published the last edition of the The Negro Traveler’s Green Book.
The Evolution of the Black Motorist Green Book
In 2012, historian Jennifer Ruet began writing the blog Mapping the Green Book, where she started documenting the landscape of race and travel in the era of the Green Book. Ruet drove the country visiting different locations in the Green Book. She focused primarily on the rural sites, as those were the most difficult areas for Black people to travel. She began working on the project as part of her post-doctoral fellowship at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Just like Green had done himself, Ruet uses some crowdsourcing to help map out her living history of Green Book era travel- collecting photos and stories from readers who have traveled to Green Book locations.
In 2018, a movie titled Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly made it’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Named after Victor Hugo Green’s Green Book, the biographical comedy-drama follows the real life story of the African American jazz pianist Don Shirley and his Italian American bodyguard Frank Vallelonga as they toured the deep South in 1962. The film, which brought the Green Book to the forefront of pop culture, won numerous awards including the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture.
2020 brought the revival of the Green Book, with traveler turned author Martinique Lewis publishing a modern version titled the ABC Travel Green Book– Connecting the African Disaspora Globally. The book is a compilation of years of travel and research, where Lewis shares Black-owned businesses, restaurants, hotels, tours and festivals in the US and across the globe. In addition to publishing her book, Lewis works tirelessly as an advocate for diversity and inclusivity in the travel industry. She formed the Black Travel Alliance, a prominent group of Black travel content creators who work to hold destinations and travel marketers accountable for sharing the Black narrative in the world of travel.
While publication of Victor Hugo Green’s original Green Book ended in the 1960’s with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we know today that his dream was never fully realized. The truth of the matter is, Black people still face discrimination and institutional racism on a daily basis right here in the US and across the globe. People like historian Jennifer Ruet, director Peter Farrelly, and writer Martinique Lewis are keeping Green’s work alive today by pushing the need to support Black travelers into the mainstream travel industry. The Wandering Moms community is honored to be celebrating these powerful voices!!