The Green Book (1936-1964), also known as “The Negro Motorist Green Book” or “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book”, was the best-known travel guide for blacks in America in the 1950s. It listed not the best places but often the only places which welcomed black travellers in those days.
One writer called it “the bible of every Negro traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s. You literally didn’t dare leave home without it.” You did not dare because otherwise you might get stuck without a place to eat or sleep. Blacks could not stay at most motels or even use the restrooms at most service stations. Howard Johnson was the only nationwide chain where blacks could eat and sleep. Esso (now called Exxon) also served blacks.
It was not a matter of money but of race: most blacks who had cars, after all, were well-to-do. Even rich and famous blacks were turned away from hotels and restaurants. And this was not just in the Jim Crow South either but all over the country. There were whole towns, hundreds of them in the North and the West called sundown towns, where blacks had to leave by nightfall.
Back then you packed as much food as you could, took a bucket and sometimes slept in the car. Travelling at night made it less likely the police would stop you since your colour is harder to see in the dark.
The practice of white businesses refusing to serve blacks (and sometimes even Jews) was not outlawed till 1964 when the Civil Rights Act became law. At long last there was no longer any need for the Green Book.
The Green Book was named after the man who started it, Victor H. Green, a Harlem postman. It was not the first or only such book, but it seems to have been the best known.
The first Green Book came out in 1936. It covered just New York and nearby towns. But it was such a hit that Green soon extended it to all of America. In 1949 he added Alaska, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda. By 1956 it even had listings for South America and the West Indies.
In 1949 it was 80 pages long and cost $0.75 (1 crown). On the cover it said:
Travel is fatal to prejudice – Mark Twain.
Thanks to the Internet you can see the full 1949 edition!
The book listed hotels, restaurants, garages, beauty parlors, barbers, tailors, taverns, etc. It also listed tourist homes: the homes of people willing to put up black travellers – like the Underground Railroad.
In the early days Green travelled and checked out many of the places himself. Later he had help from blacks who travelled on business and letters from hundreds of people. Green did not list every single place that accepted blacks, just the ones he knew of.
In 2005 Calvin Ramsey wrote a play, “The Green Book” based on the book as well as travel stories he has heard from those days. Later he made it into a children’s book: “Ruth and the Green Book” (2010).