“I hope this isn’t a sundown town.” She whispered quietly to him. Their hands rested together between them on the Caribbean blue vinyl front seat of their brand new 1958 Packard. Her thumb rubbed the back of his hand tensely as she spoke.
The road ahead was dark. He lifted his hand away to rub his eyes after giving hers a reassuring pat. He couldn’t rub the blurriness away. He’d been driving for eight hours without stopping, tired eyes peering through the dark, searching for a sign that said, “Coloreds Welcome.”
The road trip they had dreamed of was quickly turning to a nightmare he thought to himself, as the reflection in the rear view mirror revealed red and blue flashing lights coming up behind him.
He pulled over to the side of the road. “What are we stopping for?” She asked nervously as the Police car raced by them.
“I think we should take a look at that Green Book.” He said.
This little work of fiction could have been your reality if you were African American living in the United States during the mid twentieth century. It was a time of racial segregation and African American travel was rife with difficulties.
Restaurants turned away people of colour, hotels did not accept non-white guests, and even gas station toilets were off limits in many cases.
Knowing the difficulties, Victor H. Green published a travel guide directory aimed at keeping African American travellers safe on the road. The book was published each year between 1936 and 1967 with additional editions in some years. Originally called The Negro Motorists Green Book and later The Negro Travelers’ Green Book. It came with a warning to, “Carry your Green Book with you…you may need it.”
Mr. Green a postal worker who later became a travel agent constructed the idea of the Green Book around black travellers’ need for safety and enjoyability during an especially difficult time for people of colour. Other members of society, like the Jewish had suffered similar discriminations and therefore had similar publications giving light to the idea of The Green Book.
All the information in the travel guide was collected via mail in that day and Green used his network of postal workers to gather information and pass on the word. As the popularity of the travel guide grew, so did the listings. The first edition contained only listings in New York, Green’s home city, which then expanded to include the whole United States and some countries beyond, including three hotel listing in Niagara Falls, Canada in the 1966 edition.
The Green Book provided state by state listings of hotels, restaurants, and stops where African American travelers were accepted without degradation and embarrassment, making for somewhat safer travels. It also outlined some of the sundown towns. Places where people of colour were not allowed out on the streets after dark.
Can you imagine travelling under such conditions? Many did. You might wonder why people would choose to travel under these conditions, but experiencing a place outside of your own hometown is something many of us are drawn to.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
Travel allows us to broaden our thinking, experience other cultures and appreciate the beauty of our world. Additionally, many people in the past mid century travelled for work. Travelling salesmen were common and road travel was very popular with the advent of large luxury automobiles in the 1940s and 1950s. Air travel was still economically out of reach for most people, and this led to road trips being the favoured travel choice.
Victor Green’s Green Book was a handy tool for people of colour during this time and was featured in the Oscar winning film, Green Book, which told the story of legendary pianist Don Shirley and his road trip tour through the deep south with his white skinned Italian chauffeur Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, who also acted as Mr. Shirley’s bodyguard.
As they travelled from venue to venue the two encountered many acts of racism. Some seemingly benign, and accepted for that time, like having to stay at separate hotels because Mr. Shirley was black, while encountering other more overt examples such as a bar brawl where Mr. Shirley was beaten by racist southern white men for entering the premises. They were once also jailed for driving through a Sundown Town.
The result of their weeks spent together, circumventing and overcoming these horrifying experiences, was a lifelong friendship and appreciation of each other.
The interesting part is that Mr. Vallelonga was shown to be somewhat intolerant of black people to begin with, but the time spent together meant they both began to understand each other and develop a bond built on a human connection that rises above the shallow surface of physical appearance and skin colour.
Though we have gained some ground from the days of racial segregation and the necessity of the Green Book, we still have a very long way to go to understanding each other and rising above the shallow. Perhaps we need to spend more time just being together with people we view differently than ourselves. Allowing differences to dissipate and a true human connection to be forged.
Let us hope that as we begin to travel once again post pandemic, it will become more and more accessible and those who need it most will broaden their horizons to enable the death of prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness.
In the 1936 edition of the Green Book Victor 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.”
Are we there yet?
Feature Image thanks to photographer, Courtney Cook
All book images thanks to The New York Public Library – Digital Collection, accessible here
Read more about The Green Book Travel Guide and Victor H. Green here
Watch a trailer of the Universal Pictures movie, Green Book here with Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Frank Vallelonga.