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Driving the South—and Remembering the Legacy of “The Green Book”

By Nneka M. Okona

Oct 26, 2021

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Clockwise from top left: covers of various editions from 1937 to 1962.

Courtesy of New York Public Library/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Clockwise from top left: covers of various editions from 1937 to 1962.

One writer on the importance of the historical travel guide and feeling freedom behind the wheel.

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A multi-day adventure spent at a Volkswagen dealership in early May resulted in this moment: sitting in my brand-new car, smelling that brand-new car smell, looking at the mile gauge and seeing it near zero. The sun was starting to set, but instead of driving off the lot, I sat in silence, holding the car key in my sweaty right hand. There was no movement. No music. No hum from the engine purring to life. Only me and my thoughts.

I’d worked hard for this; buying a car as a Black woman in her mid-30s, a woman who had charted her own course as an independent writer instead of choosing a more “practical” and “stable” path. This wasn’t my first car—I’d had two cars that my parents had helped me find and purchase—but this was the first one I’d bought all on my own. This moment felt mighty because it righteously was. I was one of many in a legion of other Black folk that felt something spiritual holding the keys to something they owned and could use to travel the streets all on their own: freedom.

A car has always been much more than transportation for Black people in this country. It has meant the ability to move with ease on your own terms, accessibility to employment, and being able to see your family for holidays, funerals, or other gatherings. To reconnect and convene in the North, South, West, or Midwest. With a car, Black people historically had another way of traveling that didn’t mean being stuffed in the back of a bus, hoping that it wouldn’t be bombed by white supremacists or that they would be forced off for any litany of nonsensical reasons rooted in racism. Wrote Benj. J. Thomas, a former state examiner and proprietor of Broadway Auto School in Harlem, New York, in the 1938 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book: “[. . .] The automobile has been a special blessing to the Negro.” When I first read that line, it sent shivers up my spine.

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Victor Hugo Green, the man behind The Negro Motorist Green Book (otherwise known as The Green Book), published the first edition in 1936. It was the height of segregation, and it was illegal for Black people to occupy many of the same spaces and places that white people did. A postal worker by trade in Harlem, Green made the cover of this mighty guide the color of forest green. Other than having Green’s byline, it included the price: 25 cents, which with today’s rate of inflation would be around $19, matching the price range of most travel guidebooks today.

Negro Motorist Green Book, however, was much more than a travel guide that made it easy to plan a trip or tick off things you wanted to see or experience. Each of these guides was a symbol of survival. Black people had reason to worry: fear of being physically assaulted, arrested for no valid reason other than being Black, or worse, being killed—lynched with a jeering audience in attendance—were real concerns. How could Black people travel with any sort of security? Enter The Green Book.

Within its pages were listings of majority Black-owned businesses: beauty shops, hotels, nightclubs, barber shops, taverns, restaurants, garages, roadhouses, and service stations. The idea was to create a clear pathway for Black people to get safely from where they started to their destination via places that would actually be welcoming and not antagonize or subject them to abuse or violence.

This degradation of Black people has a long, brutal history that links directly to the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery. During the Reconstruction Era—when free Blacks were trying to find their way in society—Black Codes arose to shatter their efforts. Passed between 1865 and 1866, Black Codes were attempts to regulate the labor systems and the types of employment free Blacks could have and hold. In turn, Black Codes paved the way for Jim Crow laws, legal “separate but equal” decrees from Southern local and state political leadership that prevented Black people from accessing the most vital of public spaces: buses, trains, stores, restaurants, churches, theaters, schools.

Black people were forced, often with fewer resources, to create spaces of their own. They developed their own churches, attended their own schools, and built carpooling chains. They sequestered themselves within their own communities and depended on each other to make it through.

Green knew this in orchestrating The Green Book as a handbook, a resource. He knew that not only did these deep-seated beliefs about Black people being inferior originate eons before he came into existence, but also that these blatantly bigoted beliefs had legal backing. Which is what made the work he was doing—and the work he continued to do until he published the final editions between 1966 and 1967—incredibly, indelibly important.

The Civil Rights Act, which made segregation illegal, passed in 1964, some years before the last editions of The Green Book entered into the world. There’s no concrete knowledge as to why The Green Book ceased publication. Some theories are that although integration was slowly happening, it was occurring, nullifying the need for such a resource for specifically Black travelers. But decades into the future, its influence would remain. 

Before watching a TED Talk years ago, I hadn’t heard of The Green Book. When I asked my parents, they’d never heard of it, either. In my pursuit to understand this resource from the past, I purchased a compilation copy online. I scoured its pages for most of the Southern cities I was familiar with: Atlanta, Macon, Huntsville, New Orleans. As I examined the businesses that were included and then cross-referenced them with Google to see if the locations still stood, I was disheartened to find most of them no longer existed. These former places were vestiges of memory, washed away with only stories and the shadows of history remaining.

Learning about The Green Book’s legacy is important, even in an era where many might think a guide like it is not overtly needed. Black people still encounter racism at every turn while living their lives—let alone traveling. Sundown towns throughout the country still exist. Police brutality and “driving while Black” weighs on the consciousness of Black people everywhere. I think back to all the countless road trips my family took for summer vacations to Myrtle Beach or Virginia Beach. We’d pack up our suitcases with clothes and essentials, load them into a rooftop cargo carrier atop our station wagon, and as we drove, snack on sandwiches, chips, and drinks we’d packed in a cooler.

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We always left early in the morning so we could travel by daylight. My mother says that the roads were emptier then. And we rarely stopped except for the restroom or to get more gas if it was a longer journey, say, to south Florida. These were all things we did, and as I came of age, bought my car, and began driving around the South—to my college town an hour south in Macon, to Savannah for St. Patrick’s Day on River Street, to Thomasville to visit with a friend’s family—these were all the things I did, too. You learn the rules of the road if you want to get where you are going alive.

In June, I traveled from Atlanta to Little Rock, Arkansas, to see the Smithsonian traveling exhibit on The Green Book at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Though I didn’t drive, I imagined what I might’ve felt passing through Birmingham, Alabama, or Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. The exhibit, which has been on the road since late 2020, hopes to give generations both new and old access to the wealth of information about what the resource represented in the past—and what it means for Black people to travel now and in the future. Candacy Taylor—a documentarian, photographer, and author of Overground Railroad—is its curator.

Taylor says the writing of her book was inherently heavy. But in the curation of the exhibition she hoped to capture some of the joys of Blackness and travel, too.

“In my book, there’s a whole chapter on just vacation. And that was one of the last chapters I wrote even though I wrote the rest of the book chronologically,” Taylor says. “I just felt like getting the balance of dark and light—the celebration of these communities not just on vacation but in the nightclubs and the Hampton House. There’s so many different places where we shined and where we were so resilient and incredible in terms of what we were able to accomplish despite all the obstacles. That had to become a part of the story, too.”

The exhibit at Mosaic spanned two floors. There were photos and quotes and video footage of Black families enjoying leisure time; artifacts and memorabilia from some of the businesses listed in The Green Book. There was even an immersive and interactive element, where you could chart your own journey using The Green Book. It was moving. And that was the intent, according to Courtney Bradford, curator of collections at Mosaic.

 “I want you to be changed,” Bradford says. “I want you to experience something. I want you to grow. I want you to feel an emotion. I want you to tell me how this made you feel when you encountered this or read this. That, to me, that’s the work.”

When I think about the exhibit now, I come back to one singular image: a floor-to-ceiling banner of an open road and a car advancing forward toward a new horizon. And how that really is the point. To be a Black person in this world and in this country, and to move without feeling burdened, for just a little while. 

The Green Book traveling exhibit is currently on display at the Capitol Park Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, through November 14, 2021. From December 4 to February 27, 2022, it will be on view at the California Museum in Sacramento, California.

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