THE OVERGROUND RAILROAD
THE NEGRO MOTORIST GREEN BOOK
Being black and traveling away from home during the Jim Crow era involved a great deal of planning, faith and a reliable travel guide called the “Negro Motorist Green Book.” Victor H. Green, an African American postal worker from Harlem published this roadside companion from 1936-1966. His “Green Book” listed hotels, restaurants, salons, barbershops, taverns, nightclubs, tailors, garages and real estate offices that served African Americans. It was considered the “Bible of Black Travel.”
During the time the Green Book was in publication, automobile travel symbolized freedom in America and this guide was a resourceful solution to a horrific problem. Although six million African Americans left the south to escape racism — the practice of racial discrimination was in full force throughout the country. The South was infamous for its Jim Crow laws, but ironically it was the lack of formal segregation laws that made the rest of the country even more dangerous for African Americans to navigate, simply because they didn’t know where they would be served.
I discovered the Green Book while doing research for a book I was writing on Route 66. During the time the Green Book was published, automobile travel symbolized freedom in America. It was a resourceful, life-saving solution to a horrific problem, and a powerful tool for African Americans to persevere and literally move forward in the face of racism. There are many stories about the difficulties of blacks traveling in the South and Northeastern United States but it was even more difficult for blacks to travel in the Western United States. For example, only six percent of the more than 100 motels that lined Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico admitted blacks. Learning about the Green Book re-contextualized and reframed the all-American road trip and I never looked at Route 66 the same way again.
I produced the video above in partnership with the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. Green Book properties are tangible links for telling the story of the African American experience. We have estimated that less than one-third of these sites are still standing. The fact that we have these buildings as physical evidence of racial discrimination is a rich opportunity to re-examine America’s troubled history of segregation, black migration and the rise of the black leisure class.
This project has been awarded fellowships from Harvard (Henry Louis Gates Jr. program), the Schomburg Center for Black Research, the Graham Foundation, The California Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The project will become a book, traveling exhibition, digital interactive map, board game and virtual reality platform.