The ‘Green Book’ Became an Atlas of Self-Reliance for Black Motorists

For black Americans, the central paradox of the American automobile age was that it occurred in the middle of the Jim Crow era

Owning a car expanded people’s physical freedom to move, allowing them to participate in a radical democratization of space in America. In this photo, four young women stand beside a convertible. WANN Radio Station Records, NMAH Archives Center
Beginning in the 1920s, widespread car ownership opened new opportunities to travel independently and explore. For black Americans, the central paradox of the American automobile age was that it occurred in the middle of the Jim Crow era, which was marked by a system of laws and customs that segregated public spaces and enforced racial inequality. Before the abolition of legal segregation, black Americans with the financial wherewithal turned to private car ownership to escape the indignities of segregated rail and bus travel. Cars allowed African Americans to drive past segregation.
Woman gestures towards car in showroom
In a car, California was just days away from New York, not weeks. It became possible to drive to the country on a long weekend, camp and hunt and fish and then return to your job in the city. Photograph title: "Kaplan & Crawford advertising shot 1952," showing a 1953 Dodge. Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994. NMAH Archives Center

However, once they pulled off the interstate, the freedom of the open road proved illusory. Jim Crow still prohibited black travelers from pulling into a roadside motel and getting rooms for the night. Black families on vacation had to be ready for any circumstance should they be denied lodging or a meal in a restaurant. They stuffed the trunks of their automobiles with food, blankets and pillows, even an old coffee can for those times when black motorists were denied the use of a bathroom.

Rest stop bathroom with sign "Colored Dining Room in Rear"
Between the 1890s and the 1960s, as black travelers moved across the nation, they were relegated to the smoking car, the back of the bus atop the hot engine, and eating their meals in segregated dining areas with filthy bathrooms. Title of this photograph: "A rest stop for Greyhound bus passengers on the way from Louisville, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, with separate accommodations for colored passengers." Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Library of Congress
African Americans travelling through the country with their prosperity on display upset the racial order of Jim Crow. As a result, white segregationists pushed back against these demonstrations of black success. For example, segregationists who owned gas stations would take black motorists' money at the pump, but then deny them use of the bathroom. Though humiliating, that wasn't the worst that could happen. Black drivers also faced physical dangers. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) kept an active file of incidents of African Americans being accosted while in their cars. In 1948, sociologist Charles S. Johnson uncovered a pattern wherein white drivers would intentionally damage more expensive vehicles owned by African Americans in order to put black drivers back in "their place." Sometimes, being in the wrong town at the wrong time of day could even be fatal.
A car salesman and family stand outside a gas station
In an interview with travel historian Gretchen Sorin, Spencer Crew recalled traveling in his parents’ car in the 1950s: “that big old car was like a cocoon,” he remembered. “We didn’t know anything except what we saw out the side windows. We could hardly see over the back of the front seat. Our parents protected us from all the racist stuff along the road." Photo titled "Mr. Lifsey presenting Oldsmobile to raffle winner, April 1955." Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994. NMAH Archives Center

To avoid these dangers, the Negro Motorist's Green Book offered to help black motorists travel safely across a landscape partitioned by segregation and scarred by lynching. Published in Harlem by Victor and Alma Green, it came out annually from 1937-1964. While the Green Book printed articles about auto maintenance and profiled various American cities, at its heart was the list of accommodations that black travelers could use on their trips. Organized by state, each edition listed service stations, hotels, restaurants, beauty parlors, and other businesses that did not discriminate on the basis of race. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, described this feature of the Green Book as "a tool" that "allowed families to protect their children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which they might be thrown out or not permitted to sit somewhere."

The inaugural edition of the guide ran 16 pages long and focused on tourist areas in and around New York City. By the eve of U.S. entry in World War II, it had expanded to 48 pages and covered nearly every state in the union. Two decades later, the guide was nearly 100 pages long and offered advice for black tourists visiting Canada, Mexico, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean. As historian Gretchen Sorin describes, under a distribution agreement with Standard Oil, Esso service stations sold two million copies annually by 1962. 

The vast majority of the businesses listed in the Green Book were owned by black entrepreneurs. By gathering these institutions under one cover, Victor and Alma Green mapped out the economic infrastructure of black America. Thus, the Green Book was more than a travel guide; it also described two 20th-century African American geographies.

Book cover
The cover of the 1940 edition of the “Negro Motorist's Green Book.” NMAH

At first glance, the Green Book maps the territorial limits of African American freedom. The America that black people lived in under Jim Crow was much smaller than the one in which white Americans lived. After World War II, Americans took their cars on the newly built interstate system and invented the road trip. But this open road wasn't open to everyone. When Disneyland opened its gates in 1955, the path to the Magic Kingdom was fraught with dangers for most black travelers, compelled to chart their journey from one oasis of freedom to the next using the Green Book as their guide.

However, the Green Book was also an atlas of black self-reliance. Each motel, auto repair shop, and gas station was a monument to black determination to succeed in a Jim Crow nation. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these businesses represented a source of black economic power that could be used to build a more just America. A number of these black business leaders would join the NAACP and other civil rights organizations in order to translate their economic power into political power and use that to help bring an end to Jim Crow. They used their money to bail protestors out of jail, fund the operations of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and pay for the buses that sent thousands to the 1963 March on Washington.

Even though the Green Book was never meant to be an explicitly political document, it described the economic infrastructure of the black freedom struggle. Indeed, Victor and Alma Green articulated this hope in the 1948 edition:

"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."

More information about the Negro Motorists' Green Book:

  • The New York Public Library has digitized the Green Book from 1937-1962. You can browse these editions on their website.
  • Mapping the Green Book is a project unearthing the histories of locations cited in the guide.
  • The University of South Carolina has an interactive Google Map created using the 1956 Green Book.
  • In 2010, NPR interviewed civil rights leader Julian Bond about his childhood memories of using the Green Book

This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's blog on July 30, 2015. Read the original version here.