The Green Book
September 13, 2010 6:40 AM   Subscribe

NOW WE CAN TRAVEL WITHOUT EMBARRASSMENT was the advertising slogan used by the publisher of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a vital resource for African-American travelers in a period when sundown towns (previously) were still common. This slim volume was published annually until 1964 for the benefit of black motorists who needed to know where they could sleep, eat, or purchase fuel.
posted by Joe in Australia (37 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Absolutely shameful that this publication was ever necessary.

I love the Mark Twain quote on the cover, though: "Travel is fatal to prejudice."
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:50 AM on September 13, 2010 [8 favorites]

Wow, this made that (before my) time very real. Great post.
posted by DU at 6:53 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I hear the 2010 edition is in Spanish.
posted by swift at 6:58 AM on September 13, 2010 [54 favorites]

I read that NYTimes article when it appeared, and was fascinated. Like DU says, a lot of things I already knew about "back then" suddenly became a lot more concrete to me. It's not like we live in utopia or anything like that, but it's amazing to me how much better life is now for millions and millions of people, and in such a short span of time.
posted by Forktine at 7:17 AM on September 13, 2010

Fantastic post. I wonder if there were versions for other countries with similar laws. Travellers and such had signs and when it gets this huge, overt and legal it has to be an intensely frightening place to live and raise children.
posted by shinybaum at 7:24 AM on September 13, 2010

Holy shit, that's depressing to think about.
posted by planetkyoto at 7:27 AM on September 13, 2010

I just want to point out how very ironic it is that this PDF of the 1949 Green Book is stamped "from the collection of Henry Ford."
posted by adamrice at 7:29 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was growing up in southwest Virginia, there was still an old, abandoned billboard on one of the largely forgotten back roads through the mountains that advertised a Roanoke motel called the Colored Tourist Motor Court. The sign was there well into the 80s, and for all I know may still be there.

It always confused me and kind of creeped me out as a kid. Especially growing up in the south, it was weird coming across these scattered artifacts of a world that was barely gone and still echoed around in the dusty, neglected corners that no one had bothered to sanitize just yet. Very weird.
posted by Naberius at 7:32 AM on September 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

+1 to every single business with the courage to be listed in the Green Book.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:33 AM on September 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm disappointed the 1949 edition has Montreal as the single entry for "CANADA."
I was dying to know what the "accessible" places were back then, here in Toronto.
posted by chococat at 7:35 AM on September 13, 2010

This book was still necessary just 4 years prior to my birth. Until now, I had never really understood just how recently it was that bigotry against African Americans was institutionalized and legal in this country. It always seems like ancient history, but the reality is equal rights were still a new and controversial idea when I joined this world.
posted by COD at 7:46 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Looking at the entries for Pittsburgh, it's not surprising that most of them are in The Lower Hill District which used to function as an alternative downtown for African Americans in the city. It was located right next to the "white" downtown and was full of black-owned businesses that would provide services to blacks that the white-owned businesses downtown wouldn't. Mostly it's gone now, the lower hill was torn down in the sixties for "urban renewal" which turned out to mean a hockey rink and lots of parking lots.
posted by octothorpe at 7:46 AM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

It always seems like ancient history, but the reality is equal rights wereare still a new and controversial idea when I joined this world.

Brown skin, different sexuality or lack of money can still cause you major problems.
posted by DU at 7:50 AM on September 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm really surprised that the only entries for Wisconsin were in Fond du Lac and Oshkosh. Those are not known as inclusive, happenin' places.
posted by desjardins at 8:00 AM on September 13, 2010

Previously black travellers had relied on word of mouth and advertisements in the back of magazines to identify black-friendly businesses. So while you may know that your final destination would accomodate you and your family, every place in between was a crap shoot. Must've been terrifying.

I had done an outline of a Green Book FPP awhile back, but forgot about it because there wasn't a whole lot of source material. I did find an interesting half written TV pilot for a sci-fi series set in the 1930s called Lovecraft Country, whose main character was a black travel writer named Victor Green.
posted by electroboy at 8:07 AM on September 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sundown Towns might not lynch you anymore, though you may find people screaming names at you, throwing bottles from a passing car, or having police stop you 4 times in the course of a month as you walk home.

You'd be surprised how much the attitudes from over a century ago still influence people - I had a friend tell me about his housing agent telling him he needed to live "North of the Ship Canal" in Seattle. Eliminationism might not be as extreme as driving people out of town anymore, though the issues of housing segregation and gentrification are less violent (minus, a few police shootings), but equivalent results at the end of the day.
posted by yeloson at 8:08 AM on September 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

Also thought it was kinda cool to incorporate a black main character into an HP Lovecraft setting, since HP was such a huge racist.
posted by electroboy at 8:10 AM on September 13, 2010

Turns out that in Minneapolis back then there were no hotels that allowed blacks when the 1949 guide was published, which is how it came about that the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House had expanded the normal range of settlement house services to include a hotel, and is therefore the only lodging listed in the Green Book for Minneapolis.

The settlement house has become the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center. Neat history lesson for the day!
posted by padraigin at 8:13 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mark Knopfler had a great song about this topic: Baloney Again
posted by toastchee at 8:16 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here in Key West, we often discuss the travel term "gay-friendly". What a joke!

We wonder if these places were once—or perhaps are still—"black-friendly", "Jew-friendly", "Catholic-friendly", "Asian-friendly", and "Hispanic-friendly".

Or in other words, "I'm not prejudice, some of my best customers are [fill in the blank]*."

posted by Mike Mongo at 8:48 AM on September 13, 2010

Looking over New Orleans, I can say I am not surprised that:

1.) the three Tourist Homes listed are all in Central City. That area had and still does have a strong black community, especially the area around Dryades Ave / O.C. Haley Blvd.
2.) the hotels were either in Central City, the back of the Quarter (mostly Rampart), or just outside the back of the Quarter on the edge of the Marigny.
3.) the only restaurant listed that I know for sure is still around was Dooky Chase (listed just as Dooky) which is run by Leah Chase. As far as I'm aware it's still not fully recovered (certainly not as of this article from last year) and Leah's not getting any younger.
posted by komara at 9:00 AM on September 13, 2010

I hear the 2010 edition is in Spanish.

Or Arabic.
posted by Ratio at 9:19 AM on September 13, 2010

Terrific post, thanks.

I lived for 10 years in a sundown town mentioned in the Dallas Morning News article from the sunset town post. There were no visible signposts, nor violence against blacks (or anyone) there. I'm not sure how they keep it a sunset town exactly, but it is complicated. It's not just a question of cops hassling non-whites, although that seemed to happen. I knew one of the local policemen who was black and he never mentioned any type of overt campaign to keep blacks out. My guess it was an unwritten rule or some kind of pervasive chilly atmosphere maybe? I'm not into conspiracy theories as a rule (I think groups are too stupid) so I wonder if an environment of hate is enough to keep people away, in spite of all the benefits of living there under duress. Which leads to my next point.

A sad part is that it shuts out non-whites from owning property in a good school district. [Non-americans may not know how closely real estate and school quality are linked in the USA due to taxation.] The schools in that sunset town are some of the best in the country. They are like private public schools. 98% college acceptance, etc.
posted by acheekymonkey at 9:33 AM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a really interesting topic to me, I had a class a few semesters ago on Road Culture and History and the readings and discussions about African American adaptations to racism on the road were both eyeopening and frustrating.

Not only did the Green Book help folks know where to go and who to turn to, but African American fratertnities and sororities were instrumental in providing middle and upper class African Americans the support network necessary to travel and go to conferences and functions.

Everytime I read about this sort of thing, it turns my stomach at what we've done and how far we haven't come.
posted by teleri025 at 9:44 AM on September 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

I came of age at a time, slightly pre-Internet, where the Damron Gay Travel guides were the one thing you could guarantee seeing at any bookstore that had a gay/lesbian section. Related to this because:

(a) I think it's a personal failing to think that I never thought such things existed for other groups
(b) I wonder if the sense of relief African-Americans felt upon learning of their existence could even be comparable. It's probably the same, yes, but at least 1000 times more.

Great post, thanks.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:03 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Me and my wife went all over town
And everywhere we went people turned us down

Chorus: Lord, in a bourgeois town
It's a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Home of the brave, land of the free
I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie


Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say "I don't want no niggers up there"

Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow

I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
Don't try to find you no home in Washington, DC!
--Huddie Ledbetter ("Lead Belly") and Alan Lomax
posted by orthogonality at 10:34 AM on September 13, 2010

I looked in the guide for Oakland, and as I suspected, many of the addresses were on 7th st. The 7th street business district (scroll down for a couple pictures) at the time was a vital and bustling center of Oakland's black community. In the 1950's, the freeways were designed to deliberately isolate West Oakland and North Oakland (one of the rooming houses was on a block that was removed for 580) from downtown. In the 70's, entire blocks of the 7th street District were torn down in order to build the gigantic Oakland Post Office and West Oakland Bart.

Several others in Berkeley and Oakland are now parking lots. I was hoping to see a few businesses (or even buildings) still around, but they seem to all be gone.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:36 AM on September 13, 2010

There was a piece on this on the local - that is to say, DC - NPR station (eponystetc, etc, etc) this afternoon, inspired by the same play the Washington Post piece Johnny Wallflower posted, but focusing more on the history of the Green Book than the play itself.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 10:58 AM on September 13, 2010

I'm not into conspiracy theories as a rule (I think groups are too stupid) so I wonder if an environment of hate is enough to keep people away, in spite of all the benefits of living there under duress.

Think of the "conspiracy" this way: do kids all sit down and plan out which kid they're going to pick on during the school year? It's an unconscious common behavior mirrored as a group that results in behavior not much different than a conspiracy in results.

For example, for my friend in 2009, to be told he should live north of the ship canal, in Seattle, wasn't like the apartment service was run by klansmen, just a bunch of folks who've absorbed "common wisdom" about how "safe" (read: white) the neighborhoods are/aren't and where people should live.

(He often points out that the crime rates in Capitol Hill, a white neighborhood, are worse than the crime rates in the Central District, as far as random muggings, break-ins, etc. but you know, never let facts get in the way of prejudice, right?)

It doesn't take a lot of harassment - a little harassment and a lot of people who witness it and don't say anything goes a long way. It's not that there's assholes, it's the uncaring mass who are willing to stand by while you're getting messed with that tells you whether the neighborhood would be safe or not safe for you.
posted by yeloson at 11:25 AM on September 13, 2010

Yeloson, most of the newcomers I've met are choosing SE Seattle because it's diverse. And just this weekend in two separate places in Rainier Beach I saw hipster kids on fixies...

posted by black8 at 12:08 PM on September 13, 2010

Yeloson, most of the newcomers I've met are choosing SE Seattle because it's diverse. And just this weekend in two separate places in Rainier Beach I saw hipster kids on fixies...

Yeah, I know. Seattle's a weird place. I was just up there two weeks ago, though the gentrification issues have gotten pretty ridiculous. Like cutting off buslines to working class neighborhoods ("Oh, don't worry, you can catch the light rail... then walk 3 miles.").

I never thought I'd say, "I'm glad I moved to Oakland for the bus service".
posted by yeloson at 1:23 PM on September 13, 2010

Every so often I forget that the USA is such a recent post-apartheid society. Then I get reminded. It goes a little way to explain its unusual leeway for some of its geopolitical allies.
posted by meehawl at 1:34 PM on September 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can't even imagine living in a world where I can't travel because a gas station, restaurant, or hotel may not serve me.

It really makes the Rand Paul "The CRA is unconstitutional" bullshit stand out when you learn about what the situation was like. The free market doesn't solve discrimination issues, it wasn't profitable to take black customers when it would piss off the rest of your customers.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:55 PM on September 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

yeloson, sad to hear about the issues with Seattle's bus service. When I lived there 20 years ago it was one of the highlights of the city, since I wasn't interested in having a car. I especially appreciated the fact that you could get a bus 24 hours a day (although the early morning routes were a bit restricted).
posted by Jimmy Havok at 4:53 PM on September 13, 2010

I want to know more about current sundown towns.

The author's Web site notes that Edina, MN was a sundown town. Some quick Wikipediaing shows that it still has a ridiculously small percentage of African-Americans -- not only less than the Twin Cities metro area, but also much less than nearby equally-wealthy suburbs. What's going on there?
posted by miyabo at 7:20 PM on September 13, 2010

My research into this aspect of Segregation reminded me of an episode in Maus describing Vladek Spiegelman's experience as a Jewish fugitive in Nazi Poland. Poles were allegedly both good at recognising Jews and very willing to report them to the authorities, so Vladek had to plan his life around the knowledge that he was both vulnerable and unwelcome. When I read about the experiences of black travelers I recognised the similar strategies they used - don't go through there; it's not safe. Don't travel by day, travel by night. Acquiesce when people overcharge; you have no choice. Don't be arrogant, but don't look guilty. African-Americans weren't exposed to the imminent threat of state-sponsored annihilation, but the humiliation and terror they experienced when traveling was of the same sort experienced by Jews before the Final Solution.

Another thing I came across was the idea that the USA's Interstate highway system was profoundly liberating. Black travelers could enter this system and travel relatively inconspicuously, without passing through all the little towns with different unspoken rules about how blacks ought to behave. The businesses that grew up around the Interstates were also different, and were more likely to accommodate black travelers. We usually think of freeways as being depersonalising, but being part of an anonymous crowd is sometimes a good thing.

Finally, I think that this experience shows the flaws in the libertarian freedom-of-association argument. It sounds plausible - why should anyone be forced to serve a customer? - but in aggregate these hoteliers and service station owners were acting as gatekeepers to the public highway system on which they themselves depended. This wasn't just humiliating; it imposed real costs on people who needed to travel for work or for family reasons. I know some libertarians would argue that there shouldn't be a public highway system, but we're getting into crackpot territory here.

Anyway, thanks for the kind words about my FPP. I enjoyed writing it.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:16 PM on September 13, 2010 [7 favorites]

« Older How To Study   |   give me your answer, do Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments