For most travelers…there are hotels of all sizes and classes, waiting and competing for their patronage…
For some travelers, however, the facilities of many of these places are not available, even though they may have the price, and any traveler to whom they are not available, is thereby faced with many and sometimes difficult problems.
The Green Book helps solve your travel problems.
So wrote Wendell Alston of Esso Standard Oil in his foreward to the 1949 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book. Published from the 1930s through the 1960s by Victor H. Green of New York, the Negro Motorist Green Book (also distinctly colored green) was a travel guide for the American black during the final stages of the perilous Jim Crow era, which happened to coincide with increased mobility among African-Americans. The guidebook was sponsored by Esso and the Ford Motor Company and sold at Esso stations, and it offered a road map through the mine field of segregated America, especially – but not exclusively – the American South.
The Green Book (sometimes called Negro Traveler’s Green Book) provided information on businesses that would cater to blacks – hotels, camp sites, restaurants, night clubs, drug stores, beauty salons and barber shops, gas and service stations. By extension, it served to steer blacks away from the kinds of businesses and people that might cause them what it referred to as “difficulties” and “embarrassments,” but what its readers surely knew could quickly snowball into humiliation, violence, imprisonment, even death.
Businesses weren’t the only entities practicing discrimination; scattered across the U.S. were thousands of “sundown towns,” cities which barred the presence of blacks (and sometimes other minorities) after sundown. Again, this bold means of segregation was not limited to the South. Sundown towns flourished from sea to shining sea, in places like California, Illinois, New York, and New Hampshire. Naturally a town that would expel blacks after sunset is a town most blacks wouldn’t have wanted to enter at high noon, either.
In its time the Green Book was one of those items about which those “in the know” (read: blacks) knew about and bought, but which was invisible to anyone else. Today it is a forgotten artifact from an otherwise well-documented era of struggle and hostility. Road trips have long been romanticized as part of the American experience, but as with most things during the Jim Crow era, the experience was nowhere near as liberating for blacks.
The Green Book’s usefulness was reflected in its growth. Originally covering only greater New York City, the guide expanded over the years, eventually covering most of North America and parts of the Caribbean. At its peak it sold 15,000 copies a year, no small feat for a travel guide with such restricted retail opportunities. (Esso, its main distributor, was unique in its time for hiring black marketing representatives, and even franchising stations to blacks.)
The Negro Motorist Green Book held an odd distinction, a guide book whose publishers hoped for its eventual obsolescence. As 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. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go as we please, and without embarrassment.
That happened in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act.