On a search for ‘Negro Motorist Green Book’
I love road trips. I want to see all that this vast country has to offer in its land and its people. So, I’ve enlisted two friends to take a trip with me down the New England coast from Nova Scotia, Canada, to Newport, RI, sampling lobster rolls and the scenery.
The trip also offers an historical bonus. One of my friends has relatives on her mother’s side of the family who lived in Nova Scotia. It’ll give us a chance to try to trace her history and maybe find some kin.
We’ll drive down the coast in a rented car, stopping at lobster shacks and hotels along the way. It’ll be a good and safe trip for us, and all we’ll likely need are our Droids and possibly AAA guidebooks. That’s much unlike what African Americans had to endure 70 to 80 years ago when those who could afford Henry Ford’s cars hopped into them and hit the road. They couldn’t just stop at any restaurant or hotel, lay their tired heads on a soft pillow and sleep peacefully.
They had to figure out where to stop to eat and rest in the “black part of town,” knowing that they could get no peace or food anywhere else without suffering some indignity. That’s why a man named Victor H. Green in 1936 published his first “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a compendium of places where black travelers could find lodging, food and other services. Click on photo above for a full view.
Green, a postal worker who lived in Harlem, kept hearing his friends and acquaintances tell stories of the embarrassment of being black and facing discrimination during vacations and business trips. As he put it in the 1949 guide: “… it has been our idea to give the Negro travel information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”
I had never heard about the guide until a sister auction-lover told me about it recently in an email and sent me a link to a pdf of the 1949 guide. I was blown away, and knew that I’d be on the lookout for the Green Book, as it is called. The book inspired an Atlanta writer to produce a children’s book and a play based on it. The play was performed last year in D.C., with civil rights activist Julian Bond portraying Green.
The 1949 issue contained 80 pages and sold for 75 cents. Green also produced the Green Book Vacation Guide for free (10 cents for postage and handling), and had a reservation bureau that would book your hotel, tourist home or resort.
The man was a definitely an entrepreneur, soliciting folks to sell both advertising and the guide, and urging young people to get into advertising and black people to establish their own name brands. In 1952, the name of the book was changed to the Negro Travelers Green Book, according to an article in the 1956 book. Green published the guide until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to exclude black people from public establishments.
The annual paperback book listed hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, taverns, night clubs, garages, service stations, road houses, drug stores and tourist homes (where black families rented rooms in their homes) – all grouped by state. Bermuda, Mexico and Canada were also included, but their listings were very limited.
One of the supporters was Esso Standard Oil Co., where black drivers could get the book along with maps – a good way to make sure they didn’t get lost in an unfamiliar city as they searched for those welcoming places. Some of which, the 1949 book noted, were establishments run by whites.
If you found yourself in DC, you could try out Patsy’s Guest House. There was Rhumboogie restaurant in Pensacola FL; the YMCA in Atlanta; Berline’s Beauty Parlor in Des Moines; Blue Garden Night Club in Canton, MS, where you could get a meal; Liberty Hotel in Atlantic City and Susie’s Restaurant in Montclair, NJ.
In my hometown of Macon, GA, you could get a bed at Douglas hotel, eat at Mabel’s restaurant or get gas at Anderson’s.
The book also contained a story about Ford cars, along with an ad for the company. This was a time when automobiles opened up the road to people, and quite naturally black people wanted to partake, too. Lots of them felt the need to both explore, and to visit aunts, uncles and cousins who lived afar. Just as I love the notion of discovering America now.
What if I were traveling with my friends in 1949 and used the Green Book to plot our trip? What choices were available to us down the New England coast? I decided to check the book to find out:
Canada: Only one listing, Montreal. No Nova Scotia, where in fact a large black population had lived for about a century in the Africville community of Halifax. The book was incomplete because Green could only list places he knew about or was told about. We’d have to scratch Nova Scotia from our travel plans, or go to Halifax and do what other blacks would do: Ask for directions to Africville.
Maine: Bangor – tourist homes owned by Mrs. E. Dymond on Hancock Street or Pond View on Pleasant Pond Road. The city was inland, about an hour from the coast. We’d have to take a detour or sleep in our car.
Gardiner/Old Orchard – Mrs. Rose Cummings’ tourist house on Portland Avenue. This entry wasn’t quite clear: Gardiner was inland. The only Old Orchard I found via Google was Old Orchard Beach south of Portland. This would’ve been tricky for us, so we’d likely have bypassed it and kept driving.
Portland – the Thomas House hotel on A Street. I can only assume that it provided meals or could tell us where to find food.
New Hampshire: We’d have to sleep in the car or breeze through the state because there were no listings in 1949. The 1956 guide still had nothing.
Massachusetts: Boston – at least 3 hotels, including Harriet Tubman; six tourist homes; nine restaurants, including Lonie Lee’s & Southern. No mention of Martha’s Vineyard, where many elite blacks had spent summer vacations in Oak Bluffs since the 1800s. An interactive map of the 1956 guide listed cottages in Oak Bluffs.
Newport, RI – Nothing. The 1956 guide listed tourist homes in Newport and Providence. We’d have to spend more time in Boston.