The Green Book: How Traveling Black Americans Navigated Jim Crow

Decades before desegregation and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black Americans struggled to travel throughout the nation with ease, safety, and comfort. However, due to pervasive racism in the form of Jim Crow laws, segregationist policies, informal community traditions, and  prejudiced individuals, the threat of physical danger and harassment constantly loomed for traveling Black Americans. The Negro Motorist Green Book, first published in 1936, served as a solution to this issue. For the first time, Black Americans who were often denied access to restaurants, hotels, and restrooms had a resource telling them which establishments welcomed their presence. 

Written by a Harlem postal carrier, Victor Green, and his wife, Alma Green, the Green Book was pivotal in Black American history. Beginning in the 1920s, car ownership became more widespread, and Americans now could travel the country independently. For many Americans, the automobile age marked a time of true mobility and agency—something very few Black Americans had the opportunity to experience before. Ironically, this period of renewed autonomy for Black Americans coincided with the segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, posing many challenges for Black travelers. 

The Green Book, 1941 edition. Source: National Museum of American History

Jim Crow laws made it extremely difficult for Black travelers to stop to use the restroom, grab a meal, get gas, or find a place to stay overnight without confrontation. Black families on vacation had to be prepared at any given moment to be denied lodging or a meal in a restaurant, forcing many to pack their car trunks with food, blankets, pillows, and even an old coffee can if they were denied the use of the restroom. To make matters worse, there was always the possibility that a Black traveler’s car could break down and they’d be stranded in a “sundown town”–an all-white community that excluded nonwhite people from remaining in town past sunset. But even if physical harm was not an issue, emotional abuse was prevalent for Black travelers.  For example, segregationist gas station owners would often accept the money of Black motorists and allow them to get gas at the pump, yet deny them use of the bathroom.

Photo: Library of Congress

Many Black Americans began to push back on this discrimination. The “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” (sometimes called “Buy Where You Can Work”) protests of the 1930s were held in many cities throughout the U.S., including Harlem, and encouraged boycotts of stores that refused to hire Black Americans. This movement inspired Victor and Alma Green first to compile a list of businesses in Harlem that were safe and welcoming to Black residents and travelers. This first edition of the Green Book encompassed metropolitan New York only. Still, a year later in 1937, the book expanded to include the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda. In the 1949 issue, Kentucky cities like Bowling Green, Elizabethtown, Hazard, Hopkinsville, Lancaster, Lexington, Lincoln Ridge, Louisville, Paducah, and Paris were listed. 

Victor and Alma Green published editions of the book each year until 1962, with Alma taking over in 1960 upon Victor’s death. By the end of 1962, the book had circulated to nearly 2 million people nationwide. In addition, its listings grew to include many types of businesses beyond restaurants and lodging: hair salons, barbers, gas stations, haberdashers, tailors, vacation resorts, liquor stores, and many more. Though not the end-all or be-all to discrimination, the Green Book protected Black Americans from the potential physical and emotional risks of traveling through America’s segregated public spaces.

The Green Book went beyond simply protecting Black travelers from the possibility of harm; it also gave Black Americans the opportunity to find enjoyment in their traveling experience. The authors made sure to include recreational pursuits such as golf courses, country clubs, and state and national parks to encourage Black Americans to indulge in any special interests they may have. The Green Book allowed Black Americans a chance to truly live, not just survive.

The Green Book also emboldened Black Americans to patronize the Black-owned and tolerant White-owned businesses that treated them respectfully. More often than not, the highlighted businesses were typically owned and operated by Black people. For Black business owners, many of whom were women, having their businesses featured in the Green Book afforded them more significant economic opportunity than ever experienced before.

Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was undoubtedly a beneficial piece of legislation, the gradual desegregation that came thereafter gave White businesses a chance to absorb much of the Black consumer base, driving demand away from many Black-owned businesses. Simultaneously, the largest public construction project the nation has ever seen was underway. With the passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1956, U.S. interstates were expanded between 1957 and 1969. And more often than not, racist city planners viewed bulldozing through majority-Black neighborhoods as the path of least resistance for their ambitious infrastructure projects. As a result, several Black-owned businesses were demolished in the name of interstate construction and urban renewal. If not destroyed, many businesses were bypassed by the newly-constructed freeways that took consumers to the suburbs. Unfortunately, at least half of the Black-owned businesses in the Green Book were closed within ten years of the Civil Rights Act. 

Louisville’s Black business district, West Walnut Street, 1942. Source: UofL Archives.

The last formal edition of the Green Book was published in 1966, yet the legacy of this collection of travel guides still lives on today. In light of the vast number of police killings, the Black Lives Matter movement, and protests throughout the country, many have called for a reinvigoration of Green Book-era support for Black businesses. Last year, Louisville native Theo Edwards-Butler launched the Modern Green Book, which aims to publish five books annually to share Black stories and experiences and connect consumers to Black brands and creatives. Edwards-Butler has also created an online database with names of Black-owned businesses that every traveler can find around the world. More information about the Modern Green Book and the online database can be found here: 
In a time of extreme strife and darkness for the Black community, the Green Book served as a beacon of hope. The book and the opportunities it offered provided Black Americans with a sense of agency unlike they’d ever experienced before. And for that, it should be celebrated this Black History Month.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s