African-American Transportation History: The True Story of the Green Book

In 1936, Victor Hugo Green first developed an annual guide to help his fellow African-Americans more effectively and safely go on road trips despite the pervasiveness of Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial discrimination. Green, who was a World War I veteran and New York City mailman, came up with the guide to enable African-Americans traveling by car outside their own neighborhoods to more easily find businesses on or near the nation’s highways that were non-discriminatory.

The 1940 edition cover.

When it was first published, The Negro Motorist Green Book focused only on hotels and restaurants in New York. It didn’t take long for Green to expand both the geographic reach and the categories of inclusive businesses, however. By the early 1940s, his guide contained thousands for listings for hotels, restaurants, stores, gas stations, and various other places across the nation that either accommodated all races or were at least owned by African-Americans. In compiling this broad-based information, Green relied heavily on information from his fellow postal carriers as well as many others throughout the United States.

Green’s guide, which was organized by state and municipality, became the most widely read publication of its kind for African-Americans driving to unfamiliar and potentially high-risk areas. “You literally didn’t leave home without it,” recalled Earl Hutchinson Sr. in his 2000 memoir A Colored Man’s Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America. Copies of the guide were available for purchase at Esso gas stations, and eventually, about 15,000 copies of the guide were sold each year.

After Green died in 1960, his wife Alma took over editing and updating the guide. The final edition of the guide was published two years after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in public places.

Several decades later, The Negro Motorist Green Book remains a significant cultural touchstone. A key example of this is the 2018 film Green Book, which won the Academy Award for best picture. This film is based on the true story of African-American classical pianist Don Shirley and a concert tour of his during the early 1960s that involved traveling through Deep South states. In trying to safely navigate through that region of the United States, Shirley and his chauffeur Tony Vallelonga bring along and make use of Green’s guide.

For more information on Victor Hugo Green, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Hugo_Green.

Additional information on the history of The Negro Motorist Green Book is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Negro_Motorist_Green_Book.

Digitized versions of the guide can be accessed at https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/the-green-book#/?tab=about&scroll=6.

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