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The Green Book, Jim Crow, and historical thinking

It’s always a good day when you get the chance to learn something new. Today was a good day. Today I learned about an incredible primary source called the Green Book. As a lover of history and collector of primary sources, the Green Book is both incredibly interesting and incredibly depressing at the same time. Interesting because it’s such a rich primary source. Depressing because it was needed.

The full title of the book is The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide and was first published in 1936. The book was printed every year after that until 1965.

We often talk about the great American road trip. College kids take them. Families travel across  the country. My own experience? Second grade. Mom, dad, my five siblings, and a station wagon. Kansas to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Disney Land, and back. It’s as American as apple pie and baseball.

But for African Americans prior to the 1960s and 70s, this sort of trip was difficult, often embarrassing, and potentially deadly. Jim Crow laws, Sundown Towns, and unwritten rules often made finding hotels and restaurants open to black travelers impossible.

Cotton Seiler, the author of Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America, suggests that for much of our history

the American democratic idea of getting out on the open road, finding yourself, heading for distant horizons was only a privilege for white people.

In the movie, Separate But Equal, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren experiences this firsthand when he discovers his driver sleeping in the back seat of his limo during a visit to Gettysburg. There were no hotels within 20 miles that were integrated.

The Green Book was an attempt to help African American travelers find places to stay, places to eat, places to buy gas, and shop while driving throughout the United States. Victor Green, a Harlem letter carrier, began collecting information about New York City metro area businesses welcoming to African Americans visiting the city and published his findings.

The book eventually expanded to include all the states, Bermuda, Canada, and Mexico. Green later started a service that booked reservations at black-owned businesses. Part of the introduction in the book included

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 rights and privileges in the United States.

You can find the full 1949 edition online.

green book kansas

The question for me is how to best use this sort of primary document. This is the first I’ve heard of the book and so I’m trying to figure out what might work. Some of my first thoughts would be to do some Google Maps searches, using Street View to look for addresses listed in the book. Note changes over time in the human and cultural geography as well as any changes in environment. But still wrapping my head around the the idea of the book itself.

Seems like a great writing exercise / prompt.

The release of a new book in a few weeks called Ruth and the Green Book provides a fictional resource of the period that might be useful.

A synopsis of the book:

Ruth was so excited to take a trip in her family’s new car! In the early 1950s, few African Americans could afford to buy cars, so this would be an adventure. But she soon found out that black travelers weren’t treated very well in some towns. Many hotels and gas stations refused service to black people. Daddy was upset about something called Jim Crow laws . . .

Finally, a friendly attendant at a gas station showed Ruth’s family The Green Book. It listed all of the places that would welcome black travelers. With this guidebook – and the kindness of strangers – Ruth could finally make a safe journey from Chicago to her grandma’s house in Alabama.

Ruth’s story is fiction but The Green Book and its role in helping a generation of African American travelers avoid some of the indignities of Jim Crow are historical fact.

I’m curious. How would you use this document as part of your instruction?

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. These circumstances were poignantly documented by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Listed by the New York Times as one of top ten books of the year in 2010. Wilkerson traces the migration stories of three people – each with a unique yet iconic migration story.

    October 14, 2014
    • glennw #

      Yes! This is what I needed. Fiction, non-fiction, compare and contrast. Primary sources. Emotional content. Stories that we can use to help kids connect present with past.

      Will order this week. Thanks for sharing!


      October 14, 2014
    • Thanks! I’m ordering this book too! Where have I been??

      October 14, 2014
  2. I am fascinated by this. I don’t ever recall either of my parents mentioning this book (But I will ask about it tonight!) As my grandparents were fortunate enough to travel via car throughout the South, they would have surely used this as a resource. Wow!

    I like the idea of mapping to tell a story, so what if you expanded Ruth’s story to include other destinations. Kids could use the 1949 edition to plan their own travel adventure documenting via myHistro or simply a Google map. Having them experience the extensive planning necessary to get from point A to point B will be an eye-opener for most.

    Class discussions of privilege? The book is no longer published, but do we really have equal rights and privileges? Could students justify the need for one or something similar today and make a relevant connection – for people of color, women, etc. Just thinking …

    So intrigued. I’ll definitely follow up with this!

    October 14, 2014
    • glennw #

      It just seems like such an incredible document for students to interact with. I like your idea of MyHistro – my first thought was to go to the Google Tour Builder tool. And connecting the book to present day needs is a great idea. What current group would find such a book useful? Why? Who would write the book? How would they research it? Who would publish it?

      Your comment about your grandparents led me down the path of oral histories. The book also discusses the problem that Jewish travelers had during the period. Students could explore a variety of stories and experiences. (Would love to hear what you parents remember about the book!)

      Thanks for the comment and the ideas!


      October 14, 2014
  3. Hi Glenn,

    I finally remembered to ask about the book! And . . . I was right! My great grandfather (born in 1876) did have a copy of at least one year. My mother and uncle remember it and the references he made when traveling. She believes that he likely had several editions, and they were all destroyed when another relative had his workshop shed chalked full of all kinds of historical gems torn down on the property. (I’ve heard numerous stories about that incident – lol.)

    Because of this discussion, I’ve now learned about another book that DID survive: “How to Be a Good Negro.” My uncle has this one on a bookshelf; I had no idea! I’m reading it after I finish “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

    October 22, 2014

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