Y’all ever heard of ‘The Negro Motorists Green Book?’ ‘The Green Book’ for short, was the black person’s travel guide back in the day and it included all the unwritten rules of the road. Created as a daily tool to cope with racism, blacks described it as “a guidebook that told you not where the best places were to eat…but where there was any place.”
For almost three decades beginning in 1936, many African-American travelers relied on a booklet to help them decide where they could comfortably eat, sleep, buy gas, find a tailor or beauty parlor, shop on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls, or go out at night. In 1949, when the guide was 80 pages, there were only five recommended hotels in Atlanta.
A Harlem postal employee and civic leader named Victor H. Green conceived the guide in response to one too many accounts of humiliation or violence where discrimination continued to hold strong. Black travelers never knew where they would be welcome so they referenced ‘The Green Book.’ Those who needed to know about it knew about it, but to much of the rest of America it was invisible.
Historians of travel have recognized that the great American road trip — seen as an ultimate sign of freedom — was not that free for many Americans, including those who had to worry about “sunset laws” in towns where black visitors had to be out by day’s end.
For a large swath of the nation’s 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,” said Cotton Seiler, the author of “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America.”
During family trips, Blacks would often pack a big lunch so they didn’t have to worry about having to stop somewhere that might not serve them. In addition to hotels, the guide often pointed them to “tourist homes,” privates residences made available by their African-American owners.
So the next time you head out to Bike Week, Spring Break or Freak Fest, think about what a luxury it is to see a rest stop on the road… and actually go to it.
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