The real Safe Negro Travel Guide
“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.”
— introduction to the 1936 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book
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The Negro Motorist Green Book was the brainchild of Victor Hugo Green. Born in New York City in 1892, Green grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, and worked as a postman for Bergen County.
Inspired by existing guides for Jewish travelers, Green decided to create his own travel guide for African-Americans, listing hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that were willing to serve them. The first edition of The Green Book, published in 1936, only covered locations in and around New York City, but the guide proved popular and by 1939 had been expanded to cover the entire U.S.
Green compiled information for The Green Book from a variety of sources, including his fellow postal workers across the country. He sold the book by mail order and through black-owned businesses; the Esso gas station chain, which both employed and sold franchises to African-Americans, also carried The Green Book.
In the scan below, you can see the listings for Everett and Seattle from the 1953 edition of the guide:
As you might guess from the repetition of certain street names, the Seattle listings are all located in the same general area of the city, either the International District—Seattle’s Chinatown—or the historically black Central District. Though these would not have been the only establishments in town willing to serve African-Americans, they were places where black tourists could be sure they would be welcomed.
Businesses that did refuse service to blacks often lied about the reason. In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, historian Isabel Wilkerson chronicles the frustration of a black man named Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, traveling to California in the spring of 1953, when he tried to find a motel on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. Three motel clerks in a row turned him away, claiming they had just rented their last room. At the fourth motel he begged the owners to at least level with him: “If it’s your policy not to rent to colored people, let me know now so I don’t keep getting insulted… I’m no robber. I’ve got no weapons. I’m not a thief. I’m a medical doctor.” In the face of Dr. Foster’s entreaty, the owners acknowledged that there was a blanket policy among area motels not to rent to African-Americans. They said they didn’t agree with the policy, but they still couldn’t give him a room, for fear that their neighbors would ostracize them.
With a Green Book, this sort of frustration could be avoided—unless you were traveling to a city or state where the guide had no listings.
Victor Green died in 1960. His family continued to publish The Green Book until 1966, by which time the public accommodation clause of the 1964 Civil Rights Act had begun to render it obsolete.
In the decades that followed, The Green Book faded from collective memory, until it was rediscovered by a new generation of civil rights historians. (I first learned about it from a mention in James W. Loewen’s Sundown Towns.) Copies of The Green Book are now collectors’ items; a 1941 edition recently sold at auction for $22,500.
The New York Public Library has digitized its own Green Book collection and made it available online, here. The library also has an experimental web tool that lets you map a historical cross-country journey using data from The Green Book; you’ll find that here.