If you’ve traveled, then you know the value of a good guidebook. (If you haven’t traveled, then you need to take our word for it. And then you need to start traveling. Life is short.)
Books like Lonely Planet and Frommer’s point us toward the sweeping vistas, historic churches, and party hubs from Copenhagen to the Inca Trail. They help us navigate what can otherwise be a stressful experience.
Now imagine a different kind of traveling and a different kind of stress. Imagine being an African-American salesman, musician, or serviceman in 1950. Imagine your job requires you, your wife, and your two children to drive hundreds of miles across the country to get to your next sale, gig, or post. (This was before interstates, before Holiday Inns, before fast food joints in every town.) What restaurants will serve you? What hotels will rent you a room? What gas stations will let you fill up at their pump?
Before Jim Crow Laws were abolished, these were all questions answered by Victor H. Green.
Green first published The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1936 as a guide to identify places where blacks would be welcomed. A New York postal worker, Green reached out across the unions of his coworkers to pick out choice spots around the country for black travelers. His guides covered restaurants, hotels, motels, bars, clubs, tailors, and even barber shops and beauty salons.
Green got the idea from a Jewish publication that told Jews where they could travel safely in the face of discrimination of their own.
Now, playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey is invoking the guide’s memory as the backdrop for a new play, “The Green Book.” Former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, who plays Mr. Green, took part in a reading of the play last night at the Lincoln Theater in Washington D.C.
“If I go to NYC and want a haircut, it’s pretty easy to find a place,” Bond told NPR yesterday. “But that wasn’t the case back then. You needed the green book to tell you where to go without getting doors slammed in your face.”
Green’s guides grew in popularity and eventually covered all fifty states. In 1952 the guide’s name was changed to The Negro Travelers’ Green Book and included destinations in Mexico, Canada, Barbados, and Bermuda. So the next time you’re thumbing through a travel guide, keep Victor H. Green in mind. Better yet, just remember Mark Twain’s advice emblazoned across each edition of Green’s books: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”