The Green Book

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Archive Tape:
“This is the American dream of freedom on wheels. An automotive age, traveling on time-saving super-highways.”

Roman Mars:
The 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s were the golden age of road travel. Cars had become cheap and roomy enough to carry families comfortably for hundreds of miles. The interstate highway system had started to connect the country’s smaller roads into a vast nationwide network. Finally, tourists could make their way from New York to California with the windows down and the wind in their hair, seeing the grandeur of America along the way.

Archive Tape:
“We have become the nation on wheels with more motorized mobility than ever dreamed of before.”

Delaney Hall:
But, of course, this freedom and mobility wasn’t available to everyone.

Roman Mars:
That’s our brand new producer and splash of cold water, Delaney Hall.

Delaney Hall:
Because in 1956, the year that federal funding made the interstate highway system possible, Jim Crow was still the law of the land. In the South, racial segregation was enforced by law and had been since shortly after Reconstruction. In many parts of the North, the codes were enforced in practice.

Roman Mars:
And these codes could make a simple road trip really complicated for black travelers.

Curtis Graves:
How is this? Is that a good level? Are you picking me up well there?

Delaney Hall:
This is Curtis Graves.

Curtis Graves:
Hey, my name is Curtis Graves, and I was born in 1938, so I’m a little older than most of the people who are listening to this.

Delaney Hall:
Curtis would eventually become a Texas state representative, and then he’d go on to work at NASA, and then he’d become a photographer. But as a kid, he grew up in the segregated South, and for many years, his parents tried to shield him from that reality.

Curtis Graves:
I’ve often said that both my mother and father were the best liars that I knew. For instance, we sat in the back of the bus because ‘it was cooler there’. We rode in the front of the train because ‘you could get off quicker’. We sat upstairs in the movie because ‘you had better seats in the upstairs’.

Delaney Hall:
Of course, that ruse couldn’t last, and by the time Curtis was a college senior in Houston, Texas, in the mid-1950s, he was fully aware of what it meant to be a black person living under Jim Crow. There’s one experience in particular that stands out in his mind.

Roman Mars:
He was just 21-years-old and getting ready to drive to a college meeting in Waco, about three hours northwest of Houston. He’d agreed to take a couple of acquaintances. They happened to be white women.

Curtis Graves:
I said to myself, I might be in for some difficult times here, but I had to soldier on.

Roman Mars:
To get to Waco, Curtis had to drive through a stretch of East Texas that was notorious in those decades for racial violence.

Curtis Graves:
Oh, yeah. Those communities were pretty bad.

Roman Mars:
Around dusk, the travelers got hungry, so they pulled over at a roadside diner.

Curtis Graves:
As soon as we got in the front door, the guy said, “No, I’m sorry, but you can’t come in here. We don’t serve black people at all.”

Delaney Hall:
So the three of them went back outside, and Curtis devised a plan. They’d try another restaurant right across the street.

Curtis Graves:
I said to them, “The two of you go in, get a table, and after you’re seated and the waiter or waitress comes up to you, tell them that you have a boy that’s driving you and that you want to know whether you can bring him in to eat.”

Delaney Hall:
So the women walked inside, and they asked the waitress if Curtis could come inside to join them.

Curtis Graves:
And the lady said, “Of course, no problem at all.” So as long as I was their boy and their driver, I could eat with them at a table in a restaurant, but if I were equal to them, I could not.

Roman Mars:
This kind of humiliation on the road was routine and had been going on for decades. Many people wrote in to the NAACP around this time, describing experiences just like Curtis’s.

Man:
“To whom it may concern, before starting our recent vacation trip to several eastern states, my wife and I…”

Woman:
“Dear sir, I am a member of the NAACP…”

Woman:
“I would like to report an incident occurring on January 1st at a golf service station in Macon, Georgia”

Man:
“My wife and I went to the restaurants to refresh ourselves, then found a vacant table. Ten minutes passed, and no one came to serve us.”

Woman:
“… asked the attendant for a key. He informed me that the restroom for the colored was in the back.”

Woman:
“It seems to me, dealers should not be permitted to sell gas and oil and not provide these comforts for us also.”

Roman Mars:
Some travelers would drive all night instead of trying to find lodging in an unfamiliar and possibly dangerous town. They’d pack picnics so they didn’t have to stop for food. Some people would even carry portable toilets in the trunks of their cars, knowing that there was a good chance that they’d be turned away from roadside restrooms.

Delaney Hall:
But since 1936, a guy named Victor Hugo Green had been trying to help with some of these problems to make life easier for thousands of black motorists. State by state, he’d been putting together a travel guide with listings of restaurants, hotels, and service stations that would welcome African-American travelers. He called it ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’, the ‘Green Book’, for short.

Roman Mars:
Victor Green, who died in 1960, lived in Harlem, New York, during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. His apartment was not far from Duke Ellington’s. His office would eventually be situated near Smalls Paradise, a famous nightclub.

Delaney Hall:
Victor didn’t have the most obvious background for starting a travel guide. He didn’t work in tourism. He wasn’t a writer. He was a mailman in Hackensack, New Jersey, but he kept hearing stories about discrimination on the road.

Calvin Ramsey:
So he would go do his route in Hackensack, New Jersey, come back home and work on the Green Book at night – compiling these addresses, typing them up, and putting them in their book form.

Delaney Hall:
This is Calvin Alexander Ramsey.

Calvin Ramsey:
Playwright, author, and filmmaker.

Delaney Hall:
And years ago, Calvin started researching the history of the Green Book. He learned that the Green Book wasn’t really the first guide of its kind. In fact, Victor may have gotten the idea from Jewish travelers.

Calvin Ramsey:
Because the Jewish community was also having issues on the open road with a lot of the places saying, “Restricted,” and that was a code word for, “Gentiles only.”

Roman Mars:
When Victor published his first Green Book, it just covered New York.

Calvin Ramsey:
And he heard from around the country from other couriers and other people saying, “We really need this nationwide.”

Roman Mars:
But it wasn’t that easy to gather information from across the country back then. Long-distance phone calls were expensive, and that, Calvin says, is when Victor Green realized that being a mailman was his secret superpower.

Calvin Ramsey:
There were African-American letter carriers all over the United States at this time. We’re talking about 1936, and so he knew about the relationships that the mailmen have with their homeowners or apartment dwellers delivering their mail. So just like today, the mailman is part of the community.

Delaney Hall:
So Calvin says Victor tapped into this network, spreading the word about his guide through the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, a letter carrier union. Calvin says postal workers across the country scouted potential Green Book locations in their cities and towns. He says that some even asked families they delivered to if they’d be open to hosting travelers in their homes.

Calvin Ramsey:
And if they agreed, then they would send the information to Victor Green in Harlem. Victor was able to get a salesforce of letter carriers who were all over the country who acquired materials and names and addresses and businesses for him. Wherever there was a black mailman, you had a Green Book salesman or recruiter.

Roman Mars:
Pretty quickly, the Green Book caught on. Businesses, many black-owned, began getting in touch with Victor, hoping to advertise and hoping to be listed. Black newspapers signed on as sponsors. Victor eventually retired from his job as a letter carrier and started working on the guide full-time. He even opened an affiliated travel agency that helped tourists arrange trips.

Delaney Hall:
But still, there was the challenge of distribution, how to get the guide into the hands of travelers who needed it.

Roman Mars:
That happened in a few ways. The United States Travel Bureau signed on to help out, and then there were the more informal networks.

Calvin Ramsey:
Well, churches, Pullman porters, the Urban League, NAACP, the Masonic lodges, there was a very wide, varied distribution process in place for these Green Books.

Roman Mars:
And there was an important corporate sponsor, too. A big one.

(Esso Ad Plays)

Roman Mars:
Esso, also known as Standard Oil and now known as Exxon Mobile, was one of the few oil companies back then that actively pursued black customers. They franchised their stations to African-American operators, and they had a black representative on staff, James Billboard Jackson, who helped place Green Books in many of those stations, as well as the white-owned ones.

Delaney Hall:
Esso may have done this out of a sense of fairness and equality. John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil in 1870, had married into a family of abolitionists who were part of The Underground Railroad, and he voted for Abraham Lincoln back in the day. But Esso probably did it for another reason, too.

Curtis Graves:
Money, honey. It has to do with money.

Delaney Hall:
Remember Curtis, who had the crappy experience driving across East Texas? His dad operated one of the first black-owned Esso stations in New Orleans, where Curtis was born and raised. It was called Butsy and Buddy’s. The economic logic of stocking The Green Book was pretty simple, he says.

Curtis Graves:
If you want black people to buy your fuel, why don’t you give them an opportunity to see that they can travel and find places to stay while they’re on the road traveling?

Delaney Hall:
So Curtis’s dad kept a shelf of Green Books for his customers.

Curtis Graves:
If somebody came in and said, “Buddy, I’m thinking about taking a trip to Chicago,” my dad would say, “Well, do you know where to stop between here and Chicago?” And the other person would say, “No.” He’d say, “Well here, the Green Book will tell you.” And it gave you a sense of security.

Roman Mars:
And so the Green Book came to cover listings in all 50 states and even some locations in Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico. They printed about 15,000 copies a year. Victor Green had changed travel for thousands of African-American tourists. He wrote in a 1956 introduction to the guide.

Excerpt:
“Now, things are different. The negro traveler can depend on the Green Book for all the information he wants. This guide has made traveling more popular without encountering embarrassing situations.”

Delaney Hall:
But as the civil rights struggle continued, some people began to question the value of the Green Book.

Susan Rugh:
Black people, many of them, began to feel that this was accommodating to Jim Crow.

Delaney Hall:
Susan Rugh is a professor of history at Brigham Young University, and she says that the Green Book began to seem a little out of step with the times. It rarely took on an overtly political tone, especially in its early days, and there were actually other black travel guides published around the same time that did. One called ‘Travel Guide’, for instance.

Susan Rugh:
‘Travel Guide’ listed where the NAACP chapters were in each city. They were much more attuned with civil rights, much more political tone.

Delaney Hall:
Eventually, the NAACP made it clear.

Susan Rugh:
And the NAACP said, “What we’re striving for, we’re striving for integration,” and so that’s their stand.

Roman Mars:
And the NAACP built a lot of their push for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race and ended Jim Crow, around this idea of total integration.

Delaney Hall:
In fact, when the NAACP testified during the debate over the bill, they drew on all those letters they’d received about discrimination on the road. They appealed to that vision of the iconic family road trip, of the freedom to explore America by car. Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, spoke before the Senate’s Commerce Committee in 1963.

Susan Rugh:
As soon as Congress gets out, they’re all going to head into their station wagons and go back to their home district. It’s July in Washington. It’s really hot.

Delaney Hall:
Wilkins asked the Senate to imagine what it might be like to travel as a black person.

Susan Rugh:
Would you like me to read what Roy Wilkins said? “How far do you drive each day? Where, and under what conditions, can you and your family eat? Where can they use a restroom? Can you stop driving after a reasonable day behind the wheel, or must you drive until you reach a city where relatives or friends will accommodate you and yours for the night? Will your children be denied a soft drink or an ice cream cone because they are not white?” So he’s appealing to them at the most basic level of their own love for their own family.

Delaney Hall:
And Susan thinks this may have been one of the things that helped pass the bill.

Susan Rugh:
By framing the narrative of civil rights as a family travel narrative, they were able to convince the senators to vote for the bill.

Delaney Hall:
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law.

Archive Tape:
“Congress passes the most sweeping civil rights bill ever to be written into the law, and thus reaffirms the conception of equality for all men that began with Lincoln and the Civil War 100 years ago. The negro won his freedom then. He wins his dignity now.”

Roman Mars:
The civil rights struggle was not over then, and it’s still not over today, but for Victor Green, it became clear at some point that his Green Book had a limited shelf life. He wrote in the introduction to one of his guides.

Excerpt:
“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 opportunities and privileges in the United States.”

Roman Mars:
And sure enough, two years after the Civil Rights Act passed, the Green Book published its last edition.

Delaney Hall:
“So actually, could you just describe where we are?”

Candacy Taylor:
“We’re at the public library downtown, the central branch in Los Angeles, and we’re down in the bowels, four floors down underground in the History and Genealogy Department.”

Delaney Hall:
“And you have a stack of books there in front of you. What are those?”

Candacy Taylor:
“Dude, they are Green Books. They’re just little jewels. I mean, I just buzz with this good energy that I just feel like, “Oh my God, they’re actually here.” It’s amazing. It’s amazing.”

Delaney Hall:
Candacy Taylor is a photographer and a cultural documentarian. The guides she’s holding are small, maybe eight inches by five inches. They have green covers, each with a different destination featured, and there are pages and pages of listings inside.

Candacy Taylor:
“Let me see. There were beauty parlors, barbershops, tailors, taverns, there were nightclubs. It was really a social network. It was anything you might want to do in that town and the resources that were available to you.”

Delaney Hall:
Candacy has been traveling the country documenting old Green Book locations from California to Oklahoma to New Mexico. Many establishments are now run by people who don’t know much, if anything, about the place’s history. Some of the buildings are gone, and what’s left is just an empty lot or a patch of grass. Even these original copies of the guide are rare now. The Smithsonian bought one at auction recently.

Candacy Taylor:
For $22,500.

Delaney Hall:
Wow.

Candacy Taylor:
Yes. If you’re listening to this and you know your parents lived during Jim Crow, look in your attics and see. You might have a 20-plus thousand dollar guide. You never know.

Roman Mars:
$20,000 is a lot of money, but back in 1936, when the Green Book first appeared and could be purchased for 25 cents by the travelers who needed it the most, it was arguably worth even more.

  1. Turi

    The recently released book by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country, uses a fictionalized version of this story as a jumping-off point for his humorous, macabre fantasy.

  2. Cary Davis

    Great stuff! I actually saw the 1945 Green Book at the Ford Museum in Detroit. It was so small, elegant, and curious in its display case.

    The link to share this post on Twitter doesn’t seem to be working.

  3. Nice article and podcast! The National Association of Letter Carriers has worked for a number of years with Mr. Ramsey to help get the word out about Mr. Green. (Green was a member of NALC’s Hackensack Branch (local) 425, now known as Bergen County Merged Branch 425. NALC first wrote about Green in our monthly magazine, The Postal Record, in Sept. 2013, and in 2014, we awarded Green our first-ever Legacy Award as part of our annual ceremony recognizing letter carrier heroism.

    Here is a link to the Sept. 2013 story:
    http://old.nalc.org/news/precord/ArticlesPDF/09-2013/09-2013_green-book.pdf

    And here is a link to a story about the Legacy Award:
    https://www.nalc.org/community-service/body/2014-legacy.pdf

  4. Ryan

    The last sentence Roman said in this one was too perfect. I started crying right there in my car. Great episode!

  5. Lee Breisacher

    Just wanted to be sure you see today’s (17 May 2016) Los Angeles Times front page — there’s a story about the Green Book.

  6. Though knew of Green Book appreciated the history of its creator. Saw one recently when speaker from Oregon Black Pioneers showed it to audience in talking about limitations for black families traveling in U.S.

  7. Billy R. Boulware

    I’m sure most Afro Americans have experienced many horrible incidents in traveling throughout the United States. I will never forget the problems that I encountered in Saint Louis,Missouri in 1956 and in Chattanooga,Tennessee in 1971. I was not aware of the Green Book at the time but I’m positive it would have saved me from the racists white folks bigotry that existed in America against people of color.yesterday,today and tomorrow. Bill Boulware.

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