On Monday, the Smithsonian Channel plans to air a special presentation of “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom,” a firsthand account of historians, business owners and others who shared the harrowing experience of “traveling while Black” in pre-civil rights America.
The documentary, which will air at 8 p.m., tells the story of Victor H. Green’s eponymously named travel guide that assisted African Americans in safely navigating the country during a time of severe institutionalized racism.
Directed by acclaimed documentarian Yoruba Richen, the filmmaker behind “The New Black,” the Green Book documentary looks at the daily realities that African Americans faced on the road — the struggles, indignities and dangers, but also the opportunities and triumphs that were won along the way.
While the story isn’t new to the Smithsonian — it won three 2019 Golden Globe Awards — the network also chronicled “The Green Book” in an online article in 2016 where it noted that for Black Americans traveling by car in the era of segregation, the open road presented serious dangers.
While driving interstate distances to unfamiliar locales, Black motorists often ran into institutionalized racism in a number of pernicious forms, from hotels and restaurants that refused to accommodate them to hostile “sundown towns,” where posted signs warned people of color that they were banned after nightfall.
Paula Wynter, a Manhattan-based artist, recalled in the 2016 article a frightening road trip when she was a young girl during the 1950s.
In North Carolina, her family hid in their Buick after a local sheriff passed them, made a U-turn and gave chase.
Wynter’s father, Richard Irby, switched off his headlights and parked under a tree.
“We sat until the sun came up,” she said. “We saw his lights pass back and forth. My sister was crying; my mother was hysterical.”
New York City-based filmmaker and playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey concurred.
“It didn’t matter if you were Lena Horne or Duke Ellington or Ralph Bunche traveling state to state, if the road was not friendly or obliging,” Ramsey said.
The Green Book was indispensable to Black-owned businesses. For historians, the listings offer a record of the “rise of the Black middle class, and in particular, of the entrepreneurship of Black women,” said Smithsonian curator Joanne Hyppolite.
Earlier this month, Comcast, the Smithsonian Channel and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore hosted a private premiere screening of the film for Black History Month, inviting community stakeholders and others, including Mayor Catherine Pugh.
Panelists at the event included Linda Goldman, executive producer of “Mission Critical” for the Smithsonian Channel, and Dexter Blackman, an assistant professor of history at Morgan State University.
Vic Carter of Baltimore’s WJZ-TV moderated the event.
“We treasure our engagement in the Baltimore community throughout the year, and co-hosting the Smithsonian Channel’s ‘The Green Book: Guide to Freedom’ during Black History Month at the [museum] afforded us a great opportunity to bring authentic programming to our community members and to connect with one another,” said Jessica Gappa, director of community impact for Comcast’s beltway region.
“It was important for our standing-room-only audience to see the Smithsonian Channel documentary which revealed our shared history about travel restrictions imposed on African Americans during the Jim Crow era,” said Jackie Copeland, executive director of the Lewis Museum.
“It is a painful history, and many watching the film learned about the Green Book for the very first time,” Copeland said. “The Lewis Museum is dedicated to providing space for dialogue about our history and current events. The Green Book film allowed us to do that.”
Since its inception, the Smithsonian Channel said it has been committed to African-American history because it’s essential to a greater understanding of America’s national story.
“We found the Green Book story compelling on several levels,” Goldman said. “It leads us to many fascinating stories, from fabulous vacation resorts like Idlewild, to women entrepreneurs and progressive corporations, to civil rights battlefields. If history were a map, the Green Book guides us off familiar highways onto important, but easily overlooked, scenic routes.”