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THE RELIGION CORNER: The Negro Motorist Green Book — A Travel Guide for Blacks in America

While watching “Mahalia,” the Lifetime movie about gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, for the umpteenth time this week, something happened. I heard Mahalia say “You don’t stop to buy gas anywhere, you are supposed to stop at Esso!” Her son was driving their car in the state of Mississippi with the gas needle on empty as a sleeping Mahalia awakened in a strange gas station lot. This was the scene that piqued my curiosity about travel for African Americans, especially in the South.

I wondered why Mahalia knew so well that Blacks are supposed to buy their gas only at Esso stations, a green sign. My research began on Esso and this Jim Crow era. Even though I’m 70 years old now, this was news to me! I thought I would share this with you all today.

For nearly 30 years, a guide called “The Negro Motorist Green Book” advised Blacks on safe places to eat and sleep when they traveled through the Jim Crow-era United States. First published in 1936 as the brainchild of a Harlem-based postal carrier Victor Hugo Green, it was treasured. Like most African Americans in the mid-20th century, Green had grown weary of the discrimination Blacks faced whenever they ventured outside their neighborhoods.

Rates of car ownership had exploded in the years before and after World War II, but the lure of the interstate was also risky for African Americans. “Whites Only” policies meant Black travelers often couldn’t find safe places to eat and sleep, and so-called “sundown towns” that banned Blacks after dark were scattered across America. As the foreword of the 1956 edition of the book noted, “The White traveler has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different.”

My research shows copies of this historic book are still available as a reference, including in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division. “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. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.” That was how its authors ended the introduction to the 1948 edition.

It had up-to-date listings of hotels, guest houses, service stations, drug stores, taverns, barbershops and restaurants that were friendly stops for African American travelers — kind of like another version of the Underground Railroad. It was particularly careful to list the best places to stop in segregationist strongholds like Alabama and Mississippi, but included areas from Connecticut to California. In 1954, readers were encouraged to visit San Francisco, which was described as “fast becoming the focal point of the Negroes’ future.” With Jim Crow still looming over much of the country, a motto on the guide’s cover also doubled as a warning: “Carry your Green Book with you—you may need it.”

Green developed the first edition of his book to only cover hotels and restaurants in the New York area, but he soon expanded its scope by gathering field reports from fellow postal carriers and offering cash payments to readers who sent in useful information. By the early 1940s, the Green Book listed thousands of establishments nationally, all, either Black-owned or verified to be non-discriminatory.

The book’s listings, organized by state and city, with the vast majority located in major metropolises such as Chicago and Detroit. Though it initially avoided addressing racism directly, it eventually began to reference and laud the achievements of the civil rights movement.

“The Negro is only demanding what everyone else wants, what is guaranteed all citizens by the Constitution of the United States,” stated an article in one edition.

Victor Hugo Green published his book for more than 20 years before his death in 1960. His wife Alma took over but change in America amid the civil rights movement made the book no longer necesssary. Racial segregation was banned in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks and other public places. After only two more years of publication, the Green Book ceased publication after nearly 30 years in print.

Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email lyndiagrantshowdc@gmail.com or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.

Lyndia Grant

A seasoned radio talk show host, national newspaper columnist, and major special events manager, Lyndia is a change agent. Those who experience hearing messages by this powerhouse speaker are changed forever!

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