In the 1950s, holidaying while black in America was dangerous. The commonplace discrimination occurring during the Jim Crow era meant black travellers struggled to find a hotel room in which to stay, or a restaurant where they could grab a meal. Too often they were met with met with hostility, refused service or worse. So when a brother like me wanted to get out of town, that meant grabbing a Green Book — a guidebook for black travellers offering tips on how to tour the country safely, as well as a directory of safe holiday destinations.
Image credit: Addison N. Scurlock
"Your cooperation will enable us to reach the summit of our goal and further our efforts in giving assured protection for the Negro traveller." - Victor H. Green
The Green Book Was a Directory of Safe Spaces
The Negro Traveller's Green Book (also known as the Negro Motorist's Green Book) was an indispensable tool for black tourists travelling in America. Created in 1937 by former postal carrier Victor H. Green, the directory of businesses accommodating black tourists aimed to help alleviate the occurrence of "running into embarrassing situations" during travel across the country, a polite way to say of saying "dealing with racist business owners". While the first edition only covered the New York area, its final issue in 1967 included listings from around the nation, including international tourist attractions. It allowed black travellers to pick and choose from a list of businesses and plan their trips ahead of time to avoid potential obstacles.
"The white traveller for years has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different. He before the advent of the Negro travel guides has had to depend on word of mouth and then sometimes accommodations weren't available." - Victor H. Green
Driving Around Meant Avoiding Some Towns
Since black Americans relied on owning automobiles to avoid the segregated forms of transportation, driving was a pretty desirable method of exploring the country. Unfortunately, cruising through America wasn't safe for drivers, who often faced the threat of harassment on the road.
There was also the danger of passing through "sundown towns" — predominantly white towns that refused to live near black people — which created another set of problems. To avoid harassment, many drivers packed extra supplies, food and petrol to avoid stopping in unfamiliar territory during their trip.
While the book implies the constant threat of danger, it isn't an entirely dour read. Some issues featured tips on road safety under the clever banner "How to Keep From Growing Old" with suggestions such as, "In sloppy weather drive close to pedestrians. Dry cleaners appreciate this." See? Funny!
The Green Book Helped the Gig Economy
The Green Book not only made it easier to find safe accommodations, it helped black-owned businesses gain new customers by getting listed in the directory. Entries in the Green Book were often a result of word of mouth. Green encouraged readers to spread the word about the Green Book and suggest new businesses and residences amenable to the Green Book's cause. In addition, the Green Book functioned as a sort of proto-Airbnb, and let homeowners list private residences tourists could stay in, either for free or for a fee.
"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. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year." - Victor H. Green
We Still Need Green Books
Although we may not necessarily need a revival of the Green Book, discrimination is still alive and well when it comes to tourism and finding lodging while black. Sites such as Airbnb have come under scrutiny after some hosts allegedly denied service based on race.
'When are the people gonna come?' my four-year-old daughter asked me as we stared out at the empty street. We were sitting on rocking chairs outside on our driveway. I was feeling ridiculous.
That might mean there's room for a modern-day take on the Green Book's philosophy of providing safe spaces for black travellers. After all, there's a reason sites like Noirbnb, Innclusive and Travel Noire — which was recently acquired by media startup Blavity — have popped up in the last few years: Holidaying while black continues to be fraught with peril. The Negro Motorist's Green Book existed to save black travellers from being forcibly removed from their cars, or harassed in unwelcoming towns. Nowadays you may just be the victim of a cancelled rental, but even so, the threat of violence remains. The fact that these travel sites exist says as much about the problem as much as the Negro Traveller's Green Book once did: For black travellers, safety isn't guaranteed, even when you're on holiday.
Welcome to Retro Week, where we'll be firing up the flux capacitor and bringing you 1950s know-how on everything from casserole-making to fallout-shelter-building to the joys of letting kids relax and play with trash.