Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Green Book

 by Frank Boles


Americans travel, a lot. It is part of our national character. But in the twentieth century not all travelers were treated equally. People of color faced rejection and hostility based on racism when they sought services or accommodations in places such as restaurants and hotels. The problem was national, but the experience was local, very personal, and very much a part of Michigan history. To document how people of color coped with the challenges of travel during the era of segregated accommodations, the Clarke Historical Library has recently acquired several annual editions of “the Green Book.”


“The Green Book” was a travel guide for people of color, based on the racism even the most elite members of the community suffered. In 1932, for example, Dr. B. Pirce Hurst, one of Washington D.C.’s leading Black citizens and a man of financial means, was arbitrarily denied a room in New York City’s Prince George Hotel despite having confirmed his reservation. This was not uncommon. Clerks in many hotels frequently “lost” a reservation when a person with a black face showed up to claim it. Hurst later explained how he was rejected by four New York City hotels that night, before finally finding a place to stay in New York City’s Black district of Harlem. Unusual for the day, and thus gaining considerable publicity, Hurst sued the Prince George for violating New York State’s then existing civil rights law and won his case.


But Hurst’s legal victory was something of a one-off. Time did little to change the problem. Civil rights leader John Lewis recalled how his family prepared for a trip in 1951:

There would be no restaurant for us to stop at until we were well out of the South, so we took our restaurant right in the car with us…. Stopping for gas and to use the bathroom took careful planning. Uncle Otis had made this trip before, and he knew which places along the way offered "colored" bathrooms and which were better just to pass on by. Our map was marked and our route was planned that way, by the distances between service stations where it would be safe for us to stop.”

Uncle Otis was an invaluable resource for the Lewis family. Black travelers not fortunate enough to have the advice of someone experienced along a particular route often had to carry buckets or portable toilets in the trunks of their cars because they were usually barred from bathrooms and rest areas in service stations and roadside stops. Travel essentials such as gasoline were difficult to purchase because of discrimination at gas stations.

Victor Hugo Green became the “Uncle Otis” for many people of color who were traveling by automobile. Beginning in 1936, Green published what was commonly called “the Green Book,” although its official title was The Negro Motorist Green Book. The book listed accommodations, such as restaurants and hotels, where Black people would be welcomed. It quickly added barber and beauty shops as well as other services.


Originally centered on New York, the book expanding to include listings throughout the United States, including Michigan. The guides were printed more or less annually between 1936 and 1966. In his memoir, A Colored Man’s Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America (2000), Earl Hutchinson, Sr. described purchasing a copy in preparation for a road trip he and his wife took from Chicago to California. “The ‘Green Book’ was the bible of every Negro highway traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s,” he wrote. “You literally didn’t dare leave home without it.”

What the 1962 guidebook said about Michigan makes Hutchinson’s point. Only nineteen cities were listed. The largest number of listings in a single location is Idlewild, the Black vacation resort in remote Lake County. In Detroit, with a Black population of nearly one-half million, only twelve accommodations are listed. The only other locations with more than one accommodation are Flint (3), Jackson (2) Lansing, (2) and the small communities of Bitely (2), on the Lake/Newaygo county line, and Vandalia (2) in Cass County. Vandalia, which in 1960 had only 367 residents, was near the junction of two major Underground Railroad “lines” that “conductors” had followed to lead enslaved people north prior to the Civil War, a fact that seems to have influenced the community more than a century later.

“The Green Book” did not directly challenge segregation or the white racism that underlies that segregation. But it also looked forward to a day when the book would be unneeded. As the introduction to the 1948 edition states:

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.

Legally, that day came with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a Federal law that banned racial segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks, and other public spaces. The law did not end racism, but it made the overt implementation of racist beliefs in places of public accommodation punishable by law.

Three years later, “the Green Book” quietly ceased publication because it did “not have to be published” any longer. America’s era of legal segregation had ended.

“The Green Book” compliments many other resources in the Clarke Historical Library that document a wide range of experiences recording the history of racism, segregation, and de-segregation in Michigan.