The Green Book: Celebrating 'The Bible of Black Travel' | KERA News

The Green Book: Celebrating 'The Bible of Black Travel'

Jan 6, 2019
Originally published on November 17, 2018 6:48 am

When Antonio Reliford was a child in New Jersey, he and his family did what a lot of African-American families did when it came to vacations: They hit the road to visit relatives in the South.

But this was back before the nation had a network of high-speed highways. Before major routes like the New Jersey Turnpike or Interstate 85, which goes through the Southeast.

And so the Reliford family had to use what everyone else did: two-lane roads that often went through picturesque rural areas.

Picturesque. And for African-American families, dangerous. Which meant black travelers had to choose carefully how they would go, and when, and where they would stop.

"Everything was planned," Reliford, now 62, remembers. Two or three families would travel in their cars together, as a caravan, "for safety."

He remembers leaving in the dark, "usually at daybreak or just before" so the families could travel as far as possible while it was light, in case some of the towns they passed through had Sundown Laws. (Those laws dictated that black people had to leave those towns by sunset, or face dire consequences.)

They'd drive continuously, he remembers, with food packed in coolers so they wouldn't have to search for — and perhaps be rejected by — an establishment that chose not to serve them, even from a back window.

Bathroom breaks? "Usually you had to pee at the side of the road because we had problems finding facilities that would allow us." And those that did? "You had to pay a token to get in."

Even fuel was problematic. "There were long lines where we knew the gas was," Reliford recalls. They knew which pumps to use because "it would actually say COLORED GAS." And in case that didn't sink in, the segregated service stations often had a separate attendant for black motorists. "Usually it was an elderly black man."

Safe passage along sometimes-perilous routes

This was the world The Negro Motorist Green Book was created to navigate. Listed in the slim little book were motels, diners, even gas stations that were black-owned or black-friendly. Postal worker Victor H. Green wrote and published the guide. He initially focused on his town— Harlem — but eventually the books expanded to cover almost every state.

These word-of-mouth suggestions for safe passage through a sometimes-hostile America were, "sort of a 20th Century version of the Underground Railroad, and this annual travel guide was the Bible of black travel," says Brent Leggs, the director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

The fund seeks to help African-American communities to preserve and support sites with cultural significance. It's administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and seeks to, in its words "tell the full story" of America.

As the movie Green Book notes, Jim Crow was not impressed with an individual's wealth or talent. Whether you were a family, like the Relifords, or an icon, like Duke Ellington, there were many white-owned places — below and above the Mason-Dixon Line — that would not accept you. No hotels. No restaurants. No hospitals or auto repair shops.

The Green Books were one valuable way to get around that.

A way for future generations to remember

There was less of a need for the books after passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which legally mandated that public businesses should be open to all, regardless of race. In theory, segregation ended, although it would take years for some places to actually honor the law.

As segregation eroded, the need for separate accommodations faded, and with it, many of the businesses in the Green Book. It officially ceased publication in the late '60s.

Brent Leggs says the National Trust has a campaign to celebrate Route 66 as "the Main Street of America." The iconic highway goes from Chicago to Los Angeles, and while there weren't many Green Book motels along the way, there were a few.

The new movie will doubtless increase interest in the Green Book and its history. Brent Leggs welcomes that. "As a preservationist, it's exciting, because we can leverage the attention to celebrate the actual physical sites related to the Green Book."

He wants to make sure "that current and future generations never forget about this critical social movement and this story of black entrepreneurism, activism and achievement during the period of Jim Crow."

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"Green Book" is a new movie that chronicles a prominent black musician and his white driver's tour through the Deep South in 1962. The title comes from a popular and essential guide that told African-American travelers where they could eat and sleep in the Jim Crow era. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team reports on an effort to preserve the real "Green Book's" mostly hidden history.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: We take the nation's highways for granted now, but it wasn't all that long ago that long-distance travel was done on two-lane roads. For black travelers, a lot of those roads went through lonely, hostile territory. So many people relied on a guide called "The Negro Motorist Green Book." Antonio Reliford grew up in New Jersey and remembers the meticulous preparation it took to get from his home in Newark to his relatives in tiny Colquitt, Ga. It was like mapping a military campaign.

ANTONIO RELIFORD: Everything was planned out.

BATES: His family would leave with other family members in a multicar caravan - safety in numbers - and use "The Green Book" to find safe places to stop on their 18-hour drive south. The book listed black-owned hotels, restaurants, even gas stations with bathrooms for black patrons.

RELIFORD: Usually, it was typically by the side of the road there because, again, there was a problem finding facilities that would allow us and then the ones that would allow us, actually, you had to pay a token to get in.

BATES: Oh, and the gas pumps in many Southern towns - those were segregated, too.

RELIFORD: There were lines where you knew which gas it was. It would actually say colored gas.

BATES: "The Negro Motorist Green Book" was created in 1936 by postal worker Victor H. Green. Green started in Harlem where he lived and eventually included recommendations for every state in the country. The book highlighted hotels and rooms in private homes - basically the precursor to Airbnb - restaurants and services that were all black-owned or black-friendly. It was recognized as an important resource by the United States Travel Bureau, part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

BRENT LEGGS: This was kind of the 20th-century version of the Underground Railroad.

BATES: That's Brent Leggs. He directs the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The fund is working to highlight the importance of "The Green Book" during segregation.

LEGGS: This annual travel guide was the bible of black travel.

BATES: Jim Crow wasn't swayed by how famous or how rich you were. You could be an internationally acclaimed artist, but if you were black...

LEGGS: You could not have accommodations at a white-owned motel. You couldn't eat in a white-owned restaurant.

BATES: The "Green Book" movie shows what happens when celebrated pianist Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, tries to join his driver, played by Viggo Mortensen, for dinner and is stopped at the door.


MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Dr. Don Shirley) This gentleman says that I'm not permitted to eat here.

VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Tony Lip) No, you don't understand. He's playing tonight. He's the main event.

BATES: No matter, no service. Right now, says Brent Leggs, the National Trust is celebrating the role of Route 66 as a beloved national road. And because "The Green Book" had a few motels along the route, there's another purpose.

LEGGS: It's also to uncover this hidden story related to "Green Book" sites from Chicago all the way to LA. And one such place that still stands today is the Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles.

BATES: In a documentary about the Dunbar's history, Mrs. Bessie Robinson recalls why the elegant hotel was a necessity.


BESSIE ROBINSON: There weren't very many accommodations for blacks at the time in the way of hotels.

BATES: So artists like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Count Basie not only played the Dunbar, they stayed there, too. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the gradual erosion of segregation, most of the businesses in "The Green Book" quietly disappeared. About 3 percent remained physically. Brent Leggs hopes this new movie will increase interest in them.

LEGGS: As a preservationist, it's exciting because we can leverage this movie and its attention to celebrate the actual physical sites related to "The Green Book."

BATES: Celebrate and remember. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.