How The Green Book Guided Black Travelers Across Texas And Beyond
From the Great Depression through the Civil Rights era, "The Green Book" travel guides were issued every year to help African-American drivers safely explore the country — and Texas.
This was the era when American motorists were discovering the joys of the long-distance drive on iconic roadways like Route 66.
It also was the era of Jim Crow and racial strife — which made The Green Book as crucial for many black drivers as a map.
Published from 1936 to 1967, "The Green Book" listed hundreds of hotels, restaurants, theaters, barber shops and tourist homes for black travelers. It started as a guide for metropolitan New York but quickly expanded to include the United States and later parts of Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. In its heyday, "The Green Book" sold 15,000 copies per edition, according to the PBS series Independent Lens.
The guide wascreated by Victor H. Green, a postal service worker from Harlem. His goal: Help the average African-American traveler avoid “difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”
Green knew there would be trouble ahead for African Americans after Route 66 was designated in 1926, according to the Los Angeles Times. The historic highway passed through three time zones, eight states, 89 counties and dozens of "sundown towns" that enforced segregation with Jim Crow laws, intimidation and violence.
An excerpt from the introduction of the 1949 edition:
“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.”
Most years, the books were about 80 pages and cost between $.75 and $1.95, as they increased in popularity. A year ago, a copy of a 1941 edition sold at auction for $22,000 to the Smithsonian Institution, the Times reports. The books had an invaluable purpose as well — the physical copies served as identification for travelers when they were reaching designated destinations.
Green Book sites in Texas
Texas was one of several states that enforced segregation through Jim Crow laws up until the 1960s. For that reason, there were many designated places listed in the Green Book for travelers to access safely while cutting through the vast state. Most of the listings don’t exist anymore, but they served the African-American community during this time.
• The Hammond Cafe in Abilene was one of several African-American owned businesses on Plum Street in the mid-20th century. According to the Abilene Reporter-News, “Taylor County deed records show Levy and Nellie Hammond bought land on North Sixth and Mesquite streets in 1932, and sold the property in 1964.” Today, the Plum Street area is “plagued by abandoned vacant lots and cut-off trails of streetcar tracks remnants of a once-bustling intersection,” according to the Reporter-News. But in its prime, Hammond’s was a cultural cornerstone for the African-American community in Abilene and drew customers with its spicy chili bowls.
• The Murray Theatre in El Paso, according to the book, “African Americans in El Paso,” was opened by George H. Murray in early 1948 on Mesa Avenue in downtown El Paso. The theater was established during a time when most white owners didn’t allow African Americans to watch films in their theaters.
• The Moorland YMCA in Dallas at 2700 Flora St. is in the now-thriving Arts District. The building served Dallas’ African-American community from its initial construction in 1930 as the city’s only black YMCA until 1970. It’s now the home of the internationally known Dallas Black Dance Theatre. The Moorland YMCA was moved to Dallas' Oak Cliff neighborhood.
• The Jim Hotel in Fort Worth is no longer standing. It was a jazz and blues venue owned by black millionaire William Madison "Gooseneck Bill" McDonald. The three-story, 50-room hotel at 413 E. Fifth St. was built in the late 1920s, according to the Texas State Historical Association. McDonald named the hotel after his second wife, Jimmie Strickland. In 1934, Levi and Oscar Cooper bought the hotel and built the environment that attracted jazz and blues enthusiasts.
The Coopers hired "T-Bone" Walker to lead the house band that played in the hotel lobby, known by guests as the College Inn. Musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Buddy Rich and Sara Vaughan all played at the hotel, according to the historical association.
• Big Bend National Park was established by the National Park Service in June 1944. It’s listed in the 1952 edition of "The Green Book" as an accessible park for African Americans to visit.
After the listings of the national parks, Green writes in an explanation that all sites are “carefully checked, and despite this, past experiences have shown that our minute inspection had failed to notice errors which would be an inconvenience to the traveller.”
Language across The Green Book volumes reads like this — both aware of the limitations faced by African Americans at the time yet optimistic that they could experience the expanse of the country safely and as fully as possible.
Documentary: "The Green Book Chronicles"
Note: This story was originally published on Oct. 16, 2016. In-progress information was current at that time. — KERA News
Author and playwright Calvin Ramsey is currently working on a documentary called, “The Green Book Chronicles” about Victor Green’s efforts to keep black motorists safe. According to NBC News, “He learned about the Green Book in 2001 after a family friend passed away and his friend's 80-year-old grandfather asked him to find a Green Book so he could travel down South to the funeral.” Ramsey has since made the film his life’s work hoping to shed light on “lost history.”
Documentary: "The Negro Motorist Green Book And Route 66"
Candacy Taylor produced a documentary on the guidebooks for the National Parks Service. She tells the LA Times that many of the Green Book sites are no longer the safe havens they once were. Instead, they are clustered in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. "Unless something is done soon, the Green Book’s trove of surviving properties will be lost due to gentrification and neglect," she says.
Explore more sites in Texas, the U.S. and North America in the largest Green Books collection in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
This story was originally published on Oct. 16, 2016.