Today, most folks wouldn't believe unless they saw it, but “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was a necessity for African Americans traveling around the United States during the Jim Crow era when discrimination against “people of color,” especially blacks, ran rampant in the United States. I remember fingering my way through it and asking my father why we needed it. Always, his answer was cryptic and mysterious, but my older made it clear “white folks don’t want us near them.”

Growing up in the Jim Crow era, I knew that in my tiny hometown of Independence, Kansas, that was exactly the case. I saw the signs that said, “White Only, Negro Section and Colored Drinking Fountain,” but I assumed that was just in our town. Traveling with my family to Chicago and St. Louis let me know that the same rules applied and were even worse.

When the first version the “Green Book” appeared in 1936, the level of car ownership among African Americans was expanding rapidly as many blacks drove to avoid segregation and humiliation on public transportation. The black “middle class” was in its infancy and having a car was a way to find work or get to a job without the usual humiliation of sitting in the back of the bus or being harassed while waiting for it.

Racial profiling started long before the term required invention during the late 1980’s. Since blacks could drive and afford cars, African Americans had a long history of inappropriate stoppages, arrests and brutality by the police, especially in the South. In addition to the police, blacks faced real dangers such as physical threats of violence and armed expulsion from “sundown towns,” which posted signs saying, “Niggers be gone by sundown.” The “or else,” was understood by both blacks and whites.

In addition to danger of physical violence, blacks faced a variety of inconvenience and humiliation ranging from being refused accommodation or food by white-owned hotels to white-owned businesses refusing to serve Negroes or even repair their vehicles.

Victor H. Green, a New York mailman and travel agent, published the first “Green Book” in 1936 to help African American drivers avoid running into difficulties or embarrassments and to help make trips more enjoyable and safe. The first “Green Book” was New York focused but eventually grew to cover the entire United States and portion of Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The book allowed us to find lodgings, businesses and gas stations that would serve us as we traveled. We often stayed at boarding houses or someone’s home on long trips. We were always welcome even though we didn't know most or any of the people we stayed with. We often went off the main highway into small “Negro” towns where we could refuel and use the bathroom without needing to “go out back” to a privy for “coloreds.”

The “Green Book” was largely unknown in white America, but for black drivers, it was a necessity. Taking a trip during the Jim Crow era could easily end in disaster and even death. Organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League reported lynchings in towns where whites thought of Negroes with new cars as too “uppity” or prosperous. “See the USA in a Chevrolet,” was a popular advertisement during that era, but African Americans, it didn't make a difference if they drove a Chevy, Ford or Chrysler, seeing the USA was like being a pioneer in early America.

The “Green Book” stopped publication shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed the types of racial discrimination that had made the book necessary. Nevertheless, long after the Civil Rights era, black drivers in the United States faced major problems when traveling. To this day, large numbers of blacks avoid small towns when traveling, especially in the South. Nevertheless, the Negro Motorist Green Book served a useful purpose and in many ways, a book of that type could be useful today.

A PDF of the 1949 edition can be downloaded from this site. (Warning: It is quite large)

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Comment by Asa Watcher on January 15, 2014 at 11:04am

I’ve been aware of the Green Book for some time.  Growing up, I knew of at least two houses that catered to traveling black families.

Visited the Colorado History museum in Denver just a couple of weeks ago, and found a section dedicated to the history of the black experience in Colorado, and included was a copy and an explanation of the Green Book.  

I could tell that the display was inspiring some introspective experiences among the museum attendees, myself included.

Comment by Luara on January 15, 2014 at 7:03am

I had a similar experience to what I related about black people coming into the doctor's office, regarding women:

I've often gone out hiking or camping alone - but several times - not all that uncommonly, I overheard groups of men discussing whether to rape me!  I took to hiding out when I camped, but one can't hide out while hiking. 

So one time, I tried to give a "don't mess with me" message while hiking - by wearing camo pants and tear gas openly hanging on a belt loop of the pants. 

I got a lot of abuse for it from men going by - called a "bitch" etc. etc.  And no positive comments. 

Many of the men didn't notice the tear gas hanging from my pants - but the women did!  They would look frightened - and it had nothing to do with wanting to menace women or send a message to them.  My attempt to send a message to males was either ignored or resulted in abusive comments.  The whole response was totally discordant with my intention and totally without empathy for me. 

It seems like they've got you coming or going, like the package of prejudice is pretty well sewed up.  It doesn't leak much:  there's no easy way out.  Try to give a "don't mess with me" message, and I got only a lot of abuse for it.  Look vulnerable, and I would overhear them talking about raping me. 

Virginia Woolf wrote about Shakespeare's sister:  what would have happened to Shakespeare's sister, born with that same talent?  Similarly it is unlikely that a woman could have written Wordsworth's great ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, for a simple and brutal reason:  It's a nature poem, and women outdoors are necessarily concerned for their physical safety if they're alone.  So they would usually be out in nature, only in the company of men to protect them, and their attention would be taken up by the men. 

People who are somehow endangered or discriminated against, tend to get sensitized.  They have heightened perceptions in some ways. 

I wish women had something like the "Green Book" - e.g. how to have your freedom but avoid being raped or mugged.  But women are generally less unified amongst themselves than black people are, they are usually close to men and influenced by the men. 

Comment by Pat on January 15, 2014 at 6:26am

Thanks Don for that fascinating look into the past. I tried downloading the PDF file, but I have a lousy internet connection at home, and it locked up after Massachusetts. One of the reasons I tried downloading it was a prior blog you posted about James Loewen's book Sundown Towns. I noticed that the listing for Illinois, where I live, gave information on a lot of the larger cities; Chicago, Springfield, Peoria, etc. And, a great article on Robbins, Illinois.  What I was wondering, and wanted to see, is if the guide gave information on those places to avoid as marginal or outright dangerous. I work in the very first sundown town Loewen wrote about in his book - Anna, Illinois. I saw no mention of it in the travel guide, or a warning of other places to avoid. Wondering if a "negative" section is in the guide, or a separate guide on where not to go.

Comment by Luara on January 15, 2014 at 5:55am

So Don, do you have ideas about the way forward in all this? 

It would help a lot of white people would become more honest about race.  Mostly what white people do is either to toe the PC line or simply to hide their racism when they aren't comfortable about showing it.  Neither helps much to solve the problem and I don't know that either is really preferable.  It's certainly better not to show racism to the extent that happened in the past - but if people with prejudices expressed them rather than hiding them, and were met by something other than shaming or approval - but rather, were challenged in their ideas - that would help. 

I wrote a blog post about anxiety and racism a long time ago.  If there were a less judgemental attitude about racism, it would help.  Of course it is a moral issue - but the moral action in response to the issue, is not to pretend and ignore, but to actually try to do something about it. To some extent, science comes to the rescue, as the anxiety/racism connection suggests.  

There does seem to be a good deal of frank discussion about race online - and not all of it vituperative.  So maybe people are progressing in that direction.  Being online enables people to discuss things they otherwise wouldn't. 

Comment by Donald R Barbera on January 14, 2014 at 10:45pm

You are exactly right. It was a simpler yet more complicated time. Blacks were forced into fending for themselves if they wanted to survive. This is one I've written about extensively--the effects of integration, pro and con. 

Comment by Donald R Barbera on January 14, 2014 at 11:31am

I'll find that damn research. I used it for another article, but I'll find it.

Comment by Luara on January 14, 2014 at 10:38am

blacks who think they are unaffected by it often surprised that the day to day pressure they don't feel is real and helps induce stress and exacerbates heart issues unbeknownst to that person.

I wonder if the high rate high blood pressure among black people is partly caused by the stress of being black in a white-dominated society. It would be interesting to check out that idea by looking at rates of hypertension among black people in various cultures.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on January 14, 2014 at 10:29am

Interestingly, blacks who think they are unaffected by it often surprised that the day to day pressure they don't feel is real and helps induce stress and exacerbates heart issues unbeknownst to that person. I have the research somewhere and I'll dig it up, but the feeling is real even when there is nothing that threatens or belittles.

Comment by Luara on January 14, 2014 at 10:22am


For a long time, my thoughts about race were dominated by the "toe the line" attitude among the white people I was around.  i.e. be super-careful not to say anything "incorrect" that might draw accusations of racism.  Many white people tiptoe around the subject of race, and the fear of accusations actually causes resentment.  Thus "PC" can counteract its stated goals. 

Since I grew up with a lot of shaming and accusations, this mentality hooked right into the emotional scars from my childhood. 

It was only rather recently that I became more assertive on that subject and less willing to be cowed by that atmosphere.  And feeling less intimidated by the subject, I can see the sheer amount of pain around race, particularly for black people. 

For example, when I'm waiting in my doctor's office, I anxiously scan each person that walks in to see if they have a dog (purse dog, service dog ...).  I've noticed that when a black person walks in, they're liable to take this as racial hostility.  The white people don't notice it that much.  And this is a way of going around in pain from society, if you can't be safe in your skin. 

I live in a very liberal small town in upstate NY.  There aren't many black people here, and I think the black people tend to feel a bit like sore thumbs - tending to cause a lot of self-conscious reactions from white people.  What a load to deal with. 

There are many such categories of people who are victimized of course.  The persecution of women by sexual harassment and the threat of rape is intense in my experience.  But the problems associated with being black also seem intense, in a different way. 



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