The 'Negro Motorist Green Book': Window on Yesterday, Lesson for Today

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Candacy Taylor, cultural documentarian, visits the Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles. The Dunbar, built by a black owner expressly for black clientele in 1928, is one of more than 400 California sites listed in the 'Negro Motorist Green Book,' a guide published for black travelers between 1936 and 1966. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Candacy Taylor, a California writer and photographer, was looking for a new way to tell the tale of Route 66, the Mother Road that brought dirt-poor Dust Bowl migrants and generations of dreamers to the Golden State.

Taylor started driving the old federal highway back in the early 1990s while working on "Counter Culture," a project focusing on the lives of coffee-shop waitresses.

That work led to an invitation a few years ago to write a travel guide on Route 66, which stretched from Chicago to Santa Monica.

The cover of the 1947 edition of the "Negro Motorist Green Book."
The cover of the 1947 edition of the 'Negro Motorist Green Book.' (New York Public Library)

"I wondered, 'How do we tell a different story here,'" Taylor says during an interview in Los Angeles. "Most of the things you read about Route 66 are the same: 1950s-era, let's get back to the good old days, the white suburbanite family jumps into their Airstream trailer. That imagery of that kind of retro travel has been the dominant story of Route 66."

She says she wondered about the place of black travelers and women in the Route 66 story, a question that was on her mind when she visited an exhibition at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.


Tucked away in the corner of the show was a small section on black travel. And that's where Taylor found that other Route 66 story she'd been looking for.

"There was a 'Green Book' under glass," she remembers. "I'd never seen it. I'd never heard of it. Nobody in my family had ever heard of it."

The "Green Book" -- published starting in 1936 as the "Negro Motorist Green Book" and later as the "Negro Travelers' Green Book" -- was a guide to hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, gas stations and other services that welcomed black patronage. The guide listed thousands of businesses during its three decades, including more than 400 in California. Among those were dozens of sites in San Francisco and Oakland.

Named after its creator, a Harlem postal worker named Victor Hugo Green, the book declared that its purpose was "to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable."

What sort of "difficulties" and "embarrassments" would the guide help travelers avoid?

"Segregation was in full force throughout the country," Taylor says, and African-Americans faced a range of challenges, humiliations and dangers when they ventured into unfamiliar territory and to parts of the country, like most of the West, where few blacks lived.

Those difficulties could range from a white business owner's simple refusal to serve black patrons on the more benign end of the spectrum to the threat of harassment and violence in "sundown towns" that prohibited blacks after nightfall.

Cover of "Ruth and the Green Book," a children's story by Calvin Alexander Ramsey.
Cover of 'Ruth and the Green Book,' a children's story by Calvin Alexander Ramsey.

Leaving Chicago on Route 66, Taylor points out, travelers would find a lot of "Green Book" properties on the city's South Side. But racial restrictions started on the city's outskirts and were common all the way to the West Coast. Taylor says that as many as half the counties along the highway had sundown laws, and even where such ordinances were not in place, lodging was often unavailable to black travelers.

During most of the "Green Book" era, she says, just six out of the 100 hotels in the Albuquerque area were open to blacks.

"You were facing not only the humiliation of being turned away, knocking on door to door to door, all of a sudden the 'vacancy' sign turns off and you knew why," Taylor says. "But there were other critical things you needed on the road, like gas. There were plenty of places that wouldn't serve blacks ... A lot of black travelers during that time carried everything they might need with them, like gas cans or portable toilets or food."

Taylor, a native of Columbus, Ohio, who spent part of her childhood in Texas, says discovering the "Green Book" was jarring. But, she adds, the guide exemplifies a determination to overcome all the obstacles that might be encountered on the road.

"Being a black woman who travels so much and realizing my only limitation is what I can afford -- I can freely go into 99 percent of the places I want to go to -- it just seemed incomprehensible to me that we needed this guide," she says. "But then when you look inside ... it's just a resourceful solution. It's very practical. It was a horrific problem they were dealing with, but it wasn't written in the style of, 'Oh, my god, look how horrible!' It was, 'You, too, can experience America.'"

Taylor is one of a handful of historians and artists who have happened upon the "Green Book" story in recent years.

Calvin Alexander Ramsey, an Atlanta-based writer, published a children's story, "Ruth and the Green Book," that details a fictional postwar road trip from Chicago to Alabama. Ramsey and filmmaker Becky Wible Searles are working on a documentary film, "The Green Book Chronicles."

Taylor says she considers the "Green Book" an invaluable reference, an "incredible archive and trove of history and black business and all of these things that even most black people I knew didn't know about." But she feels it's more than that -- an opportunity to assess the country's progress in the half century since the guide ceased publication, at the height of the 1960s civil rights movement.

"We really need to not just say that this happened in the past," Taylor says. "The 'Green Book' has a place in the present to teach us how far we've come but also how far we haven't come. Physical mobility, getting from A to B ... that was a problem the 'Green Book' was trying to resolve.

She says she's driven by a sense that a lack of social mobility for many black Americans today "is just as debilitating and just as fatal" as lack of physical mobility was in the past.

Supported by grants and fellowships from Harvard, the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and California Humanities, Taylor has launched a project to develop an interactive map that trace changes in physical and social conditions for black Americans from the 1930s to the present.

She will document "Green Book" sites, sundown towns, the location of current Ku Klux Klan chapters, incarceration rates, and economic and other disparities among racial groups. That data will be the basis of an interactive map demonstrating how inequities of the past have persisted into the present.