The Negro Motorist Green Book

Guide for Black Tourists Provided Safe Travel In Segregated America

Photograph of sign for colored waiting room in Jim Crow era.
African American travelers faced discrimination in Jim Crow era America. Getty Images 

The Negro Motorist Green Book was a paperback guide published for black motorists traveling in the United States in an era when they might be denied service or even find themselves threatened in many locations. The creator of the guide, Harlem resident Victor H. Green, began producing the book in the 1930s as a part-time project, but growing demand for its information made it an enduring business.

By the 1940s the Green Book, as it was known by its loyal readers, was being sold at newsstands, at Esso gas stations, and also by mail order. Publication of the Green Book continued into the 1960s, when it was hoped legislation prompted by the Civil Rights Movement would finally make it unnecessary.

Copies of the original books are valuable collector's items today, and facsimile editions are sold via the internet. A number of editions have been digitized and placed online as libraries and museums have come to appreciate them as noteworthy artifacts of America's past.

Origin of the Green Book

According to 1956 edition of the Green Book, which contained a brief essay on the publication's history, the idea first came to Victor H. Green sometime in 1932. Green, from his own experience and those of friends, knew of "painful embarrassments suffered which ruined a vacation or business trip."

That was a genteel way of expressing the obvious. Driving while black in 1930s America could be worse than uncomfortable; it could be dangerous. In the Jim Crow era, many restaurants would not allow black patrons. The same was true of hotels, and non-white travelers might be forced to sleep by the side of the road. Even filling stations might discriminate, so black travelers could find themselves running out of fuel while on a trip.

In some parts of the country, the phenomenon of "sundown towns," localities where black travelers were warned not to spend the night, persisted well into the 20th century. Even in places that did not blatantly proclaim bigoted attitudes, black motorists could be intimidated by locals or harassed by the police.

Green, whose day job was working for the Post Office in Harlem, decided to compile a reliable listing of establishments African American motorists could stop and not be treated as second-class citizens. He began collecting information, and in 1936 he published the first edition of what he titled The Negro Motorist Green Book.

The first edition of the book, which sold for 25 cents, was intended for a local audience. It featured advertisements for establishments that welcomed African American patrons and were within a day's drive of New York City.

The introduction to each annual edition of the Green Book requested that readers write in with ideas and suggestions. That request drew responses, and alerted Green to the idea that his book would be useful far beyond New York City. At the time of the first wave of the Great Migration, black Americans might be traveling to visit relatives in distant states. In time the Green Book began covering more territory, and eventually the listings included much of the country. Victor H. Green's company eventually sold about 20,000 copies of the book each year.

What the Reader Saw

The books were utilitarian, resembling a small phone book that could be kept handy in an automobile's glove compartment. By the 1950s dozens of pages of listings were organized by state and then by town.

The tone of the books tended to be upbeat and cheerful, giving an optimistic look at what black travelers may encounter on the open road. The intended audience, of course, would be all too familiar with discrimination or dangers they might encounter and did not need to have it stated explicitly.

In a typical example, the book would have listed one or two hotels (or "tourist homes") that accepted black travelers, and perhaps a restaurant that did not discriminate. The sparse listings might appear unimpressive to a reader today. But to someone traveling through an unfamiliar part of the country and seeking accommodations, that basic information could be extraordinarily useful.

In the 1948 edition the editors expressed their wish that the Green Book would one day be obsolete:

"There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That 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."

The books continued to add more listings with each edition, and beginning in 1952 the title was changed to The Negro Travelers Green Book. The last edition was published in 1967.

Legacy of the Green Book

The Green Book was a valuable coping mechanism. It made life easier, it may have even saved lives, and there's no doubt it was deeply appreciated by many travelers over many years. Yet, as a simple paperback book, it tended not to attract attention. Its importance was overlooked for many years. That has changed. 

In recent years researchers have sought out the locations mentioned in the Green Book's listings. Elderly people who recall their families using the books have provided accounts of its usefulness. A playwright, Calvin Alexander Ramsey, plans to release a documentary film on the Green Book.

In 2011 Ramsey published a children's book, Ruth and the Green Book, which tells the story of an African American family driving from Chicago to visit relatives in Alabama. After being refused the keys to the restroom of a gas station, the mother of the family explains the unjust laws to her young daughter, Ruth. The family encounters an attendant at an Esso station who sells them a copy of the Green Book, and using the book makes their journey much more pleasant. (Standard Oil's gas stations, known as Esso, were known for not discriminating and helped promote the Green Book.)

The New York Public Library has a collection of scanned Green Books which can be read online.

As the books eventually went out of date and would be discarded, original editions tend to be rare. In 2015, a copy of the 1941 edition of the Green Book was placed for sale at Swann Auction Galleries and sold for $22,500. According to an article in the New York Times, the buyer was the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.