There’s hardly anything more iconic than the great American road trip. Every family seems to have stories of packing everyone in the car, in a seatbelt-free era, and driving across the country to visit family and friends. From 1936-1964 an equally iconic, and often life-saving, travel guide became a staple of cross country travel. This is the story of the Green Book: a symbol of community, culture, and history that doesn’t make its way into the average history lesson!
Sometimes, it’s easy to let the not so distant past start to feel like a faraway history. Remember a time before we could get information in an instant? When directions were found on folded up maps, and creating a community of strangers didn’t involve our phones? Pausing to discover more about our not so distant history can be an important reminder of what’s possible for our futures! So, let’s go on a little historical tour, together, shall we?
What’s the Green Book?
In the 1950s and 60s, a growing American middle class was enamored with the road trip. It was the most popular way to travel and explore the country! Motels, restaurants, and gas stations sprung up to serve motorists on their adventures. Unfortunately, many of these establishments weren’t there to serve everybody.
This was the era of segregation. Motels, restaurants, gas stations, and even entire towns, could refuse service to Black travelers. The “open road” wasn’t open for everybody.
So how, in a time before you could just ask Google, could Black families plan road trips? How, in a time before social media, could people find safety and community in their travels? This is where the Green Book came in.
The Green Book was a guide to Black travelers listing restaurants, barbershops, gas stations, and lodgings where they could eat, be served, and safely stay across the country.
It was first published by Victor Green, a postal worker in Harlem, New York. Inspired by a Jewish friend who had a travel guide to places where Jewish people were welcome, he decided to put together a guide to locations in New York that were welcoming to African Americans at the time. Using his network at the postal office–which was then one of the largest employers of African Americans–he was able to quickly expand the Green Book’s listings to every state in the nation. This national guide quickly became essential for Black travelers.
The Green Book is a central piece of American history. One that reminds us of the unjust and horrible systems of the not so distant past, while illustrating freedoms that should be fundamentally human: to have fun, to travel freely, and find a welcoming community wherever we go.
Dive into this remarkable bit of history with this great video from Vox.
If you want to explore more corners of history and culture go check out Vox’s YouTube channel! It’s a great place to get lost for a while!
If you want to watch an incredible full documentary about the Green Book go check out The Green Book: Guide to Freedom from the Smithsonian Channel. It’s an eye-opening look at history from a perspective we often don’t hear a lot about.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” —Maya Angelou
The history of the Green Book is an important symbol of American history, yet it is a piece of culture that most kids aren’t learning about in school. Even though, this book is emblematic of a past that our grandparents or parents can still remember vividly.
When we talk about pieces of history from 50 years ago, we aren’t just talking about the “past”, we are also talking about issues that we’re still wrestling with today. When we know about what our countries and communities have gone through before, we start to get a window onto each other’s worlds and a clearer view of the future
The Green Book represents so much to so many.
Learning about its history opens up the doors to all kinds of discussions that have the power to bring us together. It allows us to have more context for America’s not so distant past; can be a symbol to celebrate Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurship, and it can be a springboard to discussing the world as it is now and what we want for our future.
What will we be explaining to younger generations about history as it is today? What cultural icons will be symbols of the past that represent the possibility of the future?
In a time before messages could travel instantly, Victor Green was able to use the networks around him to help keep his community safe across the country and to bring them joy. His work then shows us what possibility looks like for us now. What are we capable of today with the resources at our disposal?
Our futures are inextricably linked to one another. If we want to work toward a better future for everybody, we have to be exposed to history from many different perspectives. Historical events and time periods appear completely different to people based on their own personal experiences, and they define how we move forward.
So, why not take a peek into the history of your own town. What happened there? Who helped to establish it? Who owned businesses in the area, who owns them today? Where does it fit into history as we know it?
How can your community’s past successes and failures both be used for positive progress now!?
Here are three of our favorite EWC articles, ready for you to keep exploring this journey:
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- Vox. “The Real Story of the Green Book.” YouTube, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=b33PN2NB2Do&feature=emb_title. Accessed 16 June 2020. ↩