It’s the heart of the travel season, when we jump into our vehicles and take off on day trips and vacations. Today, we don’t need much more than our smartphones and apps to go wherever we want and find places to stay, eat and refuel.
So it’s getting harder to remember when deliberate trip planning and detailed travel guides were a must for extended travel. And that was especially true for mobile African Americans in pre-Civil Rights America, who needed both careful planning and a good guide just to navigate around Jim Crow as they traveled our nation’s highways.
Many relied upon “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, The Guide For Travel and Vacations” or, more simply, the “Green Book.” Published by Victor H. Green and Company of New York, the guide’s purpose was to provide “information that will keep [the African American traveler] from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”
If you are familiar with the acclaimed movie, “Green Book,” you’ll have a strong sense of the African American traveler’s experience during the Jim Crow era. But you may not be as familiar with the guidebook that inspired the movie’s name.
Initially published in 1936 for metropolitan New York, the Green Book’s reception was so enthusiastic and widespread that it went national the very next year. The publisher relied upon “agents” to provide information on travel-related businesses that welcomed African American customers and users’ feedback – both positive and negative – to provide the best-possible recommendations for its audience.
For 30 years, the annually updated Green Book listed hotels, motels and tourist homes; restaurants, taverns and nightclubs; repair garages, barber and beauty shops around the country that African Americans could patronize free of any fear of rejection, refusal of service, discrimination, intimidation or threat of violence.
Review the listings in several of the books, though, and you’ll be struck by their sparseness. In the 1959 edition, for example, between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, there’s one hotel listed in “Bedford Springs” and two lodging places in Altoona, but that’s it – no garages, service stations or restaurants.
Before the Turnpike, Pittsburgh to Harrisburg would have been a long way to travel between restrooms and places to eat. So people packed their own food and buckets for the necessary stops.
A lot of the listed lodging appeared to be in “tourist homes,” which apparently were just that: homes that had rooms available for travelers. Even New Castle’s YWCA, which was available, was a segregated “black YWCA” located in a large residence in downtown New Castle.
Actual hotels tended to be clustered in cities’ African American residential districts – such as Pittsburgh’s Hill District and Harrisburg’s 7th Ward but did offer more amenities. The Ellis Hotel in Pittsburgh advertised “modern rooms, air-conditioned, private and semi-private baths, radio-TV, excellent food and a cocktail lounge.”
Legendary entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway stayed at these places. Of course, they usually had little choice. While they could perform in white establishments, they had to sleep elsewhere.
There were exceptions. Altoona’s Hotel Penn-Alto was listed for lodging, as was Philadelphia’s Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. Both were signature lodging places for their cities and still retained much of their stature during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation of public places and technically ended the need for the Green Books, which ceased publication in 1966. That had been the publisher’s hope:
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to the published,” wrote Editor Victor Green, in the 1949 edition. “This 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.”
Are we there yet?
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