Black History Month Spotlight: How the Green Books Changed Travel During Segregation
In partnership with Greenwood Seneca, we’ll be highlighting lesser-known historical sites that focus on the experiences of Black Americans over the coming months. Many of these sites were featured in The Green Books, an annual travel guide that helped Black Americans travel the roads of a segregated country in a safer way. To kick off this series, we’re diving into the history and significance of the Green Books and a few destinations to visit today.
The 1930s sparked the rise of automobiles, making road trips an accessible form of travel for people across the country. For Black Americans, however, traveling during an era of segregation and Jim Crow laws made it important to be selective in their destinations and pit stops.
That’s when Victor Green, a postal worker in New York, began a decades-long tradition of publishing an annual travel guide called The Negro Motorist’s Green Book.
How the Green Books made travel safer during Jim Crow and segregation
Published from 1936 through 1967, the Green Books were inspired by Victor Green’s friend who published a guide to safe places in the Catskills for Jewish people. Green and his wife frequently traveled from New York to Virginia to visit her family and saw the need for a travel guide designed specifically for the Black community.
This was during the period of The Great Migration — people were moving from the South to the North, often to work in automobile factories. When it came time for them to go back and visit family, traveling could be a dangerous thing.
The Green Books identified Black-owned hotels, motels, restaurants, barber shops, gas stations, and recreational places to enjoy on vacations across the U.S. They were also used to identify (and avoid) “Sundown towns,” in which Black Americans were forbidden after a certain hour of the day.
These travel guides weren’t just made for safer travels in the South, which often had segregation signs to mark where to go and where to avoid. The books also helped Black Americans more safely navigate the North and West regions where hostile environments were not always as well-marked. Eventually, the Green Books even spread to include international destinations.
A guide for the civil rights movement
The Green Books were a must-have for a growing middle class of Black families who had better jobs and increased mobility with the advent of cars. But they were also used by Civil Rights leaders to identify Black business owners (a number of which were women) where they could safely meet. Many of these entrepreneurs also often funded activist campaigns.
The tone of the Green Books also began to shift with the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. They included summaries of each state’s civil rights laws so travelers knew their rights wherever they were.
Green Book destinations to visit today
While many of the businesses and landmarks advertised in the Green Books no longer exist today, there are several destinations still standing that are worth visiting.
The A.G. Gaston Hotel: Birmingham, Alabama
The A.G. Gaston Hotel, built by Arthur George Gaston and later named a national treasure in 2016, was considered a luxury destination during the Green Book era. It was even used as a headquarters for Martin Luther King, Jr. Today the property is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is currently being restored.
Alberta’s Hotel in Springfield, Missouri
While this iconic hotel is no longer standing, visitors can visit the site where the building once stood — now a parking lot between Springfield municipal buildings.
Alberta’s was known far and wide. The three-story Victorian house hosted both overnight and long-term guests, including famous musicians traveling on tour across Route 66, such as Nat King Cole. In addition to having rooms to rent, Alberta’s housed a beauty and barber shop as well as a “Rumpus Room” where guests could dine and have a good time.
Idlewild is located in Lake County, Michigan, and was unique as an early adopter of integration. The town had a lake resort where Black Americans could safely vacation and enjoy swimming, boating, tennis, and clubs with top-notch entertainment (including Ella Fitzgerald). In fact, the town was known as the “Black Eden” during the Civil Rights movement.
While many of those historic establishments haven’t lasted over the decades, there is a new revitalization effort in Idlewild today. You can still enjoy Idlewild Access Park today for hiking and picnicking, as well as the Idlewild Historic and Cultural Center where you can delve into the area’s past.
Stay tuned for more highlights of historical sites that focus on the experiences of Black Americans on the Matic blog.
Greenwood Seneca is an organization that brings awareness to sites of Black history at risk of being forgotten. Supporting Greenwood Seneca will help further their mission of inviting the community to connect with Black historical sites and creating a unique space for Black community members to reclaim joy and honor their history. Additionally, Greenwood Seneca’s scholarship program supports students enrolled in HBCUs.
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