Lessons from the Jim Crow-era travel guide for African-American elites.
By Brent Staples – The New York Times
Mr. Staples is a member of the editorial board.
[The New York Times and Oculus are presenting our 300th Op-Doc, the virtual-reality film “Traveling While Black,” related to this Opinion essay. To view it, you can watch on the Oculus platform or watch the 360 degree video above.]
Imagine trudging into a hotel with your family at midnight — after a long, grueling drive — and being turned away by a clerk who “loses” your reservation when he sees your black face.
This was a common hazard for members of the African-American elite in 1932, the year Dr. B. Price Hurst of Washington, D.C., was shut out of New York City’s Prince George Hotel despite having confirmed his reservation by telegraph.
Hurst would have planned his trip differently had he been headed to the South, where “whites only” signs were ubiquitous and well-to-do black travelers lodged in homes owned by others in the black elite. Hurst was a member of Washington’s “Colored Four Hundred” — as the capital’s black upper crust once was known — and was familiar with having to plan his life around hotels, restaurants and theaters in the city, and throughout the Jim Crow South, that screened out people of color.
Hurst expected better of New York City. He did not let the matter rest after the Prince George turned his travel-weary family into the streets. He wrote an anguished letter to Walter White, then executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., explaining how he had been rejected by four hotels before shifting his search to the black district of Harlem. He then sued the Prince George for violating New York State’s civil rights laws, winning a settlement that put the city’s hotels on notice that discrimination could carry a financial cost.
African-Americans who embraced automobile travel to escape filthy, “colored-only” train cars learned quickly that the geography of Jim Crow was far more extensive than they had imagined. The motels and rest stops that deprived them of places to sleep were just the beginning.
While driving, these families were often forced to relieve themselves in roadside ditches because the filling stations that sold them gas barred them from using “whites only” bathrooms.
White motorists who drove clunkers deliberately damaged expensive cars driven by black people — to put Negroes “in their places.”
“Sundown Towns” across the country banned African-Americans from the streets after dark, a constant reminder that the reach of white supremacy was vast indeed.
As still happens today, police officers who pulled over motorists of color for “driving while black” raised the threat that black passengers would be arrested, battered or even killed during the encounter.
The Negro Traveler’s Bible
The Hurst case was a cause célèbre in 1936 when a Harlem resident and postal worker named Victor Hugo Green began soliciting material for a national travel guide that would steer black motorists around the humiliations of the not-so-open road and point them to businesses that were more than happy to accept colored dollars. As the historian Gretchen Sullivan Sorin writes in her revelatory study of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” the guide became “the bible of every Negro highway traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s.”
Green, who died in 1960, is experiencing a renaissance thanks to heightened interest from filmmakers: The 2018 feature film “Green Book” won three Golden Globes earlier this month, and the documentary “Driving While Black” is scheduled for broadcast by PBS next year.
Then there is The New York Times opinion section’s Op-Doc film “Traveling While Black,” which debuts this Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. The brief film offers a revealing view of the Green Book era as told through Ben’s Chili Bowl, a black-owned restaurant in Washington, and reminds us that the humiliations heaped upon African-Americans during that time period extended well beyond the one Hurst suffered in New York City.
Sandra Butler-Truesdale, born in the capital in the 1930s, references an often-forgotten trauma — and one of the conceptual underpinnings of the Jim Crow era — when she recalls that Negroes who shopped in major stores were not allowed to try on clothing before they bought it. Store owners at the time offered a variety of racist rationales, including that Negroes were insufficiently clean. At bottom, the practice reflected the irrational belief that anything coming in contact with African-American skin — including clothing, silverware or bed linens — was contaminated by blackness, rendering it unfit for use by whites.
This had deadly implications in places where emergency medical services were assigned on the basis of race. Of all the afflictions devised in the Jim Crow era, medical racism was the most lethal. African-American accident victims could easily be left to die because no “black” ambulance was available. Black patients taken to segregated hospitals, where they sometimes languished in basements or even boiler rooms, suffered inferior treatment.
In a particularly telling case in 1931, the light-skinned father of Mr. White, the N.A.A.C.P. leader, was struck by a car and mistakenly admitted to the beautifully equipped “white” wing of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. When relatives who were recognizably black came looking for him, hospital employees dragged the victim from the examination table to the decrepit Negro ward across the street, where he later died.
That same year, Juliette Derricotte, the celebrated African-American educator and dean of women at Fisk University, succumbed to injuries suffered in a car accident near Dalton, Ga., after a white hospital refused her treatment.
Advertising to the Black Elite
Victor Hugo Green remains a mysterious figure about whom we know very little. He rarely spoke directly to Green Book readers, instead publishing testimonial letters in what the historian Cotten Seiler describes as an act of promotional “ventriloquism.” The debut edition did not exhort black travelers to boycotts or include demands for equal rights. Instead, Green represented the guide as a benign compilation of “facts and information connected with motoring, which the Negro Motorist can use and depend upon.”
The Green Book presented a compilation of “facts and information connected with motoring, which the Negro Motorist can use and depend upon.”
The coolly reasoned language put white readers at ease and allowed the Green Book to attract generous corporate and government sponsorship. Green nevertheless practiced the African-American art of coded communication, addressing black readers in messages that went over white peoples’ heads. Consider the passage: “Today, our thousands of travelers, if they be thoughtful enough to arm themselves with a Green Book, may free themselves of a lot of worry and inconvenience as they plan a trip.”
White readers viewed this as a common-sense statement about vacation planning. For African-Americans who read in black newspapers about the fates that befell people like Ms. Derricotte, the notion of “arming” oneself with the guide referred to taking precautions against racism on the road.
The Green Book was subversive in another way as well. It promoted an image of African-Americans that white Americans rarely saw — and that Hollywood deliberately avoided in films for fear of offending racist Southerners. The guide’s signature image, shown on the cover of the 1948 edition — and used as stationery logo for Victor Green, Inc. — consisted of a smiling, well-dressed couple striding toward their car carrying expensive suitcases.
Green believed exposing white Americans to the black elite might persuade white business owners that black consumer spending was significant enough to make racial discrimination imprudent. Like the black elite itself, he subscribed to the view that affluent travelers of color could change white minds about racism simply by venturing to places where black people had been unseen. As it turned out, black travelers had a democratizing effect on the country.
Like many African-American institutions that thrived during the age of extreme segregation, the Green Book faded in influence as racial barriers began to fall. It ceased publication not long after the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations. Nevertheless, the guide’s three decades of listings offer an important vantage point on black business ownership and travel mobility in the age of Jim Crow.
In other words, the Green Book has a lot more to say about the time when it was the Negro traveler’s bible.
“Traveling While Black” is part of Op-Docs’s 8th annual series of films from the Sundance Film Festival. Watch more from our 2019 series from the Sundance Film Festival.