Historian Susan Rugh discusses “The Green Book” – a guidebook that helped African-Americans negotiate the difficulties of traveling through a segregated United States.
**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this episode. There may be changes.**
ED: In the early and mid 20th century, African Americans often had a hard time when they travelled. Many hotels, gas stations, and restaurants both in the North and the South refused to serve black patrons. So in the early 1930s, a New York City postman named Victor Green began collecting contact information for local businesses that would serve African Americans. He figured that by collecting and publishing this information he could help others avoid the inconvenience and the humiliation of being turned away.
BRIAN: Green soon expanded the project to cover the entire country. In 1936, he published the first edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book, the Green Book for short. It looks something like a phone book with the names and addresses of friendly businesses as well as private homes willing to lodge African American visitors.
ED: The Green Book was published for decades and became a staple of African American households. But Victor Green hoped that eventually his book would become irrelevant. In the introduction, he imagined, quote, “a day some time in the near future when this guide will not have to be published, when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.”
BRIAN: With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Green Book ceased publication for good. Ironically, letters from Northern blacks recounting their experiences with discrimination on the nation’s roadways may have played a role in getting that landmark legislation passed. Historian Susan Rugh has researched these letters. In an interview from a few years back, she told us about how vacationing blacks helped shape one of the century’s most important political debates.
SUSAN RUGH: When I first started working on this, people would say, blacks vacationed? And I began to resent that as a very racist remark. Of course they vacationed. Half the households in the United States after the war own a car. By 1960, that’s 3/4 or 80% of households. And the idea of the car for blacks was if we have a car then we don’t have to sit in the Jim Crow section on the train.
SUSAN RUGH: It promised them more freedom, more opportunity. And so to randomly run into this discrimination must have been very sobering.
MALE SPEAKER: “Dear madam, I’m writing to find out if something can be done, maybe bringing a suit against Mobile Oil Company because of an incident that happened in Shreveport, Louisiana.”
SUSAN RUGH: The media may have focused its attention on buses and the more violent confrontations. These were everyday confrontations, what I call the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, who would just write in. And they had all of this evidence of people being discriminated against.
MALE SPEAKER: “We asked for the restrooms and were informed they didn’t have restroom facilities for colored.”
FEMALE SPEAKER: “Dear sir, I am a member of the NAACP.”
SUSAN RUGH: The letters were sent to headquarters a lot of them, especially in the most egregious cases. And Thurgood Marshall, early on in the ’50s before he was appointed to the court, would look at them. Constance Baker Motley would look at them. And they did take action in courts.
FEMALE SPEAKER: “The attendant or manager left the lugs loose deliberately. And when we was a good ways out on Highway 67, the wheel ran off. The rim contacted the cement–”
FEMALE SPEAKER: “I cannot tell you what handicaps are endorsed by Negro motorist traveling through the South, often for long and weary miles, unable to be sure of finding adequate accommodations for taking care of the normal physiological functions of the body and for rest–”
MALE SPEAKER: “The first two places displayed vacancy signs, but we were unable to get accommodations because they had been reserved.”
SUSAN RUGH: They used these guidebooks, the Green guide to Negro tourism and travel guide and the other guides in part to tell them where they could stay and not be turned away. And the slogan of one of those books is vacation without humiliation.
MALE SPEAKER: “People to the left, the right, in front and behind were served. Finally, I sensed that we were being ignored.”
SUSAN RUGH: If you think of all the black people who packed their lunch in their car, who couldn’t buy lodging, that was adding up. And this is where the change in travel and transportation industry comes through. Because as it becomes corporate and as it becomes chains, then the NAACP puts pressure on chains like Hilton at the top, where some of these people went to conventions to get change in the South and throughout the country.
MALE SPEAKER: “They were on their way to the ladies’ restrooms that were in plain sight and had to be called back. We then had to stop on the highway, like animals. We are members of the NAACP.”
SUSAN RUGH: My sense is that the Civil Rights leaders recognized the power of the family image in a time when the family was the dominant image of domesticity, this nuclear family. And I think they played to that in the hearings. And certainly Roy Wilkins plays to that and says, imagine a family on vacation.
And this is July when he’s talking. It’s hot in Washington. These senators are probably thinking, when is the congressional break? I’m going to go on vacation. And so they have families, and they can relate to this stranded family that’s sleeping in its car.
BRIAN: It must have had an incredibly powerful impact on political leaders, at least thinking about how their constituents are going to feel about this.
SUSAN RUGH: It was powerful enough for them to vote for the Civil Rights Act, so I think it was effective.
FEMALE SPEAKER: “I venture to predict that it will not be too much longer before concentrated actions is taken by Negro Americans to combat this evil which has held sway for far too long along the nation’s highways. Sincerely yours, Mrs. Jewell L. Gresham, doctoral student, Columbia University.”
BRIAN: Susan Rugh is a historian at Brigham Young University. Her book is Are We There Yet?, the Golden Age of American Family Vacations.
ED: It’s time for another quick break. When we get back, Peter Onuf will make the case for his favorite historical personage with a green connection. And just so you won’t be disappointed, it’s not the Jolly Green Giant nor the Hulk nor even Gumby.
PETER: So keep listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.