Green Book: The Enduring Legacy of Black Businesses for Travelers During Jim Crow

Chris Latham
Contributor

The Green Book, started by U.S. postal worker Victor Hugo Green, was an essential guide for black travelers in the U.S. before Civil Rights. The Green Book showcased businesses where black travelers were welcome and was an economic boon for businesses that were featured.

Thanks in large part to the 2018 Academy Award-winning movie and a 2019 documentary that aired on the Smithsonian Channel, The Negro Motorist Green Book, a little book with a green cover published from 1936 to 1966, has become known to mainstream American audiences.

The movie Green Book, starring Hollywood A-listers Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, as well as the documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, directed by Yoruba Richen, touch on how African-Americans living during the Jim Crow era of segregation needed safe places to visit while traveling throughout the U.S. For black travelers, attempting to seek service at a whites-only establishment was often fraught with risks that could lead to safety and legal hazards, especially at night.

“This was not just in the South. Segregation was all over this country, in the North and the West,” says Richen, the documentary filmmaker and a professor for the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. “In fact, ‘the Green Book’ was created in New York City, because even there, there were places we could not go at the time.”

FILLING THE GAP

As a result, many black travelers came to rely on the Green Book, created by U.S. postal worker Victor Hugo Green. The businesses highlighted were typically owned and operated by black people, or in some cases were white-owned businesses that served blacks. Readers tended to be middle-class blacks, in particular those who could afford to purchase automobiles. A sponsorship deal with the Standard Oil company allowed the book to be sold nationwide at Esso gas stations, now part of ExxonMobil.

The New York Public Library keeps an extensive photocopy catalogue of editions. A 1941 transcribed edition, maintained online by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, shows how Green organized his book and prioritized the businesses it featured. At the time of publication, it cost 25 cents and spanned 50 pages cover to cover.

The front cover listed hotels, taverns, garages, night clubs, restaurants, service stations, automotive, tourist homes, road houses, barber shops, and beauty parlors. A state-by-state index (along with Montreal) had page numbers for specific businesses as well as a list of toll fees for major bridges, ferries, and tunnels. For each business, the entry consisted merely of its name and address. Advertisements contained phone numbers and sales pitches. For instance, “The Right Place To Spend Your Week-Ends and Vacation, WRIGHT’S COTTAGE, 1405 Bangs Ave. Asbury Park, N.J., OPENING JUNE 15th,” was a typical ad.

Surprisingly little is known about the financial success of the Green Book itself, though the publication was successful enough that, in 1948, Green launched a travel agency that arranged accommodations at black-owned businesses featured in his book. Estimates of its total circulation vary widely, with different sources citing anywhere between 15,000 copies a year to 2 million copies.

OPPORTUNITY AND COMMUNITY

For black business owners, many of whom were women, appearing in the Green Book afforded greater economic opportunity and a larger community. Yoruba Richen points to a couple of standouts in this regard: Alberta Ellis, who owned Alberta’s Hotel in Springfield, Missouri, and Modjeska Monteith Simkins, who owned Motel Simbeth in Columbia, South Carolina.

“It was the place black people went on their way out West,” Richen says of Alberta’s Hotel during its heyday. Speaking of Simkins, Richen adds: “Being listed in the Green Book helped give her political freedom, so she could use the income from her Motel Simbeth to do activism work.”

Another place Richen notes is Idlewild, Michigan, which became a legendary beach resort for black travelers to gather without fear of prejudice. It had several hotels, restaurants, night clubs, and gas stations listed in the Green Book. The Flamingo Club, owned by developer Phil Giles, and the Paradise Club, managed by Arthur Braggs, attracted celebrities like Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, and Aretha Franklin to perform there.

CHANGING TIMES

Gradually, African-Americans began to gain access to more white-owned establishments and the Green Book ceased publication. Today, approximately one-third of the buildings featured in the Green Book are estimated to remain in existence, and even fewer of the businesses are still in operation.

Shearer Cottage in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the oldest African-American owned inn on the island, is one such business. Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles, once the city’s premier lodging for black travelers, has found new life as the centerpiece of the mixed-use Dunbar Village development. The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed during the peak of his civil rights protests, has been shuttered for more than 20 years but is undergoing renovations as part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

Its founder, Arthur George Gaston, was an adept businessman who also ran insurance and savings and loan companies, as well as the still-in-operation A.G. Gaston Construction. He was estimated to be worth $40 million when he died in 1996.

“Due to the progress of the Civil Rights Movement, more black people could go to white hotels, but as a result they were not going as much to black hotels like A.G. Gaston’s,” Richen says. “At the same time, many black business owners still could not get loans and financing from many white-owned banks in order to modernize and compete.”

MODERN ANALOGS

Although legally enforced segregation has been prohibited in the U.S. since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black-owned and operated businesses continue to be of special interest to many African-Americans. Instead of focusing on safe places to stop while traveling, attention has shifted to businesses that offer quality service and support the black community.

Now websites such as usbcdirectory.com and officialblackwallstreet.com provide searchable directories with dozens of categories and thousands of entries that link to black small businesses around the country. Black Enterprise, meanwhile, recently released its 2019 list of the nation’s 100 largest black-owned businesses.

The days of the Green Book may have passed, but its substantial contributions to African-American culture and business are alive and well.