Green Book that guided black American travelers featured at Gilmore museum

Gilmore museum exhibit showcases African-American travel issues in Jim Crow era | Larry Edsall photos
Gilmore museum exhibit showcases African-American travel issues in Jim Crow era | Larry Edsall photos

In the spring of 1946, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a former multi-sport standout at UCLA and a U.S. Army veteran, and Rachel, his bride of two weeks, were flying from Los Angeles to Florida. Twice along the route they were bumped from flights so their seats could be occupied by customers with white skin. During a stopover in New Orleans, they were not allowed to eat in the “whites only” airport restaurant. And after arriving in Florida, the driver ordered them to the back of the bus.

IMG_6581And the Robinsons, Jackie — soon to wear the Brooklyn Dodgers’ No. 42 on his back — and Rachel, were not alone. African-Americans faced discrimination in many aspects of life, including lodging, dining, even when finding a restroom or trying to buy gasoline for their cars as they traveled.

You may never have heard of the Green Book, but from the mid-1930s until the passage of civil rights legislation some 30 years later, “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book” let African-American travelers know where they could stay and eat, which gas stations would accept their money, even what towns to avoid for their own safely.

Many people no doubt first heard of the Green Book in early August when The New York Times did a feature story about a documentary that’s being made, “The Green Book Chronicles.” But visitors to the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, have learned about the book and have paid almost reverent attention to the museum’s new Green Book display opened late last year.

“It’s a story that had been pretty much forgotten,” said museum marketing director Jay Follis. “But when (executive director) Michael (Spezia) heard about it, we were intrigued.

Intrigued enough to do research and find sponsorship and help pay for the commission of a film and a diorama display that are stunning in their impact. However, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and other such events, “While we wanted good press, our fear was that people would think we were jumping on the bandwagon,” Follis said.

“But we’ve had a tremendous number of people seeing it and saying, ‘I’ve never heard of this’.”

This page shows places to stay in Atlantic City in the 1950s
This page shows places to stay in Atlantic City in the 1950s

I visited the museum on a recent weekend and noticed that the predominantly white visitors didn’t just stroll on past the 1948 Buick Special parked in front of an Esso gasoline pump. They realized this wasn’t just another car among the hundreds displayed at the museum. They watched the film, listened as people shared their experiences. They took the time to read all the words on the sign boards and they didn’t leave until leafing through pages in the copy of the Spring 1956 edition of the Green Book that is part of the display.

The Negro Travelers’ Green Book was produced by a New York City mailman, Victor Hugo Green, a native of Hackensack, New Jersey. Green’s wife was from Virginia and as they traveled to visit family, like the Robinsons going to their first spring training, they encountered Jim Crow regulations. A Jewish friend showed Green a guidebook used to avoid “gentile-only” establishments and Green started his Green Book, enlisting mail carriers across the country to help him compile his listings.

There’s a reason the gas station in the diorama has an Esso pump. Esso was a brand of Standard Oil, owned by John D. Rockefeller, whose father-in-law was a minister and, with his wife, an abolitionist. Their  home had been part of the Underground Railroad and their daughter, Laura “Cettie” Spelman made significant donations to the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, which became  Spelman Seminary and later Spelman College.

Follis noted that Esso had a program of helping African-Americans buy and operate Esso-brand service stations. Esso also provided offices and support for the staff that helped Green produce and publish his guides.

5 thoughts on “Green Book that guided black American travelers featured at Gilmore museum”

  1. Great story! I never knew of such a book!
    In 1962 when I was in Jacksonville Florida I went into a department store, and approached the dining area. I sat on a stool prepared to order my lunch and a very pretty young black waitress came over and asked me if I was sure I wanted to sit there. I asked if the section was closed and she said, “no, but this is where the black folks sit.” She then pointed across the store and said,”over there is where the white folks sit” I was shocked, having never experienced anything like this before. So I asked if black folks could sit over there and she quickly said, “oh no!” So I asked if I could stay here and eat. She said with a smile, “if you want to” so I said well, that doesn’t seem fair. I think I’ll eat here, besides, I bet the food is better anyway! She liked that and an old black gentleman smiled, looked at me and said, “it sure is!”

    What an eye opener for a young boy from Connecticut that never knew. I had, and still have many dear friends that are of color, and I love them all!

    Dan Delancy
    New Preston, CT

  2. And it is still going on. I am on vacation all inclusive and they cater to the whites and not once did I get asked for a drink but they run with drink in hand to them. What a shame.

  3. The more trenchant fact here is that Green Books were a shared resource, since not all negro families had cars, so when you were going to undertake the stress of travel outside your “known” area, you always asked to see who had one. It was common at church when Brother or Sister Smith would announce that they were going to travel that either someone would volunteer the use of their Green Book or that the Reverend would ask for same from the pulpit.

    After the Public Accommodations Act of 1964 there was a gradual and grudging acceptance of negro families travelling, and after a decade or so the Green Book became less needed. Of course, that doesn’t mean you still wouldn’t meet blatant racism out on the road; or that you would be treated equally, since both things still occur. It really meant that you had alternatives, which you may well need. The value of The Green Book was that you at least had a basic platform from which you could acquire some services without literally taking your life in your hands, since that was the reality.

    And lest some readers think “that was only in the south”, I was with my father, a WW2 combat veteran, when we were turned away from the restaurant at The Hotel Thayer on the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point NY in 1957.

  4. I had a similar experience as Daniel Delancy. I was raised up in Kansas in an area where there were very few black folks. I was raised to treat people…………any people…………as I would want to be treated myself. When I turned 18 in 1962 I enlisted in the Air Force that November as the draft board was hot on my heels. At basic training at San Antonio I was told that there would be no actions or comments directed against anyone regardless of their color or gender. Well, that was easy as that was how I felt personally anyway. I wound up being friends with people of all colors. The Air Force treated all people the same. So did I. One day while at San Antonio I took the shuttle bus into town which let me off at the bus station. After conducting some business I returned again to head back to the base. I took a seat while waiting for the next bus to the base. I saw the signs indicating the separate areas for whites and blacks. This was the first time in my life I was confronted with this type of goings on. It made me mad!! I sat down purposefully in the wrong section just to spite the signs. Ah, what you do when you are 18!! Someone warned me. I paid no attention. Luckily I walked away in one piece. I decided, then and there the “South” was not going to be a place for me to live. I went west after that. Thats OK though………..they don’t know what fried potatoes are in the south. I had White friends…………I had Mexican friends…………Black friends, Hawaiian…….you get the idea. There is NO reason for some to think they are “better” than some. This world needs to get a life!!

  5. Well,
    I find these personal experiences a good thing to publish. I am sure a volume of books could be produced of such experiences with discrimination . If would think how THEY would feel if they were in that situation, I think it might have made a difference. Unfortunately though, just because a society said at the time, it was normal, didn’t make it so, or just! We are all Gods children and deserve equal love and respect. I hope someone starts a book with similar stories of observed discrimination. Maybe it would help change those who are still thinking back in the 1940’s and and earlier.

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