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.
And 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’.”
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.