Originally published in September, 2018
By Mark Fleischer
It was called The Mother Road. The Will Rogers Highway. The Main Street of America. It was a place to Get Your Kicks.
In November of 1926, when the United States Highway System opened up famous Route 66 that “winds from Chicago to L.A.” as the song says, it ushered in a new era of travel for Americans in their automobiles.
It was not long before the road became the stuff of dreams. It encapsulated the American dreams of freedom, of independence and new frontiers. It conjured the romance of making lifelong friends in strangers, and images of the lone traveler on a journey discovering their American selves, as writer Jack Kerouac famously did with his On The Road.
It was not that way for all Americans. For some, the road was not a frontier, and strangers were not about to be your friend.
Black Lives Matter Files: Revisiting StoryBoard and partner archives to understand the roots of unrest. “… a riot is the language of the unheard,” said Dr. King in 1967. More importantly, “what is it that America has failed to hear?” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967
If you were an African American during the heyday of Route 66 the road was not about new frontiers where you were welcome anywhere; journeys could be treacherous, a pursuit of that rare signpost that told you you’d be safe stopping.
Automobile travel for Blacks and their families during these times could be treacherous. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Jim Crow Era was still alive and well. A negro caught in the wrong place in the wrong situation could still find himself in life-threatening situations. Lynchings were still very real fears.
The roads that the black man had to follow were sometimes narrow. Safe stopping points – service stations, diners, motor hotels – places white Americans took for granted, could be rare.
And not just along Route 66 and not only through the Jim Crow South, but all over the country.
African Americans, whether they were traveling for pleasure or adventure, to visit one city after another, to move their families from place to place, needed to know where it was safe to stop, rest, eat and sleep.
A travel guide was born.
The Negro Motorist Green-Book, first published in 1936, gives us this introduction:
The idea of “The Green Book” is to give the Motorist and Tourist a Guide not only of Hotels and Tourist Homes in all of the large cities, but other classifications that will be found useful wherever he may be. Also facts and information that the Negro Motorist can use and depend on.
The Green Book was published from 1936 to 1967. It was at its height of use and distribution during the 1940s and ‘50s, when Americans began to travel more and travel farther, when new highways were being laid down and when the Interstate Highway System began to boom.
Some may assume that for Americans of color, traveling through the South was especially treacherous. The opposite was true.
“Jim Crow had no borders,” said Candacy Taylor, a leader in the revival of the Green Book’s legacy. “The South gets a bad rap for being ‘honest,’” she said, “but down there blacks at least knew where and where not to go. Traveling west and to the north was more dangerous – there was no signage.”
On her TaylorMadeCulture website and for her article* “The Overground Railroad,” Candacy writes:
Not only were they shut out of pools, parks and beaches, blacks couldn’t eat, sleep, or even get gas at most white-owned businesses. To avoid the humiliation of being turned away, they often traveled with portable toilets, bedding, gas cans, and ice coolers. Even Coca-Cola machines had “White Customers Only” printed on them. In 1930, 44 out of the 89 counties that lined Route 66 were all-white communities also known as “Sundown Towns,” which were places that banned blacks from entering city limits after dark. Some posted signs that read, “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Understand?”
“In one city in the west,” Candacy said, “a rumor was that there was a black mule painted on a hillside – as in, get your blackass out of town. And another town had a 6 p.m. bell as a clue for blacks to leave.”
A Green Book Revival
One would hope that the days of Jim Crow are far behind us.
“Well,” Candacy pointed out, “progress is not linear.”
A case in point: a family road trip in the summer of 2016 for Reuben and Toya Levi. Racial tensions and fears had increased between African Americans and police in some cities across the U.S., after a series of confrontations, unexplained shootings and retaliatory shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, Dallas, were caught on live video. The tensions reminded some of the racial violence and rioting that resulted from various incidences nationwide from 1965 to ‘68 that culminated in the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
“As we travelled across the country,” Toya Levi said at seminar this past summer, “we became concerned for our safety. After a lot of uncomfortable moments, we began a dialogue. And a friend mentioned to us this guide called The Green Book.”
The conversation and discovery of the book sparked their interest, and now the Levis are on a mission of their own to explore and share stories, photos and information about traveling during the Jim Crow era. It helped them launch The Green Book Project, which includes a web documentary and a series of “Shoebox Dinner” seminars designed to recreate the experience of having to eat out of a box off to the side of the road rather than be able to stop at a local diner.
This summer (2018) the Levis were in artist’s residency at the Crosstown Concourse, and during their stay held speaking engagements and toured Memphis’s Green Book safe havens, such as the Lorraine Motel (home of the National Civil Rights Museum), and those have been lost to neglect or the wrecking ball.
A part of Candacy Taylor’s efforts, which recently made national news, is in documenting the remaining Green Book safe havens. She estimates that there are still over 9600 sites left. A documentary by filmmaker Ric Burns (younger brother of Civil War documentarian Ken Burns) is in the works as part of that documentation.
More work by Ms. Taylor in the upcoming months includes an adult trade book, a middle-grade children’s book, a photo book of Green Book sites, a mobile app and walking tours.
Ms. Taylor looks at her work and the work of others as “a new way to talk about Civil Rights,” she said. “The movement is really about mobility – in travel, in living, in moving; about things like having safe water, and safe neighborhoods. And I would hope for whites to support black businesses and communities, and above all, to learn more about our diverse culture.” <>
*Candacy Taylor turned her article into the book Overground Railroad: The Green Book and The Roots of Black Travel in America. It was released early in 2020 and was reviewed by Chapter16.org here.