[Marxism] The Open Road Wasn’t Quite Open to All

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 23 12:33:36 MDT 2010


NY Times August 22, 2010
The Open Road Wasn’t Quite Open to All
By CELIA McGEE

For almost three decades beginning in 1936, many African-American 
travelers relied on a booklet to help them decide where they could 
comfortably eat, sleep, buy gas, find a tailor or beauty parlor, 
shop on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls, or go out at night. In 1949, 
when the guide was 80 pages, there were five recommended hotels in 
Atlanta. In Cheyenne, Wyo., the Barbeque Inn was the place to stay.

A Harlem postal employee and civic leader named Victor H. Green 
conceived the guide in response to one too many accounts of 
humiliation or violence where discrimination continued to hold 
strong. These were facts of life not only in the Jim Crow South, 
but in all parts of the country, where black travelers never knew 
where they would be welcome. Over time its full title — “The Negro 
Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide” — became 
abbreviated, simply, as the “Green Book.” Those who needed to know 
about it knew about it. To much of the rest of America it was 
invisible, and by 1964, when the last edition was published, it 
slipped through the cracks into history.

Until he met a friend’s elderly father-in-law at a funeral a few 
years ago, the Atlanta writer Calvin Alexander Ramsey had never 
heard of the guide. But he knew firsthand the reason it existed. 
During his family trips between Roxboro, N.C., and Baltimore, “we 
packed a big lunch so my parents didn’t have to worry about having 
to stop somewhere that might not serve us,” recalled Mr. Ramsey, 
who is now 60.

He is among the writers, artists, academics and curators returning 
a spotlight to the guide and its author, emblematic as it was of a 
period when black Americans — especially professionals, salesmen, 
entertainers and athletes — were increasingly on the move for 
work, play and family visits.

In addition to hotels, the guide often pointed them to “tourist 
homes,” privates residences made available by their 
African-American owners. Mr. Ramsey has written a play, “The Green 
Book,” about just such a home, in Jefferson City, Mo., where a 
black military officer and his wife and a Jewish Holocaust 
survivor all spend the night just before W. E. B. DuBois is 
scheduled to deliver a speech in town. The play will inaugurate a 
staged-reading series on Sept. 15 at the restored Lincoln Theater 
in Washington, itself once a fixture of that city’s “black 
Broadway” on U Street.

Julian Bond, the civil rights leader who is now a faculty member 
at American University, will take on a cameo role. Mr. Bond 
recalled that his parents — his father, a college professor, 
became the first black president of Lincoln University, in 
southern Pennsylvania — used the book. “It was a guidebook that 
told you not where the best places were to eat,” he said, “but 
where there was any place.”

In November, Carolrhoda Books will release Mr. Ramsey’s “Ruth and 
the Green Book,” a children’s book with illustrations by the 
award-winning artist Floyd Cooper. It tells the story of a girl 
from Chicago in the 1950s and what she learns as she and her 
parents, driving their brand-new car to visit her grandmother in 
rural Alabama, finally luck into a copy of Victor Green’s guide. 
“Most kids today hear about the Underground Railroad, but this 
other thing has gone unnoticed,” said Mr. Ramsey. “It just fell on 
me, really, to tell the story.”

Historians of travel have recognized that the great American road 
trip — seen as an ultimate sign of freedom — was not that free for 
many Americans, including those who had to worry about “sunset 
laws” in towns where black visitors had to be out by day’s end.

For a large swath of the nation’s history “the American democratic 
idea of getting out on the open road, finding yourself, heading 
for distant horizons was only a privilege for white people,” said 
Cotton Seiler, the author of “Republic of Drivers: A Cultural 
History of Automobility in America,” who devoted a chapter of his 
book to the experience of black travelers.

William Daryl Williams, the director of the School of Architecture 
and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati, in 2007 
organized a traveling exhibition he called “The Dresser Trunk 
Project,” in which he and 11 other architects and artists used the 
“Green Book” to inform works that incorporated locations and 
artifacts from the history of black travel during segregation. Mr. 
Williams’s own piece, “Whitelaw Hotel,” referred to a well-known 
accommodation for African-Americans in Washington and included 
several pages from the “Green Book.”

Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of 
African American History and Culture, a co-sponsor of “The Green 
Book” play reading, said the presence of the guide into the 1960s 
pointed out that at the same time people were countering 
segregation with sit-ins, the need to cope with everyday life 
remained.

He added: “The ‘Green Book’ tried to provide a tool to deal with 
those situations. It also allowed families to protect their 
children, to help them ward off those horrible points at which 
they might be thrown out or not permitted to sit somewhere. It was 
both a defensive and a proactive mechanism.”

Although Victor Green’s initial edition only encompassed 
metropolitan New York, the “Green Book” soon expanded to Bermuda 
(white dinner jackets were recommended for gentlemen), Mexico and 
Canada. The 15,000 copies Green eventually printed each year were 
sold as a marketing tool not just to black-owned businesses but to 
the white marketplace, implying that it made good economic sense 
to take advantage of the growing affluence and mobility of African 
Americans. Esso stations, unusual in franchising to African 
Americans, were a popular place to pick one up.

Mr. Bunch said he believes African American families are likely 
still have old copies sitting in attics and basements: “As 
segregation ended, people put such things away. They felt they 
didn’t need them anymore. It brought a sense of psychological 
liberation.”

Theater J in Washington, which specializes in Jewish-theme plays, 
is a co-producer of “The Green Book” reading. The “inconveniences” 
(as Green genteelly put it) of travel that African-Americans 
encountered were shared, albeit to a lesser extent and for a 
briefer period, by American Jews. In Mr. Ramsey’s play the 
Holocaust survivor comes to the tourist home after he’s appalled 
by a “No Negroes Allowed” sign posted in the lobby of the local 
hotel where he had planned to stay.

“The Jewish press has long published information about places that 
are restricted,” Green wrote in his book’s introduction, adding, 
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide 
will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have 
equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”

The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and Mr. Green ceased 
publication.




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