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Documentary on the Real Green Book Is a Guide to Black History

A new documentary called The Green Book: Guide to Freedom tells the true story of the guidebook that helped African-Americans travel safely in the Jim Crow era.

The film, available on demand from the Smithsonian Channel through mid-May, was written and directed by Professor Yoruba Richen, documentary program director at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

Cover of The Negro Travelers' Green Book, 1956
Cover of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, 1956. Courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, NYPL

The Negro Motorist Green-Book, first published in the 1930s, was created by Victor Green, a Harlem postal worker. It listed hotels and businesses ranging from gas stations to beauty parlors, and also included a section called “Your Rights.” The book served middle-class black travelers taking road trips or vacations, as well as those leaving the South as part of the Great Migration.

But it wasn’t just in the South that black travelers faced danger and discrimination. Even in cities like New York, black travelers weren’t always welcome in downtown hotels; instead, they often stayed in the Harlem YMCA or Hotel Theresa on 125th Street. The Green Book eventually included listings for nearly every state along with Canada, Mexico, and other destinations.

Today the Green Book “opens a door to revisit black history,” as one narrator in the documentary put it. Its listings are a testament to black entrepreneurship and the vibrant parallel economy that sprang up to serve African-Americans spurned by white establishments. In Michigan, for example, black vacationers flocked to the Idlewild resort in the 1950s. And the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, was a gathering place for civil rights leaders. The owner even bailed Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail.

The Green Book ceased publication in the late 1960s. By then federal law had made it illegal to deny equal access to public accommodations on the basis of race, and black travelers had other options. Today only a fraction of the 9,600 businesses the guidebook listed still exist. Efforts are underway to preserve some of them.