Peter Farrelly’s movie “The Green Book” just won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy. But the film has already spurred vigorous debate about elements of its self-proclaimed “true story” that aren’t exactly on the up-and-up. We asked Cynthia Tucker, who grew up in the days of Jim Crow, to find the stories of black people — from regular folks to Hammerin’ Hank Aaron — who traveled America when law and custom made the Green Book essential.
Story by Cynthia Tucker | Illustrations by Courtney Garvin
Brothers Eric and John Finley, both Mobile, Alabama, retirees, have vivid memories of the one road trip they took with their family as children — from Mobile to California. Their father was a pharmacist who owned a drug store, a business that demanded his presence seven days a week. So the family rarely took vacations together. But in 1957, when the boys were young, the Finleys set off for Los Angeles and San Francisco in a shiny new pink Lincoln.
Most of us have childhood memories of summer road trips, but for black Americans of a certain age, those memories are shadowed by the peculiar practices of Jim Crow. The laws of the Southern states were echoed by similar customs in much of the country back then, so black motorists were often denied access to restaurants, hotels, and even gas stations and restrooms. That meant that a vacation required not only meticulous planning but also more than a little ingenuity and heaping portions of luck.
The Finleys spent their first night in Houston with friends, but they were no further than New Mexico by the next afternoon, John remembers. They had to look for a roadside motel. They managed to find lodging, assisted by the lower melanin quotient of Eric and his father.
Eric Finley is black but fair-skinned with straightish hair, as was his dad.
“When we got ready to rent a room, my father and I (went) inside to the desk, while John, my mother, and my sister stayed in the car,” he recalled. They were darker-hued.
As John remembers it, the motel clerk looked out of the window and saw the other passengers.
“He told my father that he and the little boy (Eric, then 5, was the youngest of three) could go out and about, but the rest of us would have to stay in the room. So, we were in jail,” he said, laughing. The memory became fodder for countless humorous family recollections over the years, John says, “but it was pretty stressful for my dad at the time.”
Their father went out and bought sandwiches for the family’s evening meal, John recalled. Sleeping during the day, he drove at night to minimize the chances of running into trouble from a rude police officer or a nosy fellow motorist. After all, the Finley family would have appeared to comprise whites and blacks traveling together, which could have spelled disaster on the open road.
To minimize the hardships and hazards of highway travel, other black motorists used different strategies. Some simply packed their own food and spent nights with relatives or friends. That’s what my family did. I remember that my mother’s planning included waking early in the morning to fry a chicken she would pack to take along for lunch. Many black Americans around my age have similar stories.
Retired journalist David Gibson, 64, who grew up in Halifax, Virginia, said his family usually stayed with relatives or friends, too.
“What struck me as a young boy on family trips is they always included a roadside picnic on any trip of some distance. I thought that was a nice extra put together by my mother,” he recalls. “I was not yet aware that it was because we could not eat in restaurants.”
Many black motorists used Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide filled with information about hotels, restaurants, and service stations willing to accommodate black patrons. Green, a mailman, published a new guide annually from 1936 to 1966. As Americans, especially black Americans, have re-discovered pre-Civil Rights Movement history, Green’s travel guides have become a subject of great interest. Few originals exist, but facsimiles have sold countless copies.
In the last couple of decades, The Negro Motorist’s Green Book has also inspired a play, a children’s book called Ruth and the Green Book, and visual artists, including a multimedia installation by New York artist Derrick Adams. Most recently, it has inspired a Hollywood film from director Peter Farrelly (starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen) based on the story of Jamaica-born jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley’s concert tour through the Deep South with white nightclub bouncer Tony Lip as his driver.
While the film was winning critical praise after its release in November, Don Shirley’s only surviving brother, Maurice E. Shirley Sr., released a letter to news outlets nationwide that excoriated the film for its inaccuries. Chief among them was an assertion that undercuts the central premise of the movie’s so-called “true story”: the friendship between Shirley and his driver.
“My brother never considered Tony to be his ‘friend,’” wrote Maurice Shirley. “He was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation.”
Once again, the Hollywood version of the “true story” is quite different from the stories that are actually true.
The real Green Book was the most popular of several guides written with black motorists in mind. When he published his first guidebook in 1936, Victor Green, who carried the mail in Harlem, was a member of a tiny but growing black middle-class. He had enough disposable income to afford an automobile, but understood the discomfort and dangers of highway travel for black motorists.
By the end of World War II, the golden age of automobile ownership was dawning.
Already, many Americans were discovering the pleasures of vacations spent exploring their vast country, steering their personal pleasure ships. From New York to the Carolinas, from California to Oregon, from Georgia to Texas, American families hit the road, especially during long summer vacations. Roadside motels and kitschy amusements designed to catch the eye of travelers dotted popular highways such as the famed Route 66, which extended nearly 2,500 miles from Chicago to California.
While most black Americans were too poor to afford a family car, a tiny group of federal workers, business owners, and professionals could afford the luxury of a personal automobile. According to social historians, many of them preferred the freedom their own vehicles offered to the routine indignities of mass transit — unsanitary second- or third-class cars on railways or cramped seats in the back of interstate buses.
Those black consumers who were fortunate enough to own cars were as curious about their country’s natural wonders — its shining seas and majestic purple mountains — as whites were, but they faced daunting obstacles if they considered exploring them. A searing commentary published in 1947 in The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, put it this way:
“Would a Negro like to pursue a little happiness at a theater, a beach, pool, hotel, restaurant, on a train, plane, or ship, a golf course, summer or winter resort? Would he like to stop overnight at a tourist camp while he motors about his native land ‘Seeing America First?’ Well, just let him try!”
Even as routine a mission as refilling the car’s gas tank could present a challenge, because some service stations refused to sell to black motorists. Envy and resentment of black purchasing power may have fueled some of that resistance.
As a young unmarried Army officer fresh from combat in Korea, my father bought a brand-new, baby blue 1954 Chevrolet. He told me he was once refused service at a gas station in a rural area of his home county with these words: “N****r, if you want that car, you better get it the hell out of here!”
Travel farther away from home offered even more opportunities for insult and inconvenience. Laws and customs varied not only from state to state but also from town to town. Black travelers had to be alert to variations in the landscape and changes in driving practice, especially among fellow black motorists.
In some places in the Deep South, for example, black motorists were forbidden to pass white ones for fear that dust from the black-owned vehicle might soil a white-owned car. The dreaded “sundown towns,” which prohibited the presence of black people after dark, some with roadside signs which came right out and said so. Sociologist James Loewen, author of the 2006 book Sundown Towns, said most read, ‘N****r, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in _____________.” And they were not limited to the South. One in Connecticut read: “Whites only within the city limits after dark,” he said. There were thousands of such towns and cities across the country, according to Loewen.
Even if you managed to avoid such places, there were still the stressful demands of dealing with bodily needs, including eating and bathroom breaks. And what if you had children along?
Michael Lomax, the former Atlanta elected official who now serves as president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund, grew up in Los Angeles but took many extended road trips as a child with his mother, the intrepid journalist Almena Lomax, and his siblings.
“You were always in this vulnerable position,” he says. “You were always fearful of an ugly confrontation and rejection — and conscious of how dangerous the environment was. You never knew when it would turn from benign to virulent and violent.”
In 1961, he remembers, his mother was determined to get to Alabama to cover the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. She set off for Tuskegee by car with her six children in tow, leaving her husband in Los Angeles. She wrote about the trip, which involved a car breakdown and a brush with Jim Crow authorities, in a March 1961 article — "Journey to the Beginning: A Northern Negro Moves to Dixie" — published in The Nation.
“We were cruising along Highway 99, nearing Blythe in California, and on the four new Sears tires I felt so secure that I moved the battered 1953 Lincoln into an unaccustomed 60, then 70. ... There was a snap, hardly audible, and then sounds like we were dropping tin cans along the road from beneath the hood. … That was as far as she went,” she wrote.
Deciding the necessary repairs were too expensive, Lomax sold the car and bought Greyhound bus tickets for herself and her brood; soon, they found themselves “up and across the desolate wastes of ‘Nawth’ Texas, the equally desolate wastes of Arkansas, where even the parking space behind the bus terminals is ‘reserved for white cars.’”
It was in Big Springs, Texas, where inside the terminal she encountered a sign that said, “White Dining Room — Colored Lunchroom,” when the journalist decided she and her children had had enough of “separate but equal” facilities. She marched them into the “white dining room.” There they stubbornly remained, drawing a crowd of black and white onlookers, until someone summoned the police.
Michael Lomax says an officer told his mother, “‘If y’all don’t get over to the colored side, you are going to jail.’ She had six kids, so we went to the colored side.”
The history of the segregated South, with its racist codes and traditions, is well known. But a lesser known history is the story of segregation of public accommodations throughout much of the United States. The Green Book’s first edition wasn’t published for use in the Deep South. Early editions focused only on metropolitan New York, expanding later to states throughout the Northeast. Before it ceased publication in 1966, it included every state, listing hotels and motels, restaurants and service stations friendly to black travelers.
The front cover of a facsimile of the 1940 edition says it features “hotels, taverns, garages, night-clubs, restaurants, service stations, automotive, tourist-homes, roadhouses, barber shops, and beauty parlors,” all for the convenience of “Negro” travelers.
While those conveniences heartened black vacationers, there were among black travelers those groups who depended on them — entertainers, athletes and dignitaries, such as the officers of the NAACP. Work required them to crisscross the country — coast to coast, big cities to smaller ones — and they needed reliable food and lodging.
And being famous or wealthy or important didn’t save black travelers from the indignities of bigotry. Nor did being a foreigner. While black lore is full of stories about black Americans who managed to wrangle a meal in a “whites-only” restaurant or a room in a swank hotel by pretending to be African dignitaries, the fact is that high-ranking officials from African nations also faced the harsh rules of American racism.
In one embarrassing episode during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, Ghana’s finance minister, was denied service at a Howard Johnson’s in Dover, Delaware. To make amends, Eisenhower invited him for breakfast at the White House. But other foreign dignitaries of color were subjected to the same treatment — or worse. By the time of President John F. Kennedy’s administration, so many traveling by road from the United Nations to Washington had encountered racist police officers, unwelcoming hotels, and hostile restaurants that Kennedy made the State Department open a special section to assist them with travel, according to Thomas Borstelmann’s The Cold War and the Color Line.
If they made it to a larger city, of course, they could find hotels and restaurants that catered to black patrons. By the 1940s, Washington had several such establishments. So did Atlanta.
Under the Atlanta section, the 1940 edition of the Green Book listed the Roosevelt, the Hotel Shaw, the James Hotel, and the McKay, all on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, then a famed thoroughfare for black-owned businesses. It also listed the Mack on Bedford Place and the Butler Street YMCA.
But many smaller cities had no public accommodations that accepted black patrons. Instead, there were “tourist homes,” private residences whose owners offered rooms (generally for a fee) to black travelers.
In Mobile, one such “tourist home” belonged to a wealthy black physician, Dr. James Franklin, whose gracious estate received famous visitors. Franklin kept a guest book, now housed in the History Museum of Mobile, that he asked his visitors to sign. Among the entries are the signatures of classical vocalist Marian Anderson (date unknown), baseball great Jackie Robinson (1953), and NAACP officials Walter White (1953) and Roy Wilkins (1953) — all of whom were barred from the city’s premier hotels.
Not all of those “tourist homes” were as elegant as Franklin’s, though, according to baseball legend Henry Aaron. He faced overt racism in the notorious South Atlantic League, known as the Sally League, where he experienced vicious taunts on the field and third-class status off of it.
Team management found private homes for the black players, but, as Aaron recalls, “they weren’t looking very carefully. These weren’t necessarily nice homes, just private homes,” he says.
He remembers road trips through Florida where the black players were left to their own devices to find meals.
“They would take us all on the bus . ... It was always leaving at five or six o’clock in the morning ... and we’d get to a little town called Clewiston, Florida,” a small town on the shore of Lake Okeechobee in Hendry County, which was named for a Confederate officer.
“They would drive right up to a place where the white players could get out and go and eat. And then they would holler to the back, ‘You got 45 minutes to go find something to eat.’ That means we got to get out of the bus, find a cab and go across town to find something to eat and get back to the bus before they got ready to leave. … It was horrible.”
Once he made it to the “show,” despite racking up impressive statistics, Aaron found he still hadn’t earned equal status. At the Braves’ spring training camp in Bradenton, Florida, in 1954, he and the other black players were not permitted to stay in the posh Dixie Grande with their white teammates. The organization found them housing with Lulu Mae Gibson, a black school teacher, and her husband, a principal.
“I happened to be one of five black players that was housed by Mrs. Gibson,” who had a small house “on stilts” behind the residence, which is where the Gibsons housed their guests. “After you played for so long and did well, she would move you to the house in front, the big house, which is where she and her husband lived. I was graduated pretty quickly because I was having some good years.
“But I didn’t care for it too much because the house was right next to a funeral home. But I couldn’t move back because the house on stilts was so crowded,” he says.
To accommodate Aaron’s wishes, Mrs. Gibson and her husband switched bedrooms with him, so at least he didn’t have to look out the window at the funeral home.
In a few years, led by Bill White, who later became the first black president of the National League, Aaron and a few other black players protested their second-class status.
“We pitched a bitch,” Aaron says, “and told them we weren’t going to take it anymore because if we are going to play ball with our teammates, then we need to live with them.”
Aaron said the dilemma was finally resolved when Lou Perini, the principal owner of the Milwaukee Braves, moved the team’s spring training camp to West Palm Beach, Fla. In that beachside city in 1963, the black players lived and ate with their teammates as equals.
That was one year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which ended legal segregation in public accommodations, and White later took credit for helping to light the spark that ended “separate but equal” public facilities.
“In a lot of places, we integrated hotels and housing in Florida before the Civil Rights Movement,” he told writer Howard Bryant.
In 1966, after 30 years, the Green Book ceased publication. It was a moment its creator didn’t live to see but had hoped would come. In the 1948 edition, Green had written: “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. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
The ensuing years haven’t worked out quite as smoothly as Green had hoped. Black travelers continued to experience overt discrimination through the 1960s and ’70s — and less explicit bigotry even now, as recent incidents, such as the near-arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks, suggest. At least it is now difficult to imagine a black dignitary being refused a room at a five-star hotel.
Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, and Beyonce Knowles Carter can stay where they please.