'Green Book' Helped African-Americans Travel Safely

Cover of the 'Green Book' i i

Originally priced at 75 cents, the Green Book has the phrase "Carry your Green Book with you -- You may need it" printed on its cover. hide caption

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Cover of the 'Green Book'

Originally priced at 75 cents, the Green Book has the phrase "Carry your Green Book with you -- You may need it" printed on its cover.

Read An Excerpt

The Negro Motorist Green Book was a travel guide that listed lodgings, tailors and other businesses that welcomed black patrons during Jim Crow.

The guide, which was launched in 1936 and published for nearly 30 years, found a readership because while blacks knew which businesses were friendly in their hometowns, it could be difficult to discern which restaurants, beauty shops and night clubs were off-limits or hostile when they were on the road.

Civil rights leader Julian Bond tells NPR's Neal Conan that he remembers his family using the Green Book "to travel in the South, to find out where we could stop to eat, where we could spend the night in a hotel or in somebody's home."

Bond, who served as chairman of the NAACP for 11 years, says that though the cover was green, that's not where the book got its name.

"It's actually named after the man who started the Green Book, whose name was Green," he says.

Bond explains that Green was a postal worker "who used his contacts in the postal workers union to find out where black people could stay" around the U.S.

At its height, Bond says, the book covered all 50 states, as well as a few countries.

"It didn't matter where you went — Jim Crow was everywhere then," he says, "and black travelers needed this badly."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In part, the Jim Crow era could be defined by the places African-Americans could go and the places they couldn't. In the towns and cities where they lived, of course, blacks knew where they were welcome. On the road, though, who knew which restaurants and hotels, beauty shops and night clubs would slam doors in their faces?

In 1936, a guide was published, "The Negro Motorist Green Book." It was updated every year over three decades. Printed on its cover were the words: Carry your "Green Book" with you. You may need it.

Today, we'll talk with civil rights leader Julian Bond about his memories of the "Green Book." We want to hear from you, too. What role did the "Green Book" play in your family? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Julian Bond served as chairman of the NAACP for over 20 years. He joins us now from the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C., where a play called "The Green Book" opens tonight for one night only. Julian Bond, nice to have you with us today.

Mr. JULIAN BOND (Former Chairman, NAACP): Good to have me with you. I was chairman of the NAACP for 11 years.

CONAN: Eleven years. I apologize for that. And...

Mr. BOND: It's okay.

CONAN: ...former - founding member of SNCC, as well. In the introduction - it's called the "Green Book," but, really, I guess sort of a combination pamphlet might be closer to it.

Mr. BOND: Well, when I - my family had a "Green Book" when I was young, and used it to travel in the South to find out where we could stop to eat, where we could spend the night in a hotel or somebody's home. And I always thought it was called the "Green Book" because it was green. But it's actually named after the man who started the "Green Book" whose name was Green.

CONAN: And do you remember driving in the car and your parents opening the...

Mr. BOND: I don't remember my parents thumbing through it, no...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOND: ...and saying: Oh, we'll stop here. But I do remember that they had it, and they used it.

CONAN: Who was Mr. Green?

Mr. BOND: He was a postal worker, and he used his contacts in the Postal Workers Union to set up - to find out where black people could stay in various spots around the United States. And the "Green Book," at its height, covered all 50 of the states, as well as two - there was Barbados and I think someplace else. So, you know, it didn't matter where you went, Jim Crow was everywhere then, and black travelers needed this badly.

CONAN: That's an important point. Sometimes we think of it primarily in the South, but that's not the case.

Mr. BOND: No, no, no. You know, segregated - segregation reached everywhere in the United States, and even though the laws didn't require it, it was practiced almost everywhere.

CONAN: And do you know how he got the information on his updates? He publish revisions every year.

Mr. BOND: I think from his extensive contacts. Remember, he was part of the Postal Workers Union, and there are postal workers everywhere. And he used them as guides to tell him: Well, here's a good place here, a good place there. And, of course, as you travel, people picked up things and told him things.

CONAN: The "Green Book" reads, in part, in the introduction: It has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and make his trips more enjoyable. I guess Mr. Green was also a master of understatement.

Mr. BOND: Oh, surely, he was. He's described by people who knew him as an elegant man and the kind of person, when he walked down the street, people would say: Oh, my goodness. Look at him. I'm playing him tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You're playing him tonight.

Mr. BOND: In this reading, yes, I am.

CONAN: And what - can you tell us a little bit about your part?

Mr. BOND: Well, the play opens with me on the telephone with Langston Hughes. I'm in New York, where Victor - where Green was, and Langston Hughes is coming to - oh, no, I'm sorry. I'm in - yeah, I'm in New York, and Langston Hughes is coming to Washington, but he has left his "Green Book" at home in New York. So he has to call Mr. Green to find out places in Washington where he can stay. And even though he has many friends in Washington, they won't take him because he's coming to - he's been subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

And so the play opens with me on the phone talking to Langston Hughes about the House Un-American Activities Committee and about the blurb that Langston Hughes has written to go in the front of the "Green Book" to explain why such a book exists.

CONAN: We're talking with Julian Bond, famous civil rights activist and an actor - tonight. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org if you have memories of "The Green Book." What role did it play in your family?

Ray is on the line, calling from Kansas City.

Dr. RAY DOSWELL (Chief Curator, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.): Hello, and hello to Mr. Bond, as well.

Mr. BOND: Hello.

Dr. DOSWELL: This is Ray Doswell from Kansas City at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Mr. BOND: Sure.

Dr. DOSWELL: We were very pleased to host Mr. Bond a few weeks ago during the NAACP convention, and glad to have you on the...

Mr. BOND: Well, you have - don't you have a book on display there?

Dr. DOSWELL: We don't have a book on display, but we do have a mimeographed copy of the book in the archives that belonged to a former Negro League great Buck O'Neil.

Mr. BOND: Oh, wow.

Dr. DOSWELL: He had the book, and - and this version is from the later '50s, early '60s. But I can imagine how he would use it. First of all, for the Negro League players and for jazz musicians who obviously couldn't stay at the same hotels as white patrons could or even some of the places where the jazz musicians could perform but couldn't stay there, the book was quite useful. You know, for baseball players who were traveling to - if you travel to a large -like Kansas City's St. Louis, you knew where the black communities were where you could go and stay. But in between - maybe Muskogee, Oklahoma or those places - you didn't know where you could go. So the book was very valuable.

And then also, for someone like Mr. O'Neil, who, after the Negro Leagues became a scout in Major League baseball, he was one of the few scouts that also traveled to the black colleges in the South and different places. So he could use the book on his way in looking for black athletes to recruit for the Major Leagues by this time. And the book would have been quite useful for him when he had it.

CONAN: It's interesting. As I look through a copy that was printed on the Internet - and, yes, you expect restaurants and hotels and that sort of thing. But beauty shops, barbershops, bars, night clubs, roadside inns, that sort of thing - it was quite extensive.

Mr. BOND: Oh, sure. You think about the things that most travelers take for granted, or most people today take for granted. If go to New York City and want a hair cut, it's pretty easy for me to find a place where that can happen, but it wasn't easy then. White barbers would not cut black peoples' hair. White beauty parlors would not take black women as customers - hotels and so on, down the line. You needed the "Green Book" to tell you where you can go without having doors slammed in your face.

CONAN: Ray, have you looked at a copy of the "Green Book" that you've mimeoed from Buck O'Neil? I mean, did it extend down to gas stations, that sort of thing?

Dr. DOSWELL: It did. And the folks who posted where quite extensive and, of course, there was advertisement in the book. So not just a listing, but there were ads that these black companies can buy, showing, obviously, the commerce and opportunities they had to advertise their own businesses and direct marketing to these customers, as well. So photo ads - and then, occasionally, you have messages from politicians, as well, from the different communities, that they will buy ads in this book. So the Green publishing company was very entrepreneurial in that way, and then, obviously, they helped to produce the book. And it was just a valuable resource.

Mr. BOND: Interestingly, Green got the ideas of this from a Jewish publication printed to tell Jews where they could be welcome when they traveled. And we tend to think of that kind of discrimination as being as prevalent as it obviously was. But it was prevalent enough to give this idea to Green, and he said, well, you know, black people have even more problems, because Jews, if they're white, can blend into the general population. They don't carry their religion on their face the way black people carry their race.

CONAN: Ray, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

Dr. DOSWELL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And if you've not been to the Negro Baseball Museum in Kansas City, you should definitely...

Mr. BOND: Indeed.

CONAN: ...go out there. Lisa's is on the line, Lisa calling us from New York.

LISA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Lisa. Go ahead, please.

LISA: Well, I was thinking that this might be a useful tool still today, in 2010, because in some parts of the country, there are places where black people are still not - dare not go - and maybe not in terms of hotels or restaurants, but places where it's just not safe to be.

Mr. BOND: Also, we ought to remember that this period is not that long ago. We're talking 45 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and five were passed. And even today, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Kentucky is now raising questions about whether the 1964 act was property signed, was properly passed.

LISA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BOND: If his ideas take sway, we'll go back to the day when every black person in the country will need a "Green Book" just to get around.

CONAN: We have to remember that until those acts were passed, it was perfectly legal for private businesses to discriminate.

Mr. BOND: Surely.

CONAN: Lisa, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

LISA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Andre, Andre with us from Destin, Florida.

ANDRE (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

ANDRE: Really, it's - thanks for having your show. It's been a great aid to, you know, to knowledge.

CONAN: Thank you.

ANDRE: As well, Dr. Barnes(ph), thank you.

Mr. BOND: Thank you. I have a condo in Destin.

ANDRE: Well, you know, I'm a - well, I'm getting on in my years. But back in the '50s, my father, you know, he was in the military. And, you know, I was born in Pennsylvania. But during our travels, as being a black enlisted man, we did travel from Pennsylvania to Detroit back in '59, before he was stationed in Japan. And then later on, when we came back from Japan in the early '60s, we went from California to San Antonio. And we traveled by car in - you know, at -to those locations.

CONAN: And that was all before the interstate.

ANDRE: Well, it was just - well, they were just being made then. It was just -they were freshly new. But, you know, I have never heard of that, you know, happening. Myself, I don't really remember. I was about, you know, five, you know, six, seven years old at that time. But during those travels, I do know that, you know, we, of course, had to, you know, being on the road, we had to come to places to eat, you know, because of a couple of day, you know, travel, particularly from California to Texas.

And I was wondering if you had heard of any of the "Green Books" being, you know, issued to military personnel, black, you know, military...

Mr. BOND: No, but it's interesting you say that, because in this play that's being previewed in the reading tonight, one of the characters is a military man who, because of complications not his fault, he ends up in a fight with white people at a gas station where he was told to go, where - but - and the gas station tries to charge him twice as much as the fee normally would be, because they made a deal with a "Green Book" salesman to honor black peoples as customers, but charge them twice as much.

Of course, the deal is rejected by the "Green Book" owner and by the salesman himself when he finds out what a terrible mistake he's made. And someone says you'd think the military would have issued "Green Books" to black military people because of the travel they had to do and the indignities they had to face. It would have been a good idea, but I don't think Uncle Sam was thinking that way then.

CONAN: Well, it was interesting, you remember comments from people who were in the military in those days, African-Americans, saying, of course they were -establishments in Japan and Germany were far more open to them than many places in the United States.

Mr. BOND: Indeed so.

ANDRE: Oh, yeah. You know, being - even being dependent, I cherish my time overseas because, you know, being a child, for one, you know, and exploring, you know, the areas that I was at, you know, I didn't perceive even -particularly overseas, even as a dependent, you know, of the prejudices that happened here in the United States. And quite truthfully, when I did get back finally from Okinawa, Japan, in the later '60s - we had been over in the, you know, Japan area twice.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ANDRE: And, you know, I was kind of puzzled: What's up with the United States and what's wrong with the people? Because overseas, in the military, you know, we didn't perceive - particularly as a child - the prejudices that was happening, you know, particularly between children over here.

CONAN: Andre, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ANDRE: All right. You all do have a great evening.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Julian Bond, who appears one night, one night only at the Lincoln Theater tonight, in a role in a new play about "The Green Book." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And we also have to ask you this week about some news that came out, alleging that a well-known civil rights photographer, Ernest Withers, was an informant for the FBI - this, according to documents published in The Commercial Appeal in Memphis that were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act.

Mr. BOND: You know, it's really hard to make any sense of this. First, I can't understand, for the period involved - I think '68 to '70-something - what information he would be privy to that he would share with the FBI that would be important to them.

When I first heard about this, of course I was horrified. I spent my younger years in a political culture that thought informers were the lowest form of life, and to hear that this man who is so respected for his photography, and everybody listening to this radio show has seen his pictures somewhere or the other, pictures of Dr. King. You've seen that iconic picture of Dr. King sitting on a bus in Montgomery next to a white man...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BOND: ...telling you that the bus is integrated now, Ernest Withers took that picture. So he was so well-known and so honored. This is a blot on his reputation if true. And I have no doubt it's true. We have no idea what his motivation might have been. He had eight children. Probably, life was tough. I'm sure his photography didn't bring in the money that his prints bring today. But it was a shocking story to read.

CONAN: You said you considered informers the lowest form of life. There were more than a few, and you had to look out.

Mr. BOND: Oh, there were many, many more, and we now, you know, know that people we wouldn't dream were doing this were doing it all along. And they were within all these organizations. It's - not to be surprised that the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, even the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where I worked, all of these organizations had their share of people who are willing to sell their souls and tell on their fellows and their colleagues to report to people what was being done.

And journalists did this too, you know. This profession's not exempt from that. So it was - it's not a happy time in our life when the FBI preyed upon citizens and, you know, peeked in their homes and listened to their telephone calls. This is not a happy time in American life.

CONAN: I know you are aware of Ernest Withers. Did you know him?

Mr. BOND: Oh, sure. I knew him. I can't say we were best friends, but I knew him and I'm sorry I didn't buy some of his portraits when they were more available than they are now. That - you can still buy them, but they're - the costs have gone up so much because they're so valued. You know, there's a group of people in the country who are photography collectors, and an Ernest Withers print is worth a great deal of money.

CONAN: Julian Bond, we thank you for your time today. Break a leg.

Mr. BOND: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Julian Bond joined us from the Lincoln Theater here in Washington, where a play called "The Green Book" gets a reading tonight, including a performance by Julian Bond.

Tomorrow, five months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, we'll be at the National Geographic for a look at the state of the Gulf after the spill. Join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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