The Green Book: Celebrating 'The Bible of Black Travel' : Code Switch A family vacation was like planning a military campaign. In the Jim Crow era, this guide book was essential for traveling safely.
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The Green Book: Celebrating 'The Bible of Black Travel'

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The Green Book: Celebrating 'The Bible of Black Travel'

The Green Book: Celebrating 'The Bible of Black Travel'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Green Book" is a new movie that chronicles a prominent black musician and his white driver's tour through the Deep South in 1962. The title comes from a popular and essential guide that told African-American travelers where they could eat and sleep in the Jim Crow era. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team reports on an effort to preserve the real "Green Book's" mostly hidden history.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: We take the nation's highways for granted now, but it wasn't all that long ago that long-distance travel was done on two-lane roads. For black travelers, a lot of those roads went through lonely, hostile territory. So many people relied on a guide called "The Negro Motorist Green Book." Antonio Reliford grew up in New Jersey and remembers the meticulous preparation it took to get from his home in Newark to his relatives in tiny Colquitt, Ga. It was like mapping a military campaign.

ANTONIO RELIFORD: Everything was planned out.

BATES: His family would leave with other family members in a multicar caravan - safety in numbers - and use "The Green Book" to find safe places to stop on their 18-hour drive south. The book listed black-owned hotels, restaurants, even gas stations with bathrooms for black patrons.

RELIFORD: Usually, it was typically by the side of the road there because, again, there was a problem finding facilities that would allow us and then the ones that would allow us, actually, you had to pay a token to get in.

BATES: Oh, and the gas pumps in many Southern towns - those were segregated, too.

RELIFORD: There were lines where you knew which gas it was. It would actually say colored gas.

BATES: "The Negro Motorist Green Book" was created in 1936 by postal worker Victor H. Green. Green started in Harlem where he lived and eventually included recommendations for every state in the country. The book highlighted hotels and rooms in private homes - basically the precursor to Airbnb - restaurants and services that were all black-owned or black-friendly. It was recognized as an important resource by the United States Travel Bureau, part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

BRENT LEGGS: This was kind of the 20th-century version of the Underground Railroad.

BATES: That's Brent Leggs. He directs the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The fund is working to highlight the importance of "The Green Book" during segregation.

LEGGS: This annual travel guide was the bible of black travel.

BATES: Jim Crow wasn't swayed by how famous or how rich you were. You could be an internationally acclaimed artist, but if you were black...

LEGGS: You could not have accommodations at a white-owned motel. You couldn't eat in a white-owned restaurant.

BATES: The "Green Book" movie shows what happens when celebrated pianist Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, tries to join his driver, played by Viggo Mortensen, for dinner and is stopped at the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GREEN BOOK")

MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Dr. Don Shirley) This gentleman says that I'm not permitted to eat here.

VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Tony Lip) No, you don't understand. He's playing tonight. He's the main event.

BATES: No matter, no service. Right now, says Brent Leggs, the National Trust is celebrating the role of Route 66 as a beloved national road. And because "The Green Book" had a few motels along the route, there's another purpose.

LEGGS: It's also to uncover this hidden story related to "Green Book" sites from Chicago all the way to LA. And one such place that still stands today is the Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles.

BATES: In a documentary about the Dunbar's history, Mrs. Bessie Robinson recalls why the elegant hotel was a necessity.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

BESSIE ROBINSON: There weren't very many accommodations for blacks at the time in the way of hotels.

BATES: So artists like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Count Basie not only played the Dunbar, they stayed there, too. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the gradual erosion of segregation, most of the businesses in "The Green Book" quietly disappeared. About 3 percent remained physically. Brent Leggs hopes this new movie will increase interest in them.

LEGGS: As a preservationist, it's exciting because we can leverage this movie and its attention to celebrate the actual physical sites related to "The Green Book."

BATES: Celebrate and remember. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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