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Segregation, Racism, and An Inventive Postal Worker: The Rise Of The Real-Life “Green Book”

Feb 27, 2019

Forget the movie, which won the 2019 Oscar for Best Picture despite criticism for being overly simplistic and “whitewashed”—the real-life “Green Book” was a widely-distributed paperback pamphlet that listed tens of thousands of businesses that would serve African Americans in pre-Civil Rights Act America. In this interview, we speak with Candacy Taylor, a Bay Area-based cultural documentarian putting together a book and Smithsonian Museum exhibit based on the Green Book.

The first few editions of the Negro Motorist Green Book started pretty small, but by the 1960s they contained over 100 pages of hotels, restaurants, beauty parlors and auto garages across the U.S.

“A lot of people say the Green Book was like a AAA for black people, but it was so much more because it had drug stores and sanitariums and doctors and taxi service and anything you might need on the road,” Taylor says. “It was almost like a Yellow Pages of black businesses, so you knew where you would be welcome. It was really indicative to understanding how many parts of society black people were shut out of.”

Combing through the three decades the Green Book was published, Taylor has catalogued close to 10,000 businesses from across the country. She says the publisher, a black New Yorker named Victor Hugo Green, used some inventive ways to find these businesses.

“It was everything from word of mouth, people saying ‘I know that I stayed here and it was fine, or treated me well,’” she says. “In a lot of the earlier editions in the Green Book, the majority of the businesses listed were black owned. So that was a first indicator: If you're a black owned business, you're going to serve black people. But Victor Green was a postal worker. There was a black postal workers' union alliance that Victor Green knew very well, and so he enlisted them. It was a really genius idea, because they were throughout the country. So he would tell them on their beat - because again, it was very segregated, most of the black postal workers served black communities - so he would have them bring Green Books and approach business owners with them. It was a win-win because the businesses could actually increase their business through tourism, and this was also during the second wave of the Great Migration. So there were during that second wave of the Great Migration, there was about a million and a half people leaving the South, fleeing racial terror and heading north. So it helped those black people that were in the south, and it helped middle class black people who just wanted to have a vacation like anybody else.”

The book’s final edition was published in 1967. As more civil rights laws were passed, the Green Book became less necessary—plus Victor Green himself passed away in 1960. But Taylor says the story is much more nuanced than that.

"Integration was a double edged sword. In some ways it was what black people really were fighting for, and what really a lot of Americans were fighting for, black and white,” Taylor says. “And yet, it decimated these black-owned businesses because black people wanted to see what they had been shut out of and spent their dollars elsewhere. Black people could conceivably go to a white owned drugstore and get their prescription filled. That was the hope, that wasn't always the reality. Even after 1964, the Civil Rights Act, things didn't change all that drastically. The Green Book ran until 1967, and in the last two editions, there's a huge article saying 'know your rights. These are your rights. These are the states that are supposed to serve you and here's the recourse of what you can do if you're not served or treated fairly.' So black people still had to fight to be treated as humans and as equals.”

This interview follows an in-depth feature on the Green Book and the history of African Americans in the San Joaquin Valley.