For decades, to stay safe on the road, Black Americans looked to “The Negro Motorist Green Book.”
Published from 1936-1967, the “Green Book” was a guide to businesses that enabled Black vacationers to make their journey a pleasure instead of a nightmare during the Jim Crow era.
A traveling Smithsonian Museum exhibit now at the Capitol Park Museum in downtown Baton Rouge explores the impact of the "Green Book" and the reasons it was needed.
“It’s a very interesting and nuanced show, and it talks about … travel as freedom and an American birthright and what it represents for everyone,” said Rodneyna Hart, Capitol Park Museum director. “It’s something that resonates with a lot of people, and people are learning a lot more about some downtowns and some of the practical considerations that were needed to traverse the United States as a person of color.”
As cars rolled off the assembly line in the 20th century, people took to the road. But many gas stations, restaurants, motels and entertainment venues served only Whites. Some communities went so far as to declare themselves “sundown towns,” threatening violence against any non-Whites found there after dark.
“Family would tell me different stories that they would have to endure,” said Hart.
Black families who decided to travel would bring their own food, take outdoor bathroom breaks in secluded spots and hope their car didn’t break down in unfriendly territory.
There were places for Black families to go, but, except for word-of-mouth, they didn’t know where they were.
Victor Hugo Green told them.
A Black mail carrier in New York City, Green used his connections in the Post Office, along with information gathered by his traveling musician brother-in-law, to compile lists of businesses that were Black-owned or welcomed Black patronage. Readers were encouraged to send in recommendations.
“The Green Book” (later named "The Negro Travelers' Green Book") wasn't the only such guide, but it was the most popular and received sponsorships from businesses, the most significant of which might have been Standard Oil, whose Esso (now ExxonMobil) stations sold the “Green Book.” Many Esso stations were Black-owned.
ExxonMobil is a national sponsor of the exhibit, and the Exxon Baton Rouge operations have helped Capitol Park Museum advertise its stay here, Hart said.
The exhibit reveals an entire world of Black businesses, from restaurants and department stores to beaches and dude ranches, that were off the radar of other races.
Artifacts, from business signs and postcards to historic footage and images, are part of the exhibit, along with firsthand accounts from Black travelers.
Baton Rouge businesses, including the Hotel Lincoln and the Apex Club cocktail lounge, were part of the guide, Hart said.
Racial progress, however, brought about the demise of “The Green Book.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discriminatory practices, the very reason the guide existed. The "Green Book" ceased publication after 1967.
Ironically, many of the businesses listed in the guide suffered as a result. Less than 10 years after the Civil Rights Act, at least half of the Black-owned businesses listed in “The Green Book” had closed.
“There was, of course, more competition, but there were larger structures that already had been established, and White businesses were getting that support, and they could have lower prices because they had the economy of scale,” Hart said. “A lot of systemic issues that are still prominent really depressed a lot of the institutions.”
The exhibit at the Capitol Park Museum runs through Nov. 14.
'The Negro Motorist Green Book' exhibit
WHERE: Capitol Park Museum, 660 N. Fourth St., Baton Rouge
HOURS: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Through Nov. 14
ADMISSION: $7 adults; $6 students, senior citizens, active military; free for children 6 and younger. Discounts for groups.