In the mid-1930s, Victor Green, a black postal carrier from Harlem, began publishing “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” The series, which ran into the mid-1960s, was part travel guide and part survival guide for black people traversing segregated, Jim Crow-era America.
These annually published "Green Books" helped black people in the era navigate dangers white people in America didn't have to experience: Discrimination at rest areas, service stations, hotels and restaurants; fears of driving after dusk due to racist threats; policing and abuse of power; and harassment for simply appearing excited to drive.
On Friday, May 17, the Manship Theatre will screen writer-director Yoruba Richen’s documentary, “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom,” a Smithsonian Channel documentary exploring how black travelers in the 1930s to the 1960s navigated through safe havens and dangerous, all-white, segregated “sundown towns.”
The hour-long documentary is an emotional rollercoaster, filled with stories of opportunities and triumphs, and indignities and struggles. Through archival footage, contemporary interviews and voiceovers, Richen shows the audience the dangers faced by black people traveling through the segregated American South.
In one section, contemporary interviews with two black sisters, whose family used “Green Books,” is played over photos and clips from home movies as they share memories of trying to find a place to stay during one trip. The family’s hotel reservation was canceled by the establishment’s racism, forcing them to find shelter in a barn that smelled as if animals still lived there.
“The Green Book” also shares examples of triumph, including stories of black women — successful entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, beauty parlor owners and motel operators — who allowed activists and protesters to stay on their properties during the Civil Rights Movement. One such woman profiled in the documentary is Modjeska Simkins, a Civil Rights activist and social reformer, and the owner of Motel Simbeth in Columbia, South Carolina.
Scenes of history from “The Green Book” resonate in the present — as a black person living in 2019, I've experienced similar scenarios. The documentary discusses the juxtaposition of the number of places black people could enter, listed in Green’s travel books, and how many were unsafe spaces. Today, there’s a running list of locations that I will avoid to lessen the burden of racism and unfair prejudices.
The documentary tells of the struggles black families faced, but history has shown that through challenges comes success. I unapologetically love my blackness. "The Green Book" is a reminder that Modjeska Simkins, the two daughters who shared their story, other subjects of the documentary and many more black people are no stranger to multi-faceted challenges and successes.
Victor Green died in 1960, but his story and his life’s impact still resonates. Black history is every day.
“The Green Book: Guide to Freedom” is presented by the West Baton Rouge Museum and the River Road African American Museum.
'The Green Book: Guide to Freedom'
7:30 p.m. Friday, May 17
Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St.
(225) 344-0334; manshiptheatre.org