Back in 1936, during the most racially restrictive period of segregation in the United States, a Harlem man named Victor Hugo Green began publishing a slim, pocket-sized travel guide for black Americans.
Green, a postal worker by trade, had observed the nation’s burgeoning car culture and surmised that some black people with the means to own an automobile would want to get out on the open road and travel the nation. But given the capricious and life-threatening nature of Jim Crow laws, Green reasoned that a black motorist would need to know in advance where it was permissible for them to stop for food, fuel, or overnight accommodations.
His solution: The Negro Motorist Green Book, a state-by-state compilation of places that welcomed black travelers. In later years, the book would come to be called The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, eventually becoming best known as The Green Book — an appellation given generically to several imitations. But the best of the bunch was the original, which, as Green wrote in the introduction of his 1949 edition, aimed “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments, and to make his trips more enjoyable.”
Think such a book is a historical relic, long past its prime or usefulness? Well, Jan Miles, a New Orleans-based grant writer, begs to disagree. And judging by the sales and attention she’s garnered with The Post Racial Negro Green Book since it was first released in November of 2017, many black Americans agree.
Miles’ version, however, puts a 21st century racial spin on the old Jim Crow-era pamphlet. She doesn’t list what restaurants, gas stations, or motels are friendly to black travelers. Instead, her Green Book documents acts of cruelty by the police, instances of racial profiling by businesses, and everyday outrages by private citizens that increasingly draw anguished attention in all forms of media.
“There was so much information coming at me that I felt like I was being inundated with these stories,” Miles told me during a recent phone conversation, recalling for example the 2016 police shooting and killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, “I thought someone needs to be keeping track of it. So I appointed myself to keep this history. I wanted to create a record of what is going on.”
Miles, who has a law degree and worked several years in New York City’s publishing circles, wrote and self-published The Post-Racial Negro Green Book last year, meticulously documenting and fact-checking racist activities on a state-by-state basis between the years 2013 and 2016. Her hope is that the book will draw increased public attention and a level of sustained concern about the racist outrages that now flicker past Americans on Facebook or Twitter as rapid-fire news items, only to be replaced within days — or hours — by fresh calamities.
As if to prove her point, Miles noted the recent arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks, which quickly faded from view as news broke of police officers in Saraland, Alabama brutally manhandling a black woman in a Waffle House restaurant.
“I see this book as attempting to give people a snapshot of contemporary racism in America,” Miles said. “I didn’t write a guide book in the strictest sense, but a book that’s the reflection of the zeitgeist of today.”
Miles is not alone in echoing the sort of work that Victor Hugo Green embarked upon 80 years ago. In 2017, the NAACP issued the first two travel advisories for black Americans in the organization’s history — one cautioning travelers against going to the state of Mississippi, and another warning about “a corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias on the part of American Airlines.”
In an interview, NAACP President Derrick Johnson explained: “What we’re doing is giving people information based on what we’ve found that here may be concern for pause, no different than going to a country with some sort of advisory warning. Doesn’t say you can’t go, but traveler beware.”
Many people have wondered to this day why they stopped publishing the old book and why there isn’t something out there like it today.
Nat Gertler, publisher of About Comics in Camarillo, California, stumbled upon a news story about the original Green Books and wanted to know more. He tried to purchase one, only to discover that the remaining copies are museum-quality items worth “thousands and thousands of dollars.”
His personal quest led him to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in the New York Public Library, which houses a near-complete collection of the original pamphlets. Using the library’s digital collection as a template, Gertler has reproduced five volumes of original The Green Book, selling them online and in museum gift shops for $8.99.
“There are different ways of looking at Green Books,” Gertler told me. “I think it’s good that people are keeping track of the events as they exist – then and now. Using the Green Book concept is an excellent way of showing things that might make some people uncomfortable and is validating to others. I can see both sides on that.”
Maira Liriano, associate chief librarian in the Gene Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division at the Schomburg Center, says Miles’ book maintains the spirit, if not the precise letters, of the original Green Books.
“Those early books so clearly demonstrated how ordinary people encountered the road, if you were an African-American motorist,” Liriano said. “While it was trying to be helpful, it showed what were the obstacles and what were the dangers that we talk about under Jim Crow and Sundown towns. It just so clearly shows that African Americans needed a guide book to show them how to travel in the United States.”
Today, she says, the dangers are different, but just as real. “A lot of progress has been made, but the acts of racism lives on,” Liriano said. “In the minds of travelers, it continues and people have to adjust their behavior to avoid it. It’s just harder to document [racism]. So it’s not surprising that she wrote such a book and that people are finding it useful.”
The Schomburg Center’s collection of Green’s pamphlets dates back to the 1937 issue, which originally featured only establishments in and around Harlem. The success of that first publication inspired Green to continue printing the books in the hopes that racial segregation would end, rendering his publication useless. In the preface to his 1949 edition, Green wrote:
There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.
Liriano says she has yet to read Miles’ updated version of the Green Book, but she thinks it’s worthy of inclusion in the Schomburg Center’s collection all the same. “Many people have wondered to this day why they stopped publishing the old book and why there isn’t something out there like it today,” she said.
CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Nat Gertler was the publisher of Action Comics. He is the publisher of About Comics.