Traveling around the nation is something that many of us take for granted; we choose a place we want to visit, hop in the car and take off—never considering that we might not make it safely to our destination. For many years, however, people of color were not welcome in certain parts of the country, and traveling away from home was a risky endeavor. This resulted in the creation of The Negro Motorist Green Book, which provided information on restaurants, gas stations, department stores, and other businesses that welcomed Black travelers.
This summer, the History Center is partnering with the Smithsonian Institution and award-winning author Candacy Taylor to present The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition, which opens May 13, 2023. The exhibit will provide an immersive look at the reality of travel for African Americans in mid-century America and how the annual guide served as an indispensable resource for the nation’s rising Black middle class.
“Black people were not necessarily free to move about; they were always suspect,” explained Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center. “They had to develop strategies to safely move about the country.
“We are looking at a very segregated society, and a definite racial hierarchy existed that was supported not only by law and custom, but by everyday people,” he added. “In a sense, Black people were kept in places where white people wanted them to be. And some of those issues still exist today.”
According to Black, traveling to cities down south, for example, could be dangerous, which is one of the reasons that the Green Book was created.
“You may have had people who had migrated north to Pittsburgh in the 1930s and wanted to go back to Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia or the Carolinas to visit family. But it was a very calculated thing to do,” he said. “These people were going back to environments that had Jim Crow laws and had customs that did not fit with their desire to be free and to express themselves as Americans.”
Started in 1936 by Harlem postman Victor Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book was published and distributed nationwide until 1967, providing African American travelers with critical, life-saving information and sanctuary in an era of “sundown towns”—communities that explicitly prohibited African Americans from staying overnight.
“Black people traveling through sundown towns were risking their lives,” said Black, noting that while this term is usually associated with small, southern, rural towns, these towns also existed in the north and some still exist to this day. “These types of things illustrate the fragility of Black freedom in this country that we often overlook. In a very quiet, nonconfrontational way, the Green Book provided a resource to keep people safe and comfortable as they traveled about the country.”
The exhibition will include artifacts from business signs and postcards to historic footage, archival images, and firsthand accounts to convey not only the apprehension felt by Black travelers, but also the resilience, innovation and elegance of people choosing to live a full American existence. It will bring focus to a vibrant parallel world of African American businesses, the rise of the Black leisure class in the United States and the important role the Green Book played in facilitating the second wave of the Great Migration.
“One of the outcomes of the Green Book is that it wound up being a business directory as much as a travel guide,” said Black, noting that businesses that did not discriminate—both Black- and white-owned—would pay to be listed. “Historically, the Green Book holds a lot of value because you can find information on businesses in Black communities all across the country that you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. That was one of the positive outcomes of it.”
The Green Book listed not only hotels, but also places that provided services, such as barber and beauty shops, garages for car repair, social service agencies, restaurants, nightclubs, and more. “It listed everything that a traveler would need in order not to have to deal with the hassles of racism,” said Black.
The exhibit will also explore Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania businesses highlighted within the guide. Pittsburgh was listed in the very first Green Book published in 1936, and the number of listings grew over the years.
“We interviewed a Pittsburgh WWII veteran who was drafted into the Army and had to report to an Army base down south,” said Black. “He’d never been down south so he went to a Black travel agency in Pittsburgh, and they gave him a copy of the Green Book, so he knew where he could or could not go.
“At that time, Black WWII military personnel were advised never to leave base; if they had R-n-R, they were told not to travel away from the base in rural southern areas. A lot of these bases were named after Confederate soldiers and were not a welcoming place, regardless of the uniform.”
Pittsburgh was also an important link between East and West, and listings in the Green Book helped travelers as they made the transition.
“Even before the Green Book came out, Pittsburgh’s Hill District was known as the crossroads to the world,” said Black. “Black entertainers traveling to Chicago from New York, Boston and Philadelphia had to travel through Pittsburgh, and it was a very important city as people moved from East to West. So Pittsburgh plays prominently in the Green Book story.”
The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition will run through August 13, 2023. For more information, visit https://www.heinzhistorycenter.org.