He was right. There were about a dozen other black travel guides, but the Green Book was in print for the longest period of time and had the widest readership. Victor Hugo Green, a man with a seventh-grade education, published the first Green Book, in Harlem in 1936, and he worked on it until his death in 1960. His wife, Alma, took up the mantle and kept the Green Book going until 1962. In 1965, Langley Waller, an engraver and former writer for Harlem's newspaper the New York Amsterdam News, published the last two editions of the Green Book, the 1963-64 and 1966-67 editions. (There was no 1965 edition.). Although these are distinctly different in design, scope, and tone from the original, what never wavered throughout the life of the Green Book was the courage and security it afforded black people, so they could pack up their cars and go.
Listings in the Green Book blanketed the entire United States, and later editions included Canada, the Virgin Islands, Europe, and Africa. The guide was distributed by mail order, sold by black-owned businesses, and made available through a savvy media campaign led by Esso gas stations (which operate as ExxonMobil today). It was successful due to word of mouth but also as a result of an ambitious grassroots operation of a national network of mailmen led by the guide's creator, and fellow postal worker, Victor Hugo Green. This multipronged marketing strategy was so effective that by 1962, the Green Book had a circulation of nearly two million.
The Green Book was published during a time when car travel symbolized freedom in America, but since racial segregation was in full force throughout the country, the open road wasn't open to all. When black motorists picked up a copy of the Green Book, they were greeted by the words "Just What You Have Been Looking For!! NOW WE CAN TRAVEL WITHOUT EMBARRASSMENT." The Green Book was called the AAA guide for black people, but it was so much more. The businesses listed in it were critical sources of refuge along lonely stretches of America's perilously empty roads. To stay safe, black folks never left home without a plan, props, a cover story, and a copy of the Green Book.
Given the violence that black travelers encountered on the road, the Green Book was an ingenious solution to a horrific problem. It represented the fundamental optimism of a race of people facing tyranny and terrorism. When I first saw it, I was struck that something so simple, and so practical, could be so powerful. Not only did it show black travelers where they could go, but it was also a compelling marketing tool that supported black-owned businesses and celebrated black self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship.
In the early 1930s, right before the Green Book was first published, black Americans had banded together to create the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign. Once they understood the impact of the reach of their collective economic power, the campaign galvanized black communities to boycott businesses that wouldn't hire them. So when the Green Book came along, it became the perfect vehicle to carry this effort forward because it was practically a Yellow Pages of black-owned businesses.
By 1930, blacks in the United States owned approximately 70,000 small businesses, and over the Green Book's nearly thirty-year reign, it listed more than 9,500 of these, including hotels, restaurants, gas stations, department stores, tailors, nightclubs, drugstores, hair salons, haberdashers, sanitariums, funeral homes, real estate offices, and even a dude ranch. More than 80 percent of the listings were clustered in traditional African American neighborhoods such as Harlem, South Central Los Angeles, and Bronzeville in Chicago. The majority were black-owned, but there were also black-friendly white-owned establishments, such as Macy's, Brooks Brothers, the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, and even Disneyland.
Although the Green Book provided safe accommodation for black travelers, this solved only half the problem. Getting there could be a dangerous, life-threatening proposition. Not only did black motorists navigate a country with thousands of "sundown towns," all-white communities that banned black people from entering the city limits after dark, but they also couldn't eat, sleep, or buy gasoline at many white-owned businesses. Even Coca-Cola vending machines had white customers only printed on them. To avoid the humiliation of being denied basic services, many black motorists were forced to travel with ice coolers, bedding, portable toilets, and full gas cans. Herbert Sulaiman, of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, remembers as a child smelling the odor of gasoline coming from the trunk. "You don't forget smells," he said.
Despite the dangers, black motorists hit the road anyway, venturing out on the desolate two-lane highways that connected urban and rural America. It wasn't until I started this project that I understood why each time I left for the airport after visiting my parents in Ohio, Ron would try to load me up with food for the trip. I'd say, "No, thanks. I can just pick something up at the airport." Until I started writing this book, I hadn't realized what a privileged statement that was. Black folks of Ron's generation never left on a trip without taking food because there was no guarantee they would be served anywhere. Ron knew, intellectually, that times had changed, but his survival instincts had never left him.