The Oscar for Best Picture, with admirable performances by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, has placed the movie Green Book and the subject of the title in tentative, sometimes heated, discussions in the classroom, on the job, and throughout our community. This is particularly fortunate, as the movie, though entertaining, gives a mere passing reference to Victor Green’s cultural travel guide for African-Americans traveling in the South between the late 1930s and 1960s before Civil Rights laws were established, giving at least fundamental protection against, harassment, violence, and even murder, due to race.
Letter carrier Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, originally a 16-page pamphlet then a 100-page listing of safe accommodations, eateries, gas stations, and other necessities of travel became an indispensable part of any road trip throughout the South.
I wondered how I, a well-read, culturally astute individual with an eye for little known facts, had never heard of the travel guide until a few years ago when I ran across an inch-long magazine article in a listing of African-American History month information. Two years later, I saw an early promotion for the movie-merely the title written across a car—that was so brief if I’d blinked I would have missed it.
I wondered if the Green Book itself included listings of welcome accommodations for African-Americans in the North, and even in New Jersey. It did indeed.
Above the Mason Dixon line, a Black family traveling by car may not be murdered (although there are documented cases of lynching in the North) for wandering into a whites-only area, they could be flat out refused service at a diner or barred from a hotel or store. Even if, like me, you have only experienced this vicariously through PBS documentaries, the feeling is nevertheless visceral and unsettling even in the 21st century.
Even international celebrity could not shelter an individual from this disgraceful behavior. Internationally renowned vocalist Marion Anderson herself was barred from staying at the Nassau Inn (yes, the same establishment that you pass by on your way to class at Princeton University) in a937. This prompted Noble Prize winner and civil rights advocate Albert Einstein to open his home to Anderson where she stayed thereafter as a guest any time she was in the Princeton area.
In the 1940s, Newark’s Afro-American Club and tavern was listed in the Green Book, along with the nightclub section of The Elks’ Club in Hackensack, New Jersey in the 1950s (The Times of Trenton, Sun. Feb. 24, 2019, pp A1 and A7. The Times of Trenton, “Green Book…”, Dec, 16, 2018, p D5).
The next time you’re in downtown Trenton, walk by Spring Street, which by 1930 had become the center of Trenton’s African-American middle class community. Predominantly identified as “mulatto” or “colored”, residents below Willow and Prospect Streets frequented a white table cloth restaurant, a barber shop, and two tourist homes. Residents rarely had to venture outside of the neighborhood to shop or be entertained. Ask a local octogenarian if she remembers how it felt to live next door to her own teacher and other local professionals. (Three Centuries of African-American History in Trenton: A Preliminary Inventory of Historic Sites, Jennifer B. Leyres, Trenton Historical Society. 2011).
(The article’s featured image is from IndieWire: https://www.indiewire.com/2018/12/green-book-controversy-shirley-family-lies-mahershala-ali-apology-1202028687/)