When the car boom of the 1930s swept America, the affordability of cars and the flourishing auto industry built a stable middle class looking forward to traveling. But for Black Americans, the excitement of travel came with the threat of discrimination, humiliation, and violence in Jim Crow era America.

In their own words, Harlem couple Victor H. Green and Alma Duke Green “wanted to do something about this.”

So in 1936, they began printing “The Negro Traveler’s Green Book” (aka the Green Book), an annual publication empowering African Americans to travel safely, joyfully, and with dignity. Alma Green continued editing the books until 1966. With a circulation of 15,000 annually, the Green Book had grown to be one of the most successful Black travel guides of all time.

Currently, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—one of The New York Public Library’s research centers—holds the largest collection of Green Books, including the 1937 edition, which focused on Metropolitan New York. Two editions—1937 and 1959—are part of the over 250 items that will be on display as part of the Library’s permanent Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures.

Photo by NYPL
Photo by NYPL

The books helped Black Americans safely navigate the country at a time many states had Jim Crow laws that allowed discrimination in private businesses and public spaces. The Green Books cataloged quality restaurants, gas stations, attractions, and hotels that welcomed Black patrons. If a town had no hotels open to Black guests, the books suggested “tourist homes” where homeowners accepted guests. The books even expanded to Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, and Africa in later editions.

“The Green Books never listed where not to go. So you have to ask yourself about the places that are not in them. Sometimes entire towns are omitted,” said Maira Liriano, Associate Chief Librarian at the Schomburg Center of Research in Black Culture, one of The New York Public Library’s research centers. “[The Greens] wanted to promote travel for pleasure and advertise Black businesses, but it was also a measure the Black community took to protect their own lives.”

“New York State didn’t have Jim Crow laws – but there was segregation in practice. As an African American, you couldn’t legally be turned away at a business, but that doesn’t mean you always felt welcomed or safe,” said Liriano.

Victor Green died in 1960, four years before the Civil Rights Act would outlaw discrimination based on race – accomplishing the goal the Greens penned in the Green Books’ first introduction: “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 rights and privileges in the United States.”

This story is part of our partnership with the NYPL around the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, which showcases items spanning 4,000 years from the Library's research collections. The objects and the stories behind them are meant to inspire, spark curiosity, and encourage deeper thinking about our history and world—we'll be publishing one NYC-related object a day throughout September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures.

The Treasures exhibition opens Friday, September 24th, 2021 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Free timed tickets are now available here.