Scenes from the Oscar-nominated film Green Book depict post-World War II America as a land of wide prosperity, big cars, nation-spanning highways, and easy travel. But this was the Jim Crow era, before civil rights reforms, and discriminatory laws of the time made it challenging, even dangerous, for black motorists to move around the country. They simply weren’t welcome in most restaurants, hotels or other businesses.
So, enterprising New York City mail carrier Victor Green began publishing a travel guide, listing businesses where black motorists were welcome. He called it The Negro Motorist Green Book. It was published annually, from 1936 until 1966. At first just listing restaurants, lodgings, night clubs, grocery stores and gas stations in the New York area, it gradually expanded to include as many as 10,000 sites in nearly every U.S. state and parts of Canada, Mexico and Bermuda.
“Usually segregation is thought of as a Southern thing, a Southern problem,” said Ginna Cannon, a historian with the Rutherford County, Tennessee, Chamber of Commerce. “Really it was a national issue, and one that we all need to understand and come to terms with and do better in the future.”
The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, made the Green Book unnecessary almost overnight. Candacy Taylor, an author, photographer and cultural documentarian who has been researching Green Book sites, estimates that 20 percent are still standing, and about 3 percent are still in business.
Renewed interest in The Green Book and African-American history has prompted historians across the country to try to document the remaining sites in their states.
WATCH: Green Book Mapped a Safe Route Through Era of Discrimination
Documenting relics of discriminatory era
Working with architectural historians in Nashville and Chattanooga, the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University recently surveyed Green Book sites statewide.
Ginna Cannon was part of the research team.
“Places matter,” she said. “To have a story not associated with a property, it loses some of its resonance and that is really important for us to remember as we go forward as a country,” she said.
Tiffany Momon, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Middle Tennessee State, agrees.
“So much of African-American history is about place-making,” she said. Claiming a land and a space of their own after emancipation, and if we lose these buildings we lose these stories.”
Standing on Jefferson Street in downtown Nashville, where most of the city’s Green Book listings were once located, Momon said, “Think about what that life meant that you needed to have a guidebook to tell you how to get around a country where you were supposed to be equal … to tell you which establishments were friendly to you, and just imagine what it was like to stop in a town that wasn’t in the Green Book.”
Jefferson Street remains at the heart of the city’s African-American community. But many Green Book sites were lost in 1957 when a federal highway was built through the heart of North Nashville. Others were lost to the gentrification of historically black neighborhoods. A handful have found new life. For example, a motel that once catered to black motorists is now a nail salon and day spa.
One of the few Nashville Green Book sites still in business is Jefferson Street’s R&R Liquor. Owner Kenneth Christman says he is pleased to be part of the Green Book heritage and legacy.
“R&R serves as one of the last bastions of black business in this area, particularly now that gentrification is taking place,” he said. “We (African-American business owners) as a group have not had the privilege of having as many businesses survive, so it’s of particular importance in the community.”
Persevering and surviving
Tiffany Momon says documenting Green Book sites in Tennessee and elsewhere is about more than locations on a map.
“Black businesses that through the Jim Crow era, through the era when the Green Book was published, persevered and survived and paved the way. So the preservation of these sites is important so that we can continue to tell those types of stories,” she said.
Especially when those stories come at a time when the country is again wrestling with racial discord.