By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Editor In Chief
From 1916 through 1970, 6 million Black Americans left their rural roots in the Jim Crow South to seek opportunities in cities across the country. Known as the Great Black Migration, it had a profound effect on the United States and the way Black Americans navigated a nation pock-marked with at least 10,000 “Sundown Towns” as late as the 1960s forbidding Blacks to be in town after sunset. Those who failed to be gone by dark were too often at the mercy of brutal local police or Klansmen.
Some Black motorists whose cars broke down were lynched, said Candacy Taylor, curator of the Green Book travelling exhibition created by the Smithsonian Institution. The multimedia exhibit, “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” can be experienced at California Museum in partnership with the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum through March 2nd. Tickets can be booked here.
Because travel was so unsafe, many elderly Black people refused to leave their homes, while others would only travel to where they had relatives – often a journey of several thousand miles back to Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas.
By the 1930s and 40s, many Black families had earned enough in northern cities to buy cars – a symbol of American success. Given how unsafe it was to travel – Illinois alone had 400 Sundown counties that Blacks driving to and from Chicago had to pass through – in 1936 Victor Hugo Green, a tall, distinguished Harlem businessman, came up with the idea of The Negro Motorist GREEN-BOOK, a comprehensive listing of “Hotels, Taverns, Garages, Night-Clubs, Restaurants, Service-Stations, Tourist Homes, Roadhouse, Barbershops, Beauty Parlors” across America where Black travelers could stop and feel safe. Green got the idea from a Jewish friend who had just published a Jewish motorists’ guide to the Borscht Belt, a network of Jewish resorts and clubs throughout upstate New York.
The first Green Book, published by a Jewish printer, cost 25 cents. In the coming years, it was compiled largely by a network of Black postal workers who mailed in the names and addresses of safe stops and establishments. Green and his wife Alma Duke also got the support of two marketing executives from Esso, the network of gas stations that ultimately became Exxon.
Taylor, who visited Green Book stops in every state for her recent book, “Overground Railroad – The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America,” said it became known as “the Bible of every Negro Highway Traveler – don’t leave home without it, it may save your life.” The guide “spoke to how many places in America Black people were shut out of – where to go if you needed your insulin, or to see a doctor on the road. There was no map of Sundown Towns and all of a sudden you’re in a whole lot of trouble, so this book provided safe zones.”
Every year, the Green Book grew to include more places; Sacramento wasn’t included in early editions, but eventually showcased Oak Park’s Dunlap’s Dining Room and the Mo-Mo and Zanzibar nightclubs, “where Black and white Sacramentans came together to hear Jazz greats like Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Charles Mingus,” said California Museum Director Amanda Meeker. Sacramento’s Black West End – leveled by the I-5 freeway, is prominently featured in the museum’s standing exhibit, along with many other prominent Black establishments from Coast to Coast. Eventually, more than 15,000 copies a year were published. “It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication,” Green said.
One of the bitter ironies was that Nat King Cole, who heralded the age of American motor travel in 1946 with his classic song, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” was beaten on stage by Klansmen in Birmingham before an all-white audience in 1956. And the so called 2,448-mile “highway that’s the best” from Chicago to L.A. ran through 44 Sundown counties with signs such as the one in Dallas reading “NO DOGS, NEGROS, MEXICANS.”
Exhibit photos depict Black truckers sleeping under their rigs because no motels would accept Black customers.
The Great Migration continued with the help of the Green Book. Between 1940 and 1970, 700,000 Blacks resettled in Los Angeles alone – among them Shirley Weber, a three-year-old girl who traveled from Hope, Arkansas in 1952 with her parents and five older siblings. “I was a daughter of the Jim Crow South,” Weber – now California’s first Black Secretary of State – told an audience at the California Museum Saturday February 26.
“We made trips to Arkansas every four years from the projects in Los Angeles. Very few of my friends ever traveled,” Weber recalled. “Most Black folks didn’t go places where they didn’t have relatives, it doesn’t matter whether you have 10 kids or two kids, they had pallets (narrow mattresses), If you didn’t stay with a relative you just insulted them.”
Weber, who earned her doctorate in education, taught for 40 years at San Diego State and served as chair of the California Legislative Back Caucus, remembers telling her mom she wanted to go to Howard, a historic Black college in D.C. “The first thing my mom said was, `we don’t know people in D.C.’ It was dangerous for an African American to go to a place you hadn’t been before.”
Weber never heard her dad say “yes sir, no sir, or yes ma’am, no ma’am,” when they traveled, “He said `yes’ is good enough. We were not willing to go to the back of the restaurant for food…in those days you traveled with chickens, ham and a pound cake,” she said, as several older audience members chuckled in recognition.
Her dad always tuned up the car and checked the oil and the tires before a long trip, and traveled with another family in the 1950s and ‘60s “so if your car broke down, you had help,” she recalled. “If police stopped you at night, you knew something terrible was going to happen. So if one car got pulled over, everybody pulled over. Most nights we slept by the side of the road, but we didn’t sleep long, because to police everybody was a suspect. There was no justice, no hearing, and you saw signs and heard stories of people who been lynched or burned as they drove.”
If your car did break down, Weber said, “you had to negotiate a place to stay and where to get new parts. And prior to Holiday Inns and drive-throughs, you had to negotiate restrooms. I remember one restroom for Black people was a leaning outhouse, the smell alone would kill you, so most of the time you went to the restroom in the fields and carried plenty of toilet paper.”
Things didn’t improve much over the years, Weber said. She remembers driving to Texas with her daughter, a doctor, in her daughter’s new car. “As soon as we crossed the Texas border, my daughter noticed a police car following us.” After several hours, the patrolman finally pulled them over and began interrogating them about what her daughter did for a living – “you look kind of young to be a doctor” – and why the car didn’t have a license plate, Weber said, “just to make sure we hadn’t stolen the car.”
Along with stops in the Green Book, Weber said her dad and other motorists relied on Black churches to provide safe haven. The Green Book, Weber said, “was kind of a secret we never shared with Whites.” Even the book’s title reflected “our continued struggle with our definition of self,” she said. “There was a time when Negro with a capital N was a point of victory and pride. Then we became Afro Americans, African Americans and then we became Black.” Just like the struggle for safe passage on America’s roads, “it’s been a long journey,” Weber said.