Carry your Green Book with you … you may need it.”
is the cautionary tagline found on the front cover of the
nearly three dozen issues of Victor Hugo Green’s “The
Negro Motorist Green Book” (and later “The Negro
Travelers Green Book”). At a glance, this caveat could be
perceived as a thinly-veiled attention grabber, perhaps the author
or publisher’s push to sell a few more copies to nervous travelers.
Sadly, these words weren’t unscrupulous fear-mongering, but
rather a warning to African American travelers. A warning born
out of years experiencing embarrassments, disappointments and
disasters while on the road.
First published in 1936, “The Green Book” was the brainchild
of Victor Hugo Green, a postal carrier in Harlem, NY. Having
seen troubles brought on by segregation – whether announced on
signs in the South or spoken of in whispers up North – Green
thought of a way to avoid the inconvenience of being barred from
a restaurant or the danger of finding oneself with no place to sleep
in an unfamiliar town.
With his connection to other postal carriers throughout the city,
Green and his colleagues began compiling a list of restaurants and
hotels in Harlem and other areas of NYC that were friendly and
accommodating to African Americans.
The book’s first issue was met with such popularity that
Green included listings from other states in the very next issue.
He gathered information by mail-in contributions and through
the research of his small but growing staff. Through this work,
“The Green Book” eventually expanded to include most states and
several other countries.
Though Jim Crow-type laws are often thought of as exclusively
an American problem, the need to include countries like Canada,
Mexico and Barbados illustrates how far racist restrictions truly
Initially created to be a guide for people of color travelling for
any reason, by the 1948 edition Green began to gear his publication
toward those traveling for pleasure. He included a travel service
which assisted African Americans in locating hotels and summer
resorts and reworked the title to “The Green Book: A Classified
Negro Motorist & Tourist Guide.”
In a Smithsonian Channel documentary entitled “The Green
Book: Guide To Freedom,” some of the most popular resort areas
mentioned include Idlewild, Michigan; Atlantic Beach, South
Carolina; and the A.G. Gaston Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama.
The A.G. Gaston Hotel wasn’t just a place to spend the night, but
also served as a meeting and lodging place for civil rights leaders.
Travelers could order “Green Books” through the mail, find
them at local churches, or buy them at roadside retailers like Esso
Standard Oil, which was the first large chain to sell them. Green
and Esso had a formal agreement for the retailer to sell the guides
which created an ideal partnership. As the post-World War II
economy grew, so did the black middle class. For the first time,
African Americans enjoyed the luxury of disposable income, were
able to purchase automobiles and able to travel for pleasure. African
Americans who could afford to purchase a car would often do so to
avoid the potential dangers of public transportation.
Driving a personal vehicle was a fairly new phenomenon, so
Green included pages with vehicle maintenance tips, driving tips,
information on the latest car models and tips to avoid distracted
driving along with lists of rights and laws by state and myriad other
pieces of advice and anecdotes.
No Travel Guide Is Perfect
An explanation of the book was provided in the first few pages
of each issue. Green began speaking to would-be critics by boldly
stating “No travel guide is perfect!” He went on to detail the process
he and his staff abided by when collecting listings but admitted
that the information didn’t always come from reliable sources and
things like addresses, locations or whether a place was even still
open could change from the time they received the information
to the time the book was published. He also welcomed feedback
from users of his guide, driving home an underlying point of this
book – it was to aid in safe travel and encourage recreation but
it also sought to be a well-written guide that only included clean
reputable businesses within its pages.
In the Movies
A renewed, or for some brand new, interest in Green’s travel
guide has been fueled by the 2018 film “The Green Book”. The
movie tells the story of Don Shirley, a famous African American
concert and jazz pianist and his hired driver and bodyguard Frank
“Tony Lip” Vallelonga as they travel to Shirley’s concert bookings
in the segregated South in 1962. Throughout the film, the viewer
is able to see the despicable and outright ridiculous nature of Jim
Crow. Shirley wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom, dine or stay the
night at the places he was performing. Instead, the duo relied on a
“Green Book” they’d been given by Shirley’s manager.
Nick Vallelonga, one of the film’s screenwriter’s and Tony Lip’s
son, said he always knew that this was a story he wanted to tell.
While he admits it was an emotional project for him because of
his close ties with the main characters, he always felt that he “had
something” with the tale. The younger Vallelonga imagined he
might make an independent film about his father’s 1962 journey
someday, but never dreamed that it would turn into a box office hit.
When discussing the film, Nick Vallelonga is careful to point
out that the intent of this project wasn’t to be a documentary about
the “Green Book” but more so to encourage people to look into it
In an interview with film review website Screenrant, Vallelonga
said “People have told me it made them Google it, and made them
go, “Oh my God, what is this book?” So, we layered things out to
have the social issues and the racism exposed. I mean it’s horrible.
You say a man can’t go to the bathroom where he’s playing, the
theater he’s playing. This wasn’t the movie that we were going to
go hammer you with all that. It’s there enough and it showed how
it affected him as a person, and how it affected my father seeing this
happen.” Akin to the “Green Book” itself, the film simply intended
to put the information out there – it’s up to the recipient to decide
how to use it.
Though the film won Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards,
it has been negatively received by some. One of Shirley’s relatives,
Carol Shirley Kimble said the film is “once again a depiction of a
white man’s version of a black man’s life… To depict him and take
away from him and make the story about a hero of a white man
for this incredibly accomplished black man is insulting, at best.”
Some have also accused the film of skewing Shirley’s relationship
with his own family, depicting it as extremely strained or almost
nonexistent when in reality he served as best man at his brother’s
wedding just two years after the events portrayed in the film.
The Green Book and Eastern North Carolina
According to acting director Angela Thorpe, the NC African
American Heritage Commission is currently working on a project
called “The Green Book’s Oasis Spaces Project” that will explore
all 326 Green Book sites in North Carolina. Even though the vast
majority of them are now vacant lots or roadways, the commission
plans to use photographs of these areas to tell the story of “The
Green Book” and the perils of travel for African Americans in the
segregated South. The traveling exhibition is slated to launch in
Just a short trip up Highway 70 from the Crystal Coast, New
Bern boasted three “Green Book” sites, two of which are still
standing. Thorpe held a lecture on the New Bern sites in February
which was full of little-known facts about these historical sites.
One site, which is now a traffic circle, was the Palm Garden.
Listed in the “Green Book” as a tavern, it was located at what was
then 192 Broad St. in New Bern and appeared only in the 1949
issue of the “Green Book.”
Owned by George Downing and Walter Godette, it is
somewhat unclear what actually happened to the Palm Garden as it
stopped appearing in New Bern city directories in 1951 according
Appearing in at least seven issues of the “Green Book” (1950,
1953, 1954 and 1960-63) was the H.C. Sparrow Tourist Home at
what was originally 68 West St. in New Bern, though the address
was changed to 731 West St. in the 1960s. This home still stands
today and is owned by the granddaughter of the original owner
and builder, Henry Clain Sparrow. Sparrow was a skilled bricklayer
and is said to have been a “man of sufficient means” who was well established
in New Bern around the turn of the century according
to Thorpe’s research. Thorpe has found conflicting records indicating the home was
built in both 1916 and 1925. However, she did mention that both
of these dates could technically be accurate if the house was burned
in the New Bern fire of 1922 and then rebuilt.
It is thought that the owner’s son Charles Sparrow, who would have
only been in his 40s, was responsible for advertising the home as a safe
haven for African American travelers.
The longest appearing and perhaps most interesting site in
New Bern was the Rhone Hotel
listed at 42 Queen St. in the books
and now standing at 512 Queen St.
The Rhone Hotel was built and
owned by three sisters – Charlotte,
and Harriett Rhone – and appeared
in the 1938-41, 1947-57 and
1959-63 issues of the “Green
Book” according to Thorpe.
The Rhone Hotel stands out for a number of reasons. Not
only was it unusual for blacks to own a hotel at that time in the
South, it was especially unusual for a black woman to own one.
Also, accommodations that were friendly to African Americans
were overwhelmingly termed “tourist homes” – private residences
that had extra rooms or additions built on for boarders, not actual
The Rhone sisters, however, had the means to build and a
passion to encourage more black travel. With its close proximity
to the railroad, it brought in droves of people passing through for
business and for pleasure. The original Rhone Hotel building
is still standing today and is currently used as apartments.
Travel in Carteret County
Though no businesses in Carteret County were ever
found to be listed in the “Green Book,” there were two that
probably could have been. It is
speculated that people of color
didn’t often visit this area for
beach recreation because there
were black beaches such as
Seabreeze in Wilmington and
Ocean City on Topsail Island
nearby, however, the black population along the Crystal
Coast swelled during the summer when white families on
vacation would bring along their hired help.
When in Morehead City for the summer, one option African
Americans had for recreation during their downtime was the
Edgewater Hotel. The building is still standing at what is currently
1100 Edgewater Place in Morehead City, however, in old city guides
from the late 50s and early 60s it is listed as being at the far end of N.
The Edgewater Hotel was founded, owned and operated by Harkless Wooten, well known
in the county and beyond for being an extremely talented chef, and his
wife Clifford McGhee Wooten. As reported by an entry in The
National Register of Historic Places, “Morehead City, North Carolina,
was the location of the Edgewater Hotel, built in 1950, in the
northwest section of town known as “Colored Town.” This hotel, like
the few others scattered along the east coast, served the black traveler
in the mid-20th century who was unwelcome at the white hotels.
In the first part of the century, the
black population of Morehead City was only about one-sixth of the
total. Most individuals were employed in the fishing industries or
at white resort hotels as porters, cooks, maids and laundresses. The
black population rose in the summer months when white visitors
to the resort community brought their maids and butlers, none
of whom were able to attend any of the local white venues. Here
was a definite need for a recreational venue for the black community, and the
Edgewater Hotel, built by Harkless Wooten, a local
black man, filled the void, remaining in operation until
1979. In contrast
to the grand resort
hotels of the white
had been built into
the early years of
the 20th century,
Hotel was located
in a simple frame
building with a
room, lounge, pool hall, patio and pier. Charter fishing boats took
visitors on excursions nearby.”
A column called “On the Tarheel Beat” featured in the New
Journal and Guide also discussed the lack of recreational options for
people of color in Morehead City and said of the hotel: “The most
p o p u l a r and widely patronized is the
Edgewater Hotel owned by H.E.“Papa” Wooten.
Dancing on the patio is ‘the thing’ and each
Thursday night a small local combo is featured.
It is then that those who have served the other
fellow all week come out to be served.”
In the same article, another Morehead
City business that catered to the African
American population is mentioned – Amy’s
Grill. In a 1963 edition of “Hill’s
Morehead City and Beaufort Directory”,
Amy’s Grill, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jack
May, was listed as being located at 1212 Bridges St.
Mention of Amy’s Grill was also found in the Negro News
column of the April 1, 1955, issue of the Carteret News Times.
Amy’s hosted a sixth anniversary meeting of The Ladies Home
Instruction Club and a rundown of the club meeting also
contained a description of restaurant. The article detailed the decor
and menu at the meeting: “Tables were decorated with japonicas
and jonquils, centered with candles. Club
members wore corsages of white carnations, the club flower, trimmed
with orchid and white ribbons, the club colors. They were served turkey,
cranberry sauce, dressing, peas, carrots, pickles, hot rolls and muffins,
creamed potatoes, coffee, ice cream, and cake.”
In a 1948 issue of the Carteret News Times, there was an
advertisement for “mercantile apartment, Amy’s Grill, Morehead City.” It is unclear
if the rental was for long-term use only or if this was a unit available
to travelers, but it indicated that, along with the Edgewater, there
were some accommodations for people of color.
Impact of The Green Book
On the first page of the 1948 “Green Book,” Victor Hugo
Green expressed regret that there was ever a need for his guides.
“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 opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be
a great day for us to suspend this publication, for then we can go
wherever we please and without embarrassment. But until that
time comes, we shall continue to publish this information for your
convenience every year.”
“The Green Book” ceased publication after the 1966-67 issue,
having reached the day Green hoped for in his 1948 introduction
with the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The signing of the
Civil Rights Act saw many of the once-thriving businesses listed
in “The Green Book” decline sharply. People of color now had the
option to patronize any establishment they desired and many of the
businesses couldn’t compete with places that had more money and
resources at their disposal.
“The Green Book” sites that historians and preservation
committees are seeking to save “allow us to see a parallel country”,
according to The Smithsonian documentary. Not only do they
provide a historical record but they tell a story of entrepreneurship
and in many ways show a seldom-seen side of the civil rights
movement. One where the ultimate goal was still equal rights but
where the deep need for rest and relaxation – or as Mr. Green put
it, “vacation without aggravation” – was recognized, sought after
and ultimately achieved.