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Interview: The Color of Safety

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Interview: The Color of Safety
Calvin Alexander interviews Harlem resident Charles Yarbrough | PHOTO BY JIMMY E. SEARLES

Calvin Alexander Ramsey chronicles the history of the Green Book

Calvin Alexander Ramsey had never heard of the Green Book growing up. But in 2001, Ramsey, an author and playwright, was attending a funeral in Atlanta when an elderly man approached him to ask where he could get the book, a long out-of-print travel guide for “Negro motorists” in the Jim Crow era. (He thought he still needed one to get around in the Deep South.) That stuck with Ramsey, so he started researching the book’s history. It was started in 1936 by a mailman from Harlem named Victor Hugo Green and ran almost every year until 1966. Green founded the guide, much like the version from the AAA (which African Americans were not permitted to join), “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.” From his research, Ramsey wrote a celebrated two-act play, The Green Book, and a children’s book, Ruth and the Green Book. Now, Ramsey goes to schools to speak to children about discrimination. Together with animation professor Becky Wible Searles of Savannah College of Art and Design, Ramsey is also producing a documentary film, The Green Book Chronicles, slated for release in the next few months.

Animation still from the Green Book Chronicles. By Ammar Nassri and Zhou Quan.

The Local Palate (TLP): What inspired Victor Green to create the Green Book?

Calvin Alexander Ramsey (CAR): Back then, traveling by road for black people was dangerous and could be really humiliating. Green grew up in New York and didn’t face as many difficulties due to segregation as other people around the country, especially in the South. He didn’t see how huge the travel problem was until he got married. His wife was from Richmond, Virginia, and they encountered a lot of racism when they went back to visit her family.

TLP: How did he go about compiling the businesses that were listed in the book?

CAR: A friend of Green’s told him about a Jewish-friendly travel book, and that gave him the idea. Being a postal worker, he had a network of people who delivered mail all over the country. Green asked them to inquire around on their routes and find out who would be willing to provide a friendly stop for traveling African Americans.

TLP: How did these mailmen go about asking something like that?

CAR: They didn’t ask white people; they asked fellow African Americans. And because they knew these people on their routes so well, they knew whose house was clean or untidy, who was getting good mail versus bad mail, just generally who had a nice place to put up. So they could be selective and find good candidates for the book that way.

Ramsey's Childrens Book. Illustration by Floyd Cooper.

TLP: What kinds of places were listed?

CAR: There were businesses like restaurants, beauty shops, nightclubs, and gas stations—Esso (now Exxon Mobil Corporation) was a big staple in the Green Book. There were some hotels and motels, but people also listed their own homes for travelers to stay the night in—those were called tourist homes. Imagine that—it wasn’t like everyone had a phone or could book through Airbnb. Most of the time people didn’t even charge. Strangers just showed up on your doorstep and you treated them as invited guests. It was a different time.

TLP: Many of the people you interviewed have said that without the Green Book, long-distance road travel for African Americans during that time period would have been nearly impossible. Why was the book so vital?

CAR: Before it was published, black people had very few options for accommodations when they traveled by car. If you were on a train, a bus, or an airplane, your path was marked and you knew where you could use the restroom or grab a bite to eat. By car, you didn’t always know these things. Many times, a bathroom break meant stopping and going in an open field or the woods, and if you planned on eating, you packed sandwiches or stayed hungry until you got to where you were going. It was embarrassing for people, especially older generations. Plus, there were those “sundown towns” that were hateful, violent, and even fatal to African Americans who passed through. This book fit in the glove compartment of your car, and it was a safety net that could provide you with the information you needed to have a fairly comfortable experience on the road.

TLP: Why did the book finally go out of print?

CAR: Segregation had ended, and Green didn’t like having to print them in the first place—they represented some ugly truths. It said in the beginning of every book: “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.” And those days came with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Unfortunately, Green never got to see that happen—he died in 1960, but his wife and associates continued to publish the book until 1966. Unlike most books, not publishing this one was a big victory for the Greens—it meant that for our nation, the tide had turned.

TLP: You have other plays and books that focus on different aspects of African-American history, but the Green Book is something you come back to in your work time and time again. Why has it resonated so strongly?

CAR: While it’s terrible that the book was even needed in the first place, it really showcased a lot of humanity. This wasn’t the Underground Railroad; this was out in the open. It was a group of people who very publicly connected to help each other out. Many of the places listed in the book became focal points and meeting houses for the Civil Rights Movement. All of this started with one man who didn’t have a PhD or a lot of money. Green was just a guy who saw that something needed to be done, so he did it. I find that very uplifting.