No Room at the
Inn in Jim Crow America
by Jack R. Johnson
Imagine driving through a foreign land where you don’t know if you’ll be able to purchase food, gas or board for the night. Imagine there are individuals in this land who despise the way you look, your culture, your very presence and that these same individuals have formed secret societies to terrorize you, to burn your churches, or sometimes to hang you from an oak tree. Sixty years ago, this was not a mere thought experiment. For African-Americans navigating the United States, it was the day to day reality of Jim Crow in the American South.
Realizing the dangers African-Americans faced at the time, Victor Hugo Green, a New York postal worker, sought to identify safe places for those traveling throughout the U.S. during the Jim Crow era. In 1936 he published a thin volume that he called the Negro Motorist Green book. He used his contacts throughout the U.S. postal system to develop the book’s copious list of safe places and danger spots. As Green delicately put it in his introduction, his guTide was developed “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.”
According to The Washington Post, The Green Book became “the bible of black travel during Jim Crow,” enabling black travelers to find lodgings, businesses, and gas stations that would serve them along the road. It was no secret that African-American travelers faced a variety of dangers and inconveniences, from outright refusal to be served at restaurants to threats of physical violence and forcible expulsion from whites-only “sundown towns.” And it wasn’t only the South. James Loewen writes that “by the end of the 1960s, there were at least 10,000 sundown towns across the U.S. – including large suburbs such as Glendale, California (population 60,000 at the time); Levittown, New York (80,000); and Warren, Michigan (180,000). Over half the incorporated communities in Illinois were sundown towns. The unofficial slogan of Anna, Illinois, which had violently expelled its African-American population in 1909, was “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”.
Trying to find a restaurant that would serve you, or a hotel that would let you stay overnight across the U.S. was a serious endeavor. As George Schuyler reported in 1943, “Many colored families have motored all across the United States without being able to secure overnight accommodations at a single tourist camp or hotel.” He suggested that black Americans would find it easier to travel abroad than in their own country.
Realizing the great need, Green published a New York-focused first edition of his guide in 1936, and then he expanded the work to cover much of North America, including most of the United States and parts of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda.
The guide found an enthusiastic readership. From on the road musicians to poets like Langston Hughes. The Green book was updated every year over three decades until it finally went out of fashion after the Civil Rights act effectively ended Jim Crow. Green often said that was his aim, “It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please.” Printed on its cover were the words: “Carry your ‘Green Book’ with you. You may need it.’ Underneath this was a particularly apt quote from Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”