Revisiting the Green Book
A Jim Crow–era travel guide inspires a local playwright
When the Ramsey family traveled between North Carolina and Baltimore to visit family, they always packed well. Food, drinks, cans of gas in the trunk. It was a practical necessity; in the 1950s and 1960s, black drivers did not know if gas stations would serve them, let alone if there was anywhere to stop for lunch or use the restroom. “African Americans could not belong to AAA. When they took to the road, it was much more hazardous—not just from automobile safety, but knowing where you could stop and where you should not,” recalls Calvin Alexander Ramsey, now sixty, of those family road trips.
However, decades later, the Atlanta playwright was taken aback when an eighty-year-old friend attending a funeral in Atlanta mused, “I didn’t know if I would be safe coming South. I wondered if I would need a Green Book
.” Ramsey listened as the older man described The Negro Motorist Green Book
, a guide published by Victor H. Green, a Harlem-based postal worker. The directory included hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and even private homes known to offer hospitality to black travelers.
Ramsey, who was formerly on the advisory board of Emory University’s special collections, was curious and looked up the guide, which he’d never heard of. He finally found a few copies in the Atlanta University Center archives.
Green launched the guide in 1936 by asking for recommendations from people on his postal route. As the guide grew, a national network of letter carriers contributed to the research, and Green attracted commercial sponsors. “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published . . . when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States,” wrote Green in the 1949 edition. “It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.” Indeed, publication ceased in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Fascinated, Ramsey wrote a play, The Green Book, which was first presented in 2005 at the DeKalb Historical Society. That year he also wrote a play about KKK activities around Stone Mountain, Shermantown, Baseball, Apple Pie, and the Klan, which sparked local controversy when Art Station canceled a staged reading.
However, this fall The Green Book
received its widest attention with a staged reading at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. Julian Bond, the civil rights leader and former NAACP chairman, read the part of Victor Green. Bond’s own family had relied on the Green Book
when journeying between Pennsylvania and Georgia. Now a professor at American University, Bond says, “I don’t think young people can understand segregation and the need for something like the Green Book
; my own children, now in their forties, and my students, in their late teens and early twenties, cannot imagine having to sit somewhere or obey some foolish rule because of your skin color.”
This fall Ramsey also released a children’s title, Ruth and the Green Book, published by Carolrhoda; it will be adapted by the Center for Puppetry Arts in 2011. And he is working on a documentary film. “This has a life of its own,” says Ramsey of his own journey with Green.
Photograph by Neda Abghari