Film

Taking the Highway to Freedom with a Green Book

The documentary is a travelogue that embarks on a journey through present-day America, using the Green Book as its guide.

<em>The Green Book</em> (image courtesy New York Public Library)
The Green Book (image courtesy New York Public Library)

Sarah Vaughn performed at the Flamingo Club when Lois Perry worked there as a waitress. “She once handed out a $100 bill and said, ‘Keep the change, darling,’” Perry says before breaking into laughter. The Flamingo Club, Perry’s workplace in Idlewild, Michigan, was one of the many businesses in Idlewild that was featured in Harlem postal worker, Victor Green’s Green Book.

The Flamingo Club Exterior (image courtesy Lake County Historical Society)
The Flamingo Club Exterior (image courtesy Lake County Historical Society)
(image courtesy Tubman Museum)
(image courtesy Tubman Museum)

A recent Smithsonian Channel documentary, The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, directed by Yoruba Richen, revisits The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide that Victor Green published from 1936–66 to ensure that Black people could travel safely — without embarrassment or danger — through Jim Crow’s America. The guide included a list of hotels, restaurants, salons, and other business establishments that were open to Black customers; it also featured a list of “sundown towns” so that Black travelers knew which towns to avoid after dark. Using his network of postal workers working throughout the country as sources, Green continued to update and expand his guide, which became a marker for the opportunities beginning to open up for the Black American community. “Carry your Green Book with you … you may need it,” he advised on the guide’s cover.

<em>The Green Book</em> (image courtesy New York Public Library)
The Green Book (image courtesy New York Public Library)

The documentary is a travelogue that embarks on a journey through present-day America, using the Green Book as its guide. The film’s travels start in Harlem, where Victor Green lived and worked, then traces its path across Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, and revisits the routes Black travelers took using the Green Book, enjoying the free, peaceful passage away from the horrors of segregation. While the book expanded its scope to include businesses in Mexico and Canada, signaling the opening up of the world for the Black traveler, studying the glaring gaps within its scope sheds light on American states like North Dakota that completely shut out Black people.

Car ownership for the Black community was a seminal achievement, as it allowed the community to travel anywhere in the country, and even beyond. The introduction of the Green Book helped them to do so in peace. The guide listed salons, clothing stores, nightclubs, and bars. The focus was not just to keep Black people from dying, but also to allow them to thrive and enjoy life. “This book really allows us to embrace the genius of us, the grace of us … It is actually the American story,” the film notes.

In the recent Oscar-winning film Green Book, where a Black musician Dr. Donald W. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is driven through the segregated South by the Italian Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), the eponymous book makes an appearance only twice, in the hands of the White driver. While the film, in spite of its title, concentrates on the transformation of a racist, White man into a better, more tolerant human being, that was not the aim of Victor Green’s guide. Green hoped to empower Black families to travel safely on their own, without White assistance.

Inside the <em>Green Book</em> (image courtesy New York Public Library)
Inside the Green Book (image courtesy New York Public Library)

Although the Green Book started out as being a list of businesses, its connections to the civil rights movement were extremely strong. Most of the businesses listed in the guide were hubs for Black activism. By the 1960s, the Green Book had started compiling the rights of Black people in each state.

One out of the 11 businesses in Birmingham, Alabama that appeared on the Book was the A.G. Gaston Motel. “It was the finest Black hotel in the country,” Gaston’s niece, the author and journalist Carol Jenkins notes. It was in the courtyard of this motel where, on May 10, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr held the press conference announcing the desegregation agreement with the city’s white business leaders and officials.

The Green Book, therefore, was not just a guide but a directory of institutions that were the birthing grounds of the civil rights movements; institutions that need resurrection, not just in terms of re-building but also in the public memory. The book is literally a document, an evidence of a parallel economic and racial activism that doesn’t often get acknowledged by mainstream narratives of history.

Idlewild, Michigan (image courtesy Lake County Historical Society)
Idlewild, Michigan (image courtesy Lake County Historical Society)

The Smithsonian documentary, while taking us on the Green Book journey, reminds us of the radicality of small businesses, often owned by Black women, that changed the landscape of American entrepreneurship. It reminds us that Victor Green’s guidebook was not just a traveling necessity but also a tool for justice and race equity in America.

The film brings us stories of resistance and revolution from Black America, thereby filling up the huge gaping holes that exist in Hollywood narratives of Victor Green’s radical travel guide.

The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, directed by Yoruba Richen, aired on the Smithsonian Channel on February 26. It airs again on March 2 and 3.

comments (0)