Los Angeles campaign to preserve historic Negro Travelers' Green Book sites
This article was first published May 24, 2016.
WARNING: This audio contains some offensive language.
It was published under several titles over the years: The Negro Motorist Green Book; The Negro Travelers' Green Book; The Travelers' Green Book. Many who used it simply knew it as the Bible of black travel.
For three decades, beginning in the mid-1930s, the guide provided lists of businesses willing to cater to black people travelling along America's highways — including the legendary Route 66, which ran from Chicago, Ill., to Santa Monica, Calif.
Now, the city of Los Angeles is considering special protections for remaining Green Book properties along Route 66.
While the Green Book's official title varied, the introduction by publisher Victor Green often concluded with the following words:
"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 each year."
Candacy Taylor is a writer and photographer who is documenting these historic properties. She spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Los Angeles. Here is a part of their conversation.
Carol Off: Candacy, how did you come to learn about the Green Book, as it's called?
Candacy Taylor: I found it by accident. I discovered it while I was doing research for a book I was writing on Route 66. And being an African-American woman ... I just happened to wonder what it was like for people who were driving Route 66, who were black, during this heyday of the 1950s. Most of the things that you read about, most of the people who write about Route 66, focus on the nostalgia factor — the "good old days." And I thought it can't be that simple.
"Sundown towns were all-white towns. On purpose. You could not be there after sundown if you were black. And there were severe consequences to pay, including death. So if you look at Route 66 in particular, nearly half of all the counties along Route 66 were sundown towns.- Photographer and writer Candacy Taylor
CO: And what did the Green Book provide them with?
CT: Solutions. And safety. I don't know if you know what "sundown towns" are?
CO: No, I was going to ask.
CT: Sundown towns were all-white towns. On purpose. So, you could not be there after sundown if you were black. And there were severe consequences to pay, including death. So if you look at Route 66 in particular, nearly half of all the counties along Route 66 were sundown towns. And there were signs that were posted outside of some of these towns that said, "N----r, don't want the sun go down on you here." It was very serious. And then by the time you got to some place like Albuquerque, which is [a] more multicultural, bigger town, you'd think there'd be more options. There were hundreds [of] hotels that lined Route 66 in Albuquerque. And only six of them served black people. So the Green Book told you which six were there for you to go to. Because otherwise you'd be spending all night looking for a place.
CO: And what about restaurants, or a place to get a cup of coffee?
CT: What's interesting about the Green Book is that people compare it to an AAA for black people. But it was even more because there were tailors listed in the Green Book. There were nightclubs, barbershops, beauty salons, and even real estate offices ... So it was a huge resource. There were other guides that helped black travelers during this time — the Green Book wasn't the only guide. But this was the most comprehensive guide and it was in publication for the longest period. And what's funny is today it's so hard to find an actual copy. And they're very expensive. And we imagine that they're just in people's attics, probably rotting away. So if anybody out there has one, it's a special item. So preserve it. Or, the Smithsonian is always looking for copies.
"[I]t was a different time. And the way that the Green Book was presented was not 'We're victims, and we can't do anything.' It was a resourceful solution to a horrific problem. So...it was, 'Here's all the things that you can do.' [I]t had this very practical, almost positive approach. - Candacy Taylor
CO: It's infuriating to know that [this was going on] as late as the 60s, on something like Route 66 — which was so celebrated ... To hear this is infuriating. But did people see it that way? As they traveled, was this Green Book a symbol of something that was so bad in their society?
CT: Well, it was a different time. Living during that time, it was just a different framework. And the way that the Green Book was presented was not "We're victims, and we can't do anything." It was a resourceful solution to a horrific problem. So it was like, "Here, you too can be a part of America. You too can experience San Francisco. And the focus wasn't on what we were shut out of, or what we couldn't do. It was, "Here's all the things that you can do." So it had this very practical, almost positive approach.
CO: You're documenting the different sites, the different places that are in the Green guide. How many still remain, and what condition are they in?
CT: Well, that's a big part of my project. And to me, it's one of the most exciting things that we have these tangible links, practical evidence that segregation and integration happened ... I did a small video documentary, about a five-minute piece on my website, looking at Green Book sites along Route 66 and we've estimated that really less than a quarter are still standing ... I'm working with City Hall to at least try and recognize, maybe not on the national historic register because it's very complicated, but getting some kind of plaque and preserving — making sure people know these are buildings that need to be preserved, and not torn down.
Interview produced by Kevin Ball. Q&A edited for length and clarity.