Teaching African-American History

Teaching and Enlivening the Green Book

Derek H. Alderman, RESET Co-Founder, Co-Coordinator & Research Fellow, Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville Tennessee @MLKStreet

Ethan Bottone, PhD Candidate, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee @Ethan_Bottone

Joshua Inwood, Associate Professor of Geography, Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania @JoshGeog


The Difference a Travel Guide Can Make

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The past several years has witnessed the rediscovery of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide published by and for African Americans from 1936 to 1966. The guide was one of several produced during the Jim Crow era to assist motoring tourists in circumventing and negotiating the humiliation of being denied service on the road. While automobiles afforded more freedom than segregated public transportation, racism’s reach was felt even when driving. The Green Book listed, by state, city, and street address, a range of commercial establishments welcoming to otherwise excluded people of color—from barber shops, beauty salons, and diners to hotels, tourist homes, and gas stations.

Largely forgotten by the general public until little over a decade ago, The Green Book is of growing national fascination, now attracting significant attention from media outlets. It is the subject of children’s books, documentaries, museum exhibits, scholarly papers, web resources, and public history projects. Director Peter Ferrelly capitalized upon the recent popularity of The Green Book when titling his Oscar-winning feature film, although disappointedly the movie just briefly references the segregation era travel guide. Importantly, commentators have used the Green Book as a touchstone for bringing attention to the fact that American highways were never fully open to African American travelers, and in fact, remain discriminatory today.       

The Green Book is quickly being considered an important part of America’s racial heritage, now having a prominent place in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. We suggest that the now famed travel guide should play an increased role in teaching about race and rights, both in general and in the specific context of travel and tourism. Part of Tourism RESET’s wider mission, and our objective in this essay, is to identify approaches that assist in centering the lives, struggles, and movements of Black people within American travel experiences.

Toward an Embodied Instructional Approach

To realize the full educational value of The Green Book requires seeing it as more than just an historical documentary source or a mere artifact from an earlier period. Inspired by the work of historical sociologist and geographer Adrian Evans, we stress the need to enliven the travel guide by recovering the seemingly ordinary details of how and where people traveled and interpreting these details as embodied human practices, lived experiences, and wider social and spatial systems of knowing and responding to racism. In particular, The Green Book was a way of creating and using a uniquely Black geographic knowledge of U.S. highways and communities beyond what one found in mainstream road maps and travel guides.  

Important for those interested in bringing The Green Book into their classrooms is recognizing that it is more than a reflection of a past era of tourism and race relations; rather, the travel guide played (and continues to play) an integral role in directing, making sense of, and now understanding the movement of Black bodies across the American landscape. For those living during and surviving Jim Crow racism, The Green Book always represented more than a simple listing of travel accommodations. It was a point of bodily engagement for African Americans as they sought to make an intervention in the emotional, physical, and social effects of White supremacy on them and their well-being. If creative pedagogical strategies are employed, The Green Book can in turn be a site of active, embodied learning for students as they seek to understand the lived geographies that the travel guide mark and make meaningful—then and now.

 Mobility and Travel as Racial Control and Resistance

There are numerous pedagogical avenues for enlivening or breathing life into The Green Book.  The racial politics of mobility is an approach we have used to highlight the embodied practices and politics of traveling within and against a Jim Crow America. Such a perspective recognizes how the freedom of geographic movement—including travel and tourism—is integral to the realization of one’s rights and the socio-economic resources that come with those rights.

A long history exists of a White social order severely restricting and tightly regulating the movement of African Americans and other racial/ethnic minorities as part of a larger strategy of control—beginning with enslavement and continuing through the Jim Crow era and even now with the racial profiling of drivers by police. At the same time, the right to move across space on one’s own terms and to resist efforts to constrain one’s mobility have long been part of civil rights struggles for equality—from escaping slavery to the post-emancipation Great Migration out of the South, from the freedom rides of the Civil Rights Movement to more recent transportation justice campaigns.

The Green Book should be read in the context of these embodied and racialized struggles over mobility and travel. Although intended to facilitate Black driving out of town, the travel guide simultaneously documents the contours of racial oppression and racialized vulnerability. The very need to have such a guide speaks loudly to the hostile social landscape that African Americans had to traverse, even though the automobile insulated them somewhat from confrontation with Whites. The Green Book not only speaks to the obstacles and inequalities that the Jim Crow landscape presented to Black motorists, but it is also part of the larger story of how African Americans survived, navigated, and reshaped this landscape in ways that were creative and anti-racist.

A critical reading of the embodied practices and lived experiences contained within and realized through The Green Book requires that students understand its place within the larger historical geography of American everyday activism. African American challenges to White supremacy did not simply begin with the Civil Rights Movement and they were by no means restricted to formal political protest. We have used three frameworks to help students understand the embodied politics of circumventing and moving against White control that The Green Book helped facilitate.

The Green Book as Counter-Mapping

The first of the frameworks we have used to interpret and enliven the threads of Black resistance running through The Green Book is counter-mapping. Counter-mapping refers to the collection, analysis, and visualization of spatial or geographic data for the purposes of challenging lines of oppressive and unjust social power. While The Green Book did not include actual maps, it did represent an alternative representation and realization of the travel geography of the United States by listing the location and identity of establishments that assist the navigation and planning of trips by Black travelers who would otherwise be left vulnerable to the vagaries of White supremacy.

The Green Book was the product of and is material witness to the embodied labor of Victor Green, the travel guide’s publisher, and many others—including travelers of color—who contributed or “crowdsourced” information that inventoried welcoming accommodations. A review of the many editions of The Green Book demonstrate that maintaining an up to date list of those establishments was a time consuming and laborious resistant practice that relied upon the building of social networks and a database, although not in the sense of the word used today, and a constant checking of the quality of that data. The stakes of inaccurate or old data could be high for Black travelers and Green knew that.

Using the counter-map of travel brought to life by The Green Book, motorists themselves engaged in the emotionally and physically taxing labor of driving to find safe spaces. Building upon a lesson plan developed by geographers Jerry Mitchell and Larianne Collins, students might be asked to put themselves in the position of an African-American motorist during Jim Crow, although such role playing scenarios should always be approached sensitively and with great preparation. Small groups of students can be asked to work together to use The Green Book in planning and mapping out an itinerary for traveling from a northern or Midwestern city to a southern city, a not uncommon journey for Blacks who visited family after making the Great Migration out of the South. A consideration of the availability (or unavailability) of Black-friendly accommodations and the sometimes large distances between these places allows students to empathize with the hardships of Black travel as well as personal sacrifice that went into circumventing and thus resisting White supremacy.  As Mitchell, Collins, and students often find, Black driving guided by the Green Book could be longer, harder, more expensive, and less direct than the travel taken on by Whites.

The Green Book as Black Counter-Public Spaces

The second of the frameworks we have used to enliven and embody our teaching of The Green Book is Black counter-public spaces, which recognizes a rich history of African Americans claiming places of racial segregation as their own and transforming them into locations where Black identities, cultural traditions, and political debate could flourish separate from and in opposition to the White-dominated public sphere. Many of the street addresses listed in The Green Book guided drivers to Black counter-public spaces found in vibrant African American business districts, such as Atlanta’s “Sweet Auburn Avenue”, or Chattanooga, Tennessee’s E. 9th street (also called “The Big Nine’).  

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Understanding that Green Book listings were part of and helped form racialized counter-public spaces allows us to consider the larger geographies of segregation at work in shaping Black travel. Ken Foote has described his classroom use of The Green Book and how his students map establishments listed in Denver to show the extent to which Black travelers were geographically and socially confined to certain parts of the city even as they actively exercised some limited agency over their travel experience. The counter-public spaces identified in the pages of The Green Book were not immune to the forces of discrimination, but they were places of relative Black power and self-determination in the face of White supremacy.

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The businesses highlighted in the travel guide were not only places of escape and refuge for minority motorists but also important embodied sites of Black knowledge creation and information sharing. At these Black counter-public spaces, travelers likely received advice about hospitable destinations and routes not listed in The Green Book along with more general social and political news. This information sharing proved particularly important during the Civil Rights Movement and some Green Book establishments, such as beauty salons and barber shops, proved to be important incubators of formal political protest during the Movement since they were away from the prying eyes and ears of the White establishment.

Reading The Green Book in terms of the lived geographies that constituted and surrounded Black counter-public spaces prompts teachers and students to consider using the travel guide as a lens to understanding the evolving boundaries of African American neighborhoods, where many listed establishments were found. Identifying the intra-urban geographic patterns of Green Book listings and how those patterns changed over time are potentially valuable learning opportunities for students to track shifts in racial segregation and Black commercial prominence within cities.

Repeat photography is increasingly being explored as a tool for comparing those areas listed in The Green Book with what is there (or not there) now to evaluate the wider historical geographic evolution of Black counter-public spaces. In the wake of formal desegregation, an assortment of powerful urban social and economic processes, such as highway construction and neighborhood razing, cycles of disinvestment and dispossession, and White-led urban renewal and gentrification, has erased many Green Book establishments from the map,  transforming the very fabric of many urban centers within the United States. 

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The Green Book as Commodity Activism

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The third resistance framework important to interpreting The Green Book is commodity activism.  As noted geographer of race Bobby Wilson and others have noted, commodity or consumer activism refers to those instances in which African Americans circumvented White-controlled forms and locations of consumerism to avoid discrimination. Take for example the popularity of mail order purchases and pre-packaged brand consumption among African Americans during Jim Crow. These purchases were obviously about the practice of maintaining oneself, but they also represented a form of resistance to being treated badly by White storeowners and the practice of cheating Black customers on the measurement of purchased food and goods.

Similarly, a larger political value surrounded African American travel consumption using The Green Book. The very act of locating and patronizing the guide’s establishments provided motorists a way to mock Jim Crow, to support Black-owned enterprises, and to avoid inflated prices, poor service, and inedible food from the few White establishments that would serve them. To read The Green Book as a form of commodity activism, one must recognize that consumerism is not simply an abstract economic idea but also an embodied practice with social and political meaning, a way for African Americans to protect themselves from the harmful and restrictive effects of White Supremacy on their lives and demonstrate their importance to the overall U.S. consumer society.

While many of the thirty editions of Green Books are taken up with listing welcoming accommodations for motorists of color, the travel guide also published advertisements for destinations, products, cars, and other services, along with travel accounts of tourists and photographs of some of the Black owned businesses populating these listings.  These ads, accounts, and photos also suggest that underlying the embodied practice of traveling was a larger re-imagination and portrayal of a Black consumer who sought to use their purchasing power and images of middle-class respectability to challenge the prevalent racist stereotypical depictions of African Americans as crude and unsophisticated.

Importantly, while The Green Book was no doubt created for Black travelers, the guide’s creator, Victor Green, like many Black leaders at the time, believed that racism could be conquered by convincing Whites of the material and moral progress of African Americans. Frequently reaching out to White-owned businesses in the tourism industry, Victor Green used his guidebook to promote an image of empowered and stylish Black consumers and entrepreneurs that he hoped would convince Whites of the absurdity of not “taking advantage of the growing affluence and mobility of African Americans,” according to Jerry Mitchell and Larianne Collins (p. 30).

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Students would benefit from exploring the embodied consumer practices and promotions that undergirded the development and use of The Green Book as a counter-map to travel experiences and Black counter-public spaces. With this lens, students and teachers can carry out a deep reading of the content of each Green Book edition in terms of what image of the Black consumer and entrepreneurs it sought to project to travelers and a larger public about the economic legitimacy of African American tourists. For example, students might be encouraged to pay close attention to the names given to identify establishments and how those business names, by referencing certain historical figures such as Booker T. Washington and Abraham Lincoln, or places such as Harlem, worked to create a consumer atmosphere that resonated with Black travelers and communicated a sense of place in an otherwise alienating travel landscape. 

Student-led photographic analysis also holds great promise for understanding the embodied consumer and entrepreneurial practices that not only made Black car travel possible but which were seen as part of the wider struggle for self-determination and civil rights. Several pages of The Green Book, for example, showcased Esso gas stations, which distributed copies of the guide and, unlike many other companies, sold franchises to African Americans. Photographs and other graphic depictions of resorts, hotels, and individual car travelers were not just a reflection of The Green Book’s commodity activism but played a role in telling African American tourists that their dollars and businesses mattered, along with the idea that a traveler, regardless of how much they felt alone and vulnerable on the road, was a member of a larger growing Black consumer nation.

Concluding Remarks

The Green Book marked important sites and moments in the creation of the African American tourist we see today, both in terms of helping marginalized travelers realize a greater empowerment over their mobility and embodied consumption, as well as confirming that a White dominated social order had little desire to support the rights of Black travelers to move, consume, and express themselves on U.S. highways. Students and teachers would be well served not to treat The Green Book as simply a matter of the past but to enliven it in ways that see its connection with and continuing resonance with travel, racism, and civil rights in the present. For example, as increasingly documented by scholars, Black travel remains fraught with racial discrimination and anxiety, but also a resistant spirit as tourists struggle move on their own terms. There continues to be a need for travel guides, travel agents, and destination marketing explicitly tailored for African American travelers who often remain invisible and under-served in the mainstream industry and remain at risk while traveling. While The Green Book certainly directed travelers in the past, it holds considerable pedagogical value in continuing to guide our understanding of the relationship between race, travel, and power in America.

        

Portions of this essay excerpted from: Alderman, Derek H. and Joshua Inwood. 2014. “Toward a Pedagogy of Jim Crow: A Critical Reading of The Green Book.Teaching Ethnic Geography in the 21st Century, National Council for Geographic Education (edited by Lawrence Estaville, Edris Montalvo, and Fenda Akiwumi), pp. 68-78.