The story behind the ‘Green Book’

The film “Green Book,” starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, is garnering a lot of Oscar buzz.

The title is a reference to “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a travel guide for African Americans that helped them navigate a country that was often hostile towards them.

http://via.wgntv.com/k0X1ZIn the movie “Green Book,” classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley is about to embark on a tour in deep south. Knowing the prejudice he’s sure to face, his managers equip his driver, Tony, with the guide.

The book was a resource, vital in the Jim Crow-era and sold through mail order and service stations that served African Americans. It provided black people with advice on safe places to eat, sleep and get gas as they traveled throughout the country.

Historian Charles Bethea said the "Green Book" was the go-to resource of its time.

“It served almost as a 20th century Underground Railroad map if you will,” he said.

The directory was first published in 1936 by retired New York mailman Victor Hugo Green, who got the idea from a Jewish guide that did the same thing.

“It gave African Americans a bit of freedom from embarrassment,” Bethea said. “From the possibility of physical harm as they traveled throughout the country.”

The necessity for it grew as black people left the South seeking opportunity in industrial jobs in the North. There became a new black middle class with cars and the ability to travel. Families would map out routes using the "Green Book."

“Route 66 was not a happy memory for a lot of African Americans because a lot of the cities along it were “sundown towns,” Bethea said.

“Sundown towns” were municipalities where black people were actually banned by law after the sun set. There were hundreds of “sundown towns” in Illinois including Naperville, Bolingbrook, and Cicero.

Historian and activist Timuel Black worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“You weren’t supposed to walk on the sidewalk if there was a white person walking,” he said. “All of that behavior would get them in trouble.”

Final editions of the "Green Book" were published in 1967. During its span, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed and banned discrimination based on race.

But one of the biggest factors to the directory’s end was the interstate highway system which allowed motorist to avoid “sundown towns.”

More regional guides were also published.

In Chicago, a lot of people used "Scott’s Blue Book" which was a directory of black-owned businesses published in the 1940s.

The Chicago History Museum has copies of the "Blue Book" in its research center.

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