The Green Book: A Guidebook For The Age Of Segregation

Green Book, segregationIt’s hard to imagine nowadays when the only limitations to travel are money, time and health, but for much of America’s history a large segment of the population had trouble traveling just because of the color of their skin.

During the days of segregation, most hotels were off-limits to African-Americans, as were other facilities like restaurants, movie theaters and campgrounds. Those that did allow blacks to enter had strict rules of segregation. Stopping at the wrong restaurant could lead a black family to being insulted or worse.

Yet a rising black middle class had just as much hunger for travel as anyone else. The problem was: how does one travel safely? One answer was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that listed hotels and restaurants open to black people. While it wasn’t the only such guidebook, it was one of the most popular and long lasting. It was started by Victor H. Green in 1936 as a guide just for New York City, but soon expanded to include the whole country and eventually Bermuda, Mexico and Canada.

I’d never heard of this book until I saw it mentioned on the excellent website I’m Black and I Travel. I downloaded a free PDF of the 1949 edition from the University of Michigan website and found it a fascinating read. The book introduces itself as a resource “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

Then come the listings. I took special note of places I used to live. Tucson, Arizona, only had one listing for a restaurant and no lodging mentioned. Columbia, Missouri, had a hotel and a tourist home, which was a private home that rented out spare rooms to travelers. The hotel has since disappeared and the land on which it stood is now taken up by an adult store and theater. The guesthouse is now a private residence. New York City, of course, had plenty of listings. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and the Harlem listings are longer than the listings for many states.

%Gallery-153462%Another city that has a sizable listing is Tulsa, Oklahoma. Only 28 years before, the thriving black neighborhood of Greenwood had been burned to the ground and hundreds of black people killed by a white mob in the worst race riot in American history. By 1949, numerous black-owned businesses had literally sprung from the ashes and got into “The Green Book.”

The advertisements open up a different era too. How long has it been since hotels boasted they had hot water and radios in every room? Only two national companies advertised in this edition: Esso, which was a leader in selling franchises to African-Americans, and Ford Motor Company, which placed an ad for its very cool 1949 convertible. Green also advertised his own reservation bureau, noting that a shortage of beds for black travelers made it essential to plan ahead.

There are also a couple of articles, including one on what to see in Chicago, highlighting its large black neighborhood as well as more general interest sights. Another article talked about Robbins, Illinois, which was of interest to the black reader since it was a prosperous town owned almost entirely by black people. The guidebook notes that with “no prejudice and restrictions” the community was able to boom. The article finishes: “It is worth the trouble to go out and take a look at what an experiment of an exhibition of what Negroes working together can do. Indeed, it would not be a bad idea to pitch in and help.”

One thing that struck me most about this book was the absolute lack of rancor. The problem of segregation is noted, and in a couple of places Green hopes for it to end one day, but there are no angry tirades against the injustice that black people were suffering. If I had been black in 1949, I doubt I would have been so charitable.

“The Green Book” is a sobering reminder of a sad time in U.S. history, and also a reminder that things occasionally get better – not 100% better, but time has seen a major improvement. Green stopped publication after 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is now a rare item and it’s not even clear if a copy exists for every edition. If you think you or your grandparents may have a copy tucked away in the attic, go check. It should be preserved.

Do you have memories of travel in the age of segregation? Tell us about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy University of Michigan]

Harlem: neighborhood revitalization paves way for a new Renaissance

Harlem revitalizationHarlem. The very name of this former Dutch settlement conjures up a contrast in images: the cultural Renaissance years of the 1920’s and ’30’s, when the “New Negro Movement” attracted writers and other literary types from all over the world. The rise of a middle and upper middle class of black Americans. The Golden Age of Jazz, when legends like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton could be found playing at iconic venues such as the Savoy Ballroom, Cotton Club, Apollo Theater, and Lenox Lounge.

After the Great Depression and WWII, Harlem experienced hard times. Once glorious buildings grew neglected; crime and poverty soared in the wake of an increasingly disenfranchised community and the social unrest of the civil rights movement. Then, in the late 20th century, Harlem began to get her groove back, and the neighborhood—which stretches north to south from 155th Street to 96th Street–began to gentrify. It’s still a predominantly black community, which is fueling a growing revivalist movement that’s an homage to the historic neighborhood’s cultural past.

Today, you’re just as likely to see beautifully restored brownstones (at newly jacked-up prices), eclectic boutiques, bars, and clubs, and destination restaurants. But some things are still the same. The inevitable downtown hipsters making the trek to soul food institutions such as Amy Ruth’s and Sylvia’s Restaurant. Street vendors hawking everything from incense to dodgy electronics from blankets spread on the sidewalk. Walking up the subway steps, you’re assaulted by a cacophony of sights, sounds, smells–not all of them pleasant. Welcome to Harlem, 2011. A work in progress, but definitely a destination in its own right.

[Photo credit: Flickr user i am drexel]

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harlem revitalizationSleeping

One of the biggest changes to take place is the December, 2010 opening of the Aloft, Harlem’s first hotel in nearly a century. The goal of the property has been to work with the community, and enrich the neighborhood by partnering with local businesses, which supply everything from grab-and-go food at the hotel’s 24/7 re:fuel, to floral arrangements.

The Aloft, a division of W Hotels, is a contemporary, more affordable sibling to the swanky, upscale chain, with locations all over North America and a growing number of properties throughout Asia, Europe, and Central and South America. The Harlem outpost is centrally-located on Frederick Douglass Blvd. It’s across the street from the 125th Street subway station, which makes getting downtown a snap.
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My room was clean, comfortable, and stylish (with free Bliss Spa Products: yay!), with modern, functioning amenities (read: Wifi is free and actually works). If a view is important to you, best to request a room facing the front of the hotel. On the other hand, if you’re a voyeur or exhibitionist, I highly recommend Room 625. One other note: the ground floor xyz bar is seriously popping on the weekend, and not just with tourists, either. Expect loud music and dancing to go into the wee hours; if you’re sound-sensitive, also best to request a room away from the acoustic zone. Or just join the party.

To See and Do

The Aloft is literally steps away from a number of Harlem’s top cultural attractions. Modern art fans will enjoy The Studio Museum on W. 125th, which showcases local, national and international work by artists of African descent. Also nearby is the Apollo Theater, and the Hip Hop Culture Center, which offers everything from youth activities to historical artifacts, exhibitions, and educational programs. The Jazz Museum is another don’t-miss, over on E. 126th.

Eating and Drinking
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Considered some of NY’s best, Patsy’s Pizza in East Harlem has been dishing out coal oven-fired pies since 1933. But a flock of new dining and drinking establishments have opened within the last year or so (all within stumbling distance of the Aloft).

Acclaimed Ethiopian-Swedish chef/Harlem resident Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, named after an infamous Harlem speakeasy, is a homey contemporary restaurant specializing in comfort food that “celebrates the diverse culinary traditions of the neighborhood.” Think dinner or brunch dishes like dirty rice and shrimp; fried yard bird with white mace gravy, hot sauce, and shake; cow peas; and sweet potato doughnuts. Don’t forget to loosen up with a Gin and Juice or The Spicy Lady (Plymouth gin, jalapeno/rosemary syrup, lemon juice, and creole bitters), first. P.S. If the name of the restaurant sounds familiar, it may be because Obama hosted a $30,800-a-plate fundraiser dinner there in March. He liked the corn bread.
Harlem revitalization
Harlem’s first beer garden, Bier International, sloshes up domestic and international offerings. It also serves brunch and lunch, and is family-friendly (how is mom and dad tying one on while the kids eat bratwurst not a family activity?). And yes, Virginia, there is fine dining in Harlem. The 5 and Diamond, which opened last year, is a popular spot offering contemporary American fare. It’s located on Frederick Douglass Blvd., which has been declared by no less than Frank Bruni–former restaurant critic of the New York Times– as the new “Restaurant Row.”

If serious mixology–with a laidback vibe and sexy, Prohibition-era style–is your thing, head to 67 Orange Street. I adore any place with craft-distilled and house-infused spirits, made-to-order juices, seasonal, intelligent, well-made libations, and a lack of attitude. Bar snacks run the gamut from oysters to deviled eggs, orange-roasted duck leg, and stuffed olives (at hard-to-beat prices). The name, by the way, is a tribute to the long-gone Almack’s, one of the first black-owned-and-operated bars in New York City.
Harlem revitalization
Harlem is evolving at a fast pace; best to visit now, while it’s still an affordable, uncrowded, diamond in the rough.

Want to learn how to shake up a refreshing Moscow Mule or other classic cocktail? 67 Orange gives you recipes, right here.

[Photo credits: pizza, Flickr user Pabo76; soul food, Flickr user fiat luxe; brownstone, Flickr user gsz]