Why Would You Know: The Green Book
Friday's Memory, January 11, 2019
By Beverly Mills
This past holiday Elaine and I invited our husbands out for an evening of movies and dinner. We went to see the “Green Book” which is a comedy-drama true story based on how a longstanding friendship began between Don Shirley, an African American classical and jazz pianist who was living above Carnegie Hall and his Italian American driver, Tony Vallelongo living in the Bronx.
Set in the early 1960’s Tony Vallelongo, a shot and beer type guy, finds himself out of work during the time the nightclub where he was employed closed for renovations. Begrudgingly, Tony answered an ad for a driver totally unaware it was for Don Shirley who was preparing to go on tour with his jazz trio that would end up performing in the deep south. When Tony was initially introduced to Don, he could barely conceal his astonishment that not only was Don an African American but that he also had a level of sophistication that Tony could not comprehend. More importantly, Tony definitely had no clue that he would have to become personally familiar with the green book—a little book that would become his most valued companion as he traveled through the Jim Crow south with a Black man in the back seat of a Cadillac.
So here’s the question, why would Tony know about the existence of a green book? Why would anyone who is not of African descent living in America know about the green book? Let’s talk about this.
During the years of the great migration, millions of African Americans left the rural south in search of greater opportunities. As they became more prosperous, Black Americans started purchasing cars to tour our country and those who left relatives in the south would travel back and forth to visit. Travel, this seemingly harmless endeavor that White Americans have always enjoyed without a second thought, presented challenges to people of color as they faced hardships finding Black owned places where they could sleep, purchase food, gasoline and use a restroom without the threat of harassment or physical violence.
A commentary published in 1947 by the NAACP’s magazine, “The Crisis,” spoke on the extreme difficulties African Americans faced while traveling where it was written, “Would a Negro like to pursue a little happiness at a theater, a beach, pool, hotel, restaurant, on a train, plane, or ship, a golf course, summer or winter resort? Would he like to stop overnight at a tourist camp while he motors about his native land “seeing America first? Well, just let him try.”
Black Americans have always been keenly aware that a simple journey could potentially result in danger so the Negro Motorist Green Book was published. Created by Victor Hugo Green, an African American mailman from New York City in 1936, the green book was the survival tool of African Americans brave enough to travel through the south. It listed African American establishments by state where travelers could eat, sleep, gas up and use a restroom without difficulty or humiliation. This crucial resource remained a roadside companion until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 deemed it illegal by the Federal Government to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
What is the point I’m trying to make about the green book and African Americans in today’s society? Recently someone close to Elaine asked why everything always comes down to race – a question innocently posed that no doubt has crossed the minds of many. For White Americans the question is understandable but for African Americans the answer has always been crystal clear. This is why we bring you topics of discussion through our Friday Memories such as the green book and the existence of sun down towns which still exist to this day in America. But more on that in another post so stay tuned.
So while gone are the days when African Americans traveling south had to grab their green books and pack foods that travel well (such as fried chicken and hard boiled eggs) or carry containers of gasoline in their cars, we still live in a country where in 2019 African Americans are still subjected to racial profiling or “driving while Black.” Just take a moment to think about some of the basics White Americans have unthinkingly taken for granted for decades, or even centuries, and then ask again why it always comes down to race.
So, as I wrap up this week’s Friday Memory, I will reiterate that until we understand and acknowledge our history we will never be able to move forward as a community, state and nation.