COVID-19 makes travel tougher. Still, reaching a destination today is not as scary as it was in the Jim Crow era, when bodily harm could be instantaneous based on skin color.
Black people driving through a segregated society needed to locate welcoming motels and restaurants. The Negro Motorist Green Book was their guide to roadside havens.
El Rey Court in Santa Fe was one of them. It was listed in the Green Book from 1957-63. A family-owned motor inn built on the original Route 66, El Rey Court rented rooms without regard to race.
Aunt Brenda’s Restaurant in Albuquerque, the Casa Linda Motel in Gallup and the Will Rogers Court in Santa Rosa were among many other New Mexico businesses highlighted in the Green Book during its 30-year existence.
Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker from Harlem, N.Y., first published his travel guide in 1936. El Rey Court opened that same year.
Green was the rarest of chroniclers. He rooted for his own book to become obsolete.
“It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication, for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment,” he wrote in his 1948 edition.
Green never saw the progress he envisioned. He died in 1960, four years before a Civil Rights Act approved by Congress outlawed segregation in restaurants, motels, theaters and other public places.
Green’s widow, Alma, became editor of the travel book and continued publishing it until 1966. With bigotry pushed below the surface by the national anti-discrimination law, Black travelers gained some of the freedoms and choices available to white people. The Green Book, like the Negro Leagues, no longer had a purpose.
It disappeared from bookstores, libraries and filling stations as the most stubborn segregationists yielded.
The guidebook might have remained a mostly forgotten piece of Americana if not for Hollywood. The Green Book enjoyed a resurgence of interest after a movie of the same name won the Academy Award for best picture in 2019.
Much of the movie examined prejudice and lack of accommodations in the Deep South as a white man drove a Black musician to his bookings.
This was natural story line. Victor and Alma Green had experienced the dangers of segregation when they traveled from New York City to visit relatives in Virginia.
Victor decided to gather details for a guidebook to help other Black motorists avoid hazards that had nothing to do with potholes or icy roads. By the mid-1950s, Green had visited all 48 states.
The Green Book expanded as its compiler went west. He vouched for the Amigo Motel & Cafe in Tucumcari, the Grand Pacific Hotel in Bismarck, N.D., and Crater Cottages in Klamath Falls, Ore.
Green admitted his book was not comprehensive. He couldn’t possibly know each desegregated business in every metropolis and whistle-stop.
Relying on his own experiences and thousands of tips about businesses that had scrapped their white-only policy, he updated his Green Book most years. His biggest interruption came in World War II. He didn’t publish from 1942-45.
Operating his own publishing company, he drew modest interest from corporate titans. Standard Oil Co. and Esso contracted for 5,000 copies of the Green Book in 1946. Black motorists had to buy gasoline from someone.
Green’s guidebooks contained mistakes. El Rey is misspelled in the 1957 edition. So is Cerrillos Road.
But those weren’t the sort of errors that marred his credibility or inhibited communication with his audience. Buyers of the Green Book wouldn’t quibble about his getting a name wrong as long as the main theme of desegregated accommodations was accurate.
Most newspapers ignored Green’s publication. Newsrooms were mostly white in those times, and the Green Book was not something reporters knew or cared about. Only in the Black press, such as the old New York Age, did his travel guides receive consistent attention.
Today, more than 60 years after Victor Green’s death at age 67, the coverage is different. Many of the places listed in the Green Book are no longer standing, but the ones that are receive attention for their practice of ignoring Jim Crow and welcoming Black customers.
The Green Book only sounds like it was about money. Making a buck wasn’t nearly so important as a hospitality industry that really was hospitable.