SOUTH SIDE, CHICAGO, Illinois, 1941. Russell Lee. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC – DIG – ppmsc – 00256. This photo has been famously referenced and reprinted by Chicagoans. Reportedly, it was taken one Easter Sunday when these young men were across from the Regal Theater on 47th Street and South Parkway. Only the young man in the middle has been identified as Spencer Lee Readus, Jr., 14. THE NEGRO MOTORIST Green Book is the title of the newest special exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
The Negro Motorist Green Book guided Black Americans to thousands of businesses for over 30 years. When the first “Green Book” was published, the American road was a metaphor for freedom: freedom to change your present situation, determine your destiny and travel. Yet, in 20th-century America, this same road was a dangerous place for Black travelers. The land was divided by segregation — through policy and through custom.
For Black people, the prejudice was severe: a systematic effort to deny them their basic human rights. In an era of Jim Crow laws and “sundown towns,” communities that explicitly prohibited Black travelers from staying overnight, the “Green Book” offered critical, life-saving information and sanctuary.
Now, through The Negro Motorist Green Book, visitors will explore film, photographs, interactives, and oral histories from travelers and “Green Book” business owners; compare “Green Book” sites then and now; and appreciate historical objects from the Smithsonian and from a variety of “Green Book” sites.
The exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie includes artifacts from business signs and postcards to historic footage, images, and firsthand accounts that illustrate not just the apprehension felt by Black travelers, but also the resilience, innovation, and elegance of people choosing to live a full American existence.
Developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in collaboration with award-winning author, photographer, and cultural documentarian Candacy Taylor, ‘Green Book’ offers an immersive look at the historic reality of travel for Black Americans and how the guide served as an indispensable resource for the rise of the Black leisure class in the United States.
The exhibition highlights destinations created by Black Americans and strategies that affirmed their humanity, their worth, their light, and their lives – and how it was done with ingenuity, community, and with help from Victor Green and his travel guide: “The Negro Motorist Green Book.”
During the era of Jim Crow laws, Green, a Black postal carrier from Harlem, recognized a need and decided to fulfill it. Inspired by his Jewish friend who had a book that listed places in the Catskills where Jewish people could find Kosher food, Green published his own book: The Green Book, a travel and survival guide. The Green Book became “the Bible of Black travel.”
Principals at the Museum discussed with the Crusader the importance of this exhibition.
“The Negro Motorist Green Book offers an immersive look at the reality of travel for African Americans in mid-century America and how the annual guide served as an indispensable resource for the nation’s rising African American middle class and evidence of a vibrant business class,” said Arielle Weininger, Chief Curator of Collections & Exhibitions. “Between 1936 and 1967, the guide provided an annual listing of businesses that offered Black citizens dignity and respect in segregated America. There were more than 10,000 businesses or associations advertised within the Green Book. The story of the Green Book is a little-known American story of success, of innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, community, and pride.”
Weininger shared thoughts on the importance of the exhibition for visitors: “With the destruction of so many sites listed in the Green Book, knowing this history allows one to remember the thriving communities, successful businesses, and centers of progress created during and in spite of Jim Crow. In 2010 there were nearly two million Black-owned businesses in America; Black entrepreneurship has, indeed, continued.
“Yet, how many fewer Black entrepreneurs would there be without the legacy of businesses captured in the Green Book? Green’s guide provides both inspiration and reflection—allowing visitors to celebrate past glory and meditate on the implications of racial justice and equality in the United States of America.
“This and future exhibitions’ importance can be summed up in a quote from the late novelist and activist James Baldwin: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, and history is literally present in all that we do.”—James Baldwin, EBONY, August, 1965.
Leah Reach, Director of Education, spoke about the similarities between the journeys of the African American and Jewish populations. “Black Americans and Jewish Americans have two different histories that sometimes intersect positively and at other times problematically. Both racism and antisemitism, which changed from being based on religion to being based on race, are foundational to the understanding of American history,” she said.
“Looking at American history during the time of the Green Book, the exhibition not only focuses on the human rights violations during segregation and the creation of the Green Book as a response. It also features a section on how Green Book sites were the planning grounds for the Civil Rights Movement. While not the focus of the exhibition, it’s worth noting that a large number of Jewish Americans joined Black Americans and fought for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial and religious discrimination in the United States.
“Given the racism and antisemitism that are so prevalent in the U.S. today, it’s clear that all Americans need to come together and work to eradicate hatred in all its forms.”
The exhibition runs through April 23, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum is located at 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie, Illinois For more information, visit ihm.ec/greenbook.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].