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Travel Back in Time with “The Negro Motorist Green Book”

[Outdoor Photo of a Mother, Father and child Standing by a Car], 1948-1970s. Rev. Henry Clay Anderson. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. (c) Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Negro Motorist Green Book, an exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in collaboration with award-winning author, photographer, and cultural documentarian Candacy Taylor, is coming to Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, just in time for Black History Month. The exhibition opens January 29 and runs through April 23, 2023.

What is “The Negro Motorist Green Book”?

“The Green Book,” first published in 1936 under the title “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” was created for the growing African American middle class who had the desire and financial means to travel the country but were restricted from many of the resources and accommodations necessary. Social and legal constraints, including unwelcoming hotels, restaurants, and gas stations along with Jim Crow era laws and “sundown towns” – communities where African Americans were legally barred from spending the night – were very prevalent in many places across America.

The book provided Black customers with a guide to hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and cultural attractions that would accept their business. Often these resources were themselves Black-owned and operated. In Chicago, “The Green Book” mostly directed travelers to listings located in the South Side community of Bronzeville, which was built by the Black migrants who transformed the Chicago area during the Great Migration. Of the over 180 businesses listed in Chicago, nearly 80% were in the Bronzeville District, an area that was considered a mecca for Black manufacturing, hair care, publishing, and banking industries.

Published annually by Victor Hugo Green (1892–1960), a New Yorker who retired from his work as a mailman due to the book’s success and expanded into the travel reservation business, “The Green Book” was a vital handbook for decades.

Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, predecessor of the exhibition’s national sponsor ExxonMobil, played a significant role in the distribution of “The Green Book” through its U.S. network of Esso stations, helping to provide motorists and their families opportunities for safer and more comfortable travel. Esso stations were the only major retail distributors of “The Green Book,” and the company also employed many African American engineers, scientists and marketing executives, and welcomed African American motorists at its stations.

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