Victor Hugo Green: Creator of one of travel's most influential guide books
Victor Hugo Green envisioned a world where Black people could travel freely, on equal terms as white people, and experience the country and world without fear.
Green was a postal worker who, in 1936, created The Negro Motorist Green Book, a 15-page guide to help Black travelers find safe spaces and resources while on road trips during the Jim Crow era. It published each year until the late 1960s and was the most successful and longest-running Black travel guide; a few similarly aimed guides were published prior but were discontinued.
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Born in 1892, Green lived at a time when automobile travel was gaining popularity across the nation and more Americans were embarking on nationwide explorations. But during the era of Jim Crow laws, an adventure could easily go awry for Black Americans.
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Traveling in the early 1900s meant a new type of freedom, but it came at a risk. When cars were first made widely available, many African Americans saw an exciting new opportunity to see the country in a vehicle of their own, where they couldn’t be relegated to a Black-only section.
But the problem with cars is that “you can’t just keep on driving forever," said Mia Bay, an American historian, professor and author of the forthcoming "Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance," which tells the story of Black travel from steamboats to airplanes. Eventually, travelers needed to stop for gas, food or to use the restroom.
Many Black travelers were met with racism and turned away from services. “Sometimes they would have to drive hundreds of miles before they found a place where they could stop and eat or, even worse, find a hotel,” Bay said.
They packed for every possibility: pillows for rest, extra food for sustenance and gasoline and portable toilets in case none were available to them. Also among the luggage: The Negro Motorist Green Book.
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For a Black family looking to load up their new automobile and set off on a cross-country journey to see the nation’s rolling landscapes, the trip could mean life or death. Between segregation, which was pervasive nationwide, and “sundown towns” that speckled the landscape and banned people of color after sunset, Black travelers faced dangerous and unpredictable situations.
Black travelers, though aware of the threats, still braved the open road — Green included. He encountered discrimination during his own travels and learned stories from other Black travelers.
As a Black mail carrier, Green was a walking Green Book before the concept existed. He was a go-to for where Black residents frequented and which businesses Black people could patronize. He and others like him were living almanacs of safe spaces for Black people.
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The Green Book seemed to be an innovative, but natural, next step for Green.
At 44, Green published the first New York-focused Green Book.
It was formatted based on Jewish travel guides and listed sleeping accommodations, restaurants and gas stations that served Black travelers, as well as beauty shops and nightclubs.
With the second edition in 1937, the Green Book went national. Its popularity exploded. Green collected information from postal workers across the country and began to solicit recommendations. He built a publishing company and went on to publish 15,000 copies each year.
Green eventually retired from the Postal Service but continued his work on new editions of the Green Book. He also developed a travel agency business he established in 1947.
By the end of the publishing years, the Green Book stretched beyond American soil and listed international locations across Mexico, Canada, France and other places amiable to Black people.
And everywhere it lived, the book was likely saving lives, said Martinique Lewis, who pulled the Green Book concept into the 21st century with her self-published ABC Travel Greenbook, released in August of 2020.
Green died in 1960, but his Green Book and legacy have long outlived him — and his work is pertinent even today.
Traveling while Black can still be risky, and travelers still face threats of discrimination that have morphed with the times. Discrimination still appears in the travel industry, such as incidents where Black guests are turned away by vacation rental hosts and reported incidents of airline discrimination.
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“The problems that Victor Green tried to address in the Green Book aren't over,” said Bay. “There's still a way in which African Americans are not necessarily welcome in all spaces and have to kind of be careful about where they go.”
“With the rise of the Black travel movement, in the past few years we’ve seen Black people in places we’ve never seen Black people before,” Lewis said, whose Greenbook focuses on the international community of Black travel-related businesses. “The Greenbook helps you know where to find them. It is unpacking our communities and our culture and our business in places where people never thought and places where people frequent all the time without knowing where people are who look like them."
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Racism has existed in each era of transportation innovation, from stagecoaches to airplanes, Bay said. Black people and white people "never traveled on equal terms.”
Bay said there’s a long history of Black resistance in travel, for Black people wanting better accommodations and equal, fair treatment. The feeling still exists today.
“It doesn’t stop us from going, we just do more research,” said Lewis. The ABC Travel Greenbook provides travelers with information about where to find Black-owned businesses and people abroad, “information that isn’t readily available to us,” Lewis said.
“We have this kind of nice fantasy, and it’s very much part of our modern travel industry — the idea that you can just go anywhere,” Bay said. “But I think that’s more true for some people than others.”
Feautre photo by Peter Griffith/Getty Images.