In the years following Jim Crow, sundown towns were real across the United States. They were all-white communities or counties that intentionally excluded Black people and other minorities through discriminatory laws, threats, harassment or use of violence. These all-white communities were named sundown towns because they were places where Black people were allowed in during the day to work or shop but had to be gone by nightfall.
After slavery was abolished in the United States, many White lawmakers in the South introduced discriminatory policies leading to the establishment of the Jim Crow era. There was segregation in trains, buses, schools and other public facilities. And it was around this same period that many sundown towns emerged. These sundown towns were not only in the South as many thought. There were sundown communities in the Midwest, in the West and in the North.
There were up to 10,000 sundown towns across the country between 1890 and 1960. Some sundown towns also used discriminatory housing covenants to make sure that no Black person would be allowed to purchase or rent a home, according to BlackPast. As sundown towns rose, Black people or Black travelers who wanted to tour the U.S. found it difficult to travel long distances, especially by car.
Owing to these difficulties, a postal worker from Harlem known as Victor Hugo Green penned The Negro Motorist Green Book to help Black people or travelers find safe places to stay, shop and eat on the road. Printed from 1936 to 1967, the book was used by two million people. Green had become frustrated with the segregation faced by his fellow Black people anytime they moved beyond their communities in a Jim Crow America. And so inspired by books that had been published early on for Jewish audiences, Green introduced his historic travel guide to help Black Americans and Black tourists navigate a hostile America.
The first edition of the book only focused on restaurants and hotels that welcomed Blacks in the New York area. Subsequent editions went further to cover the whole nation including some international cities. The guide did not only list hotels and restaurants that were safe for Black people but also nightclubs, state parks, beauty parlors, service stations, drug stores, golf courses and taverns. For instance, the 1949 guide told Black people or tourists looking for a bar in the Atlanta area to visit the Yeah Man, Sportsman’s Smoke Shop or Butler’s, according to History.com.
Many of these establishments were Black-owned or free from discrimination. Since Green was a postal worker, he used his contacts in the postal workers union to find out where Black people could stay. some Black travelers and readers also sent suggestions, and Green would sometimes pay them. The Green Book also usually listed the addresses of homeowners who had no problem renting their rooms. The book would also help Black-owned businesses a lot. Green printed 20,000 books annually, and they were sold at black churches, Esso gas stations and the Negro Urban League.
Green retired from the postal service in 1952 to publish full-time. According to the Smithsonian magazine, he charged 25 cents for the first edition of the book and $1 for the last but he never became a rich person as his mission was to help his fellow African Americans move and travel without fear.
“There will be a day in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” Green wrote in the 1948 edition. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”
Green passed away in 1960, and four years later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act that finally banned racial segregation in public places. Two years later, Green’s wife Alma, who was still releasing the Green Book, stopped publication.
“You think about the things that most travelers take for granted, or most people today take for granted. If go to New York City and want a hair cut, it’s pretty easy for me to find a place where that can happen, but it wasn’t easy then,” civil rights leader Julian Bond told NPR. “White barbers would not cut black peoples’ hair. White beauty parlors would not take black women as customers – hotels and so on, down the line. You needed the “Green Book” to tell you where you can go without having doors slammed in your face.”