Negro Motorist Green Book & Warmth of Other Suns

Yes, I’m taking my sweet time as I work my way through The Warmth of Other Suns (blame it on television), but I’m definitely enjoying the read. I’m a native of Chicago, Illinois, so I’m certain that several of my ancestors participated in the great migration—the focus of Wilkerson’s book. As the author notes, I might not exist had they not made that journey.

During my read, I came across a reference to the Negro Motorist Green Book. I’d previously seen it discussed in several news articles and blogs and decided that I didn’t need to contribute with a post on the subject. However, since I can now associate it with my current read—well, here’s the reference:

Lordsburg was a dusty old frontier town with saloons famous for fist-fights and a Southern Pacific Railroad track paralleling Main. [Robert] would have had no reason to stop there if it didn’t happen to be the only place in New Mexico he had been told that he could be assured of a place to sleep.

The rooming house in Lordsburg was part of a haphazard network of twentieth-century safe houses that sprang up all over the country, and particularly in the South, during the decades of segregation. Some were seedy motels in the red-light district of whatever city they were in. There were a handful of swanky ones, like the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. But many of them were unkempt rooming houses or merely an extra bedroom in some colored family’s row house house in the colored district of a given town. They sprang up out of necessity as the Great Migration created a need for places were colored people could stop and rest in a world where no hotels in the South accepted colored people and those in the North and West were mercurial in their policies, many of them disallowing blacks as readily as hotels in the South.

Thus, there developed a kind of underground railroad for colored travelers, spread by word of mouth among friends and in fold-up maps and green paperback guidebooks that listed colored lodgings by state or city.

Colored travelers, hoping to plan their journeys in advance and get assurance of a room, carried the guidebooks in their glove compartments like insurance cards. But the books were often out of date by the time they were printed, the accuracy of their entries based on the fortunes of “hoteliers” who many have only been renters themselves. A colored traveler had to prepare for the possibility that he might arrive at a place in the guidebook only to find that the proprietor had been gone for years and then have to take up the search for a room all over again. Still, the mere presence of the guidebooks and of word-of-mouth advice about places to stay gave a sense of order and dignity to the dispiriting prospect of driving cross-country not knowing for sure whee one might lay one’s head (Wilkerson 203-4).

The Green Book offers similar sentiments:

Consider downloading the pdf to review this bit of paperback history, especially if you live in a major city that’s mentioned inside. I skipped right to the Houston portion to see if I recognized any of the hotels, restaurants, beauty parlors, and/or nightclubs. I knew there was a slim to none chance since the book was published so long ago, but surprisingly, one spot still remains.

Happy reading, y’all!

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