The Green Book

April 05, 2019 Posted by: Shelton Johnson

Victor Hugo Green was the author of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a unique guidebook first published in 1936 listing “all first-class hotels throughout the United States that catered to Negroes.” Such a guide was necessary because of real dangers facing African American travelers on the road. Racial segregation, particularly in the South, but also just about anywhere in America, made road trips for African Americans fraught with peril. Laws in southern states required separate facilities, and many restaurants and motels excluded them. 

Thus, the Green Book was born and grew such that by 1949, the guide included many international destinations as well. By 1952 the name of the guide had changed to “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book.” The subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially ended racial segregation in public facilities, rendering the guide obsolete.

However, the cumulative impact of that period in American history is still felt today on the roads leading to America’s national parks. Park gates are open and welcoming, but as William Faulkner once wrote, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” The memories of those times have been passed down from one generation to the next within the African American community, resulting in a malaise and uneasiness at the thought of travel to remote areas of the United States such as our national parks. Fear is a powerful emotion, and continues to play a role in the relative absence of African Americans from areas like Yosemite.

1957 edition of the Green Book for Negro Travelers
The cover and page 10 of the 1957 edition of the Negro Travelers' Green Book. Read the entire book online from the New York Public Library.

Fortunately, the best antidote to fear is education! Even though African American visitation to Yosemite still hovers around 1% of total visitation, it was recently discovered that the 1957 edition of the Green Book listed no less than five properties in Yosemite: 

Hotel Ahwahnee
Yosemite Lodge
Camp Curry
Glacier Point Hotel
High Sierra Hotel

Consequently, seven years before the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were probably African Americans visiting Yosemite National Park for the first time specifically because they consulted the 1957 edition of the Green Book. 

In the 2018 Academy Award-winning film of the same name, the Italian-American bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), serves as Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) bodyguard and driver, and is given a copy of the Green Book to use as a reference before their journey commences.

A few years prior to this movie’s release, I met an African American family in Yosemite Valley, and the matriarch of that family told me that they had been visiting Yosemite since the 1950s. She told me that, in general, they were not harassed or abused in any way, and that they enjoyed the experience of being in Yosemite, and still do after 60 years. 

Now the question in my mind is, had they read the Green Book?

What I do know is what Victor Hugo Green wrote in the first edition of his book has finally come true. Yes, there are still barriers to overcome in order to make our national parks truly inclusive, but the greatest wall was demolished with the legislative high point of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964.

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.”

We are so much more than our individual and collective ethnic identities. We pay too much attention to differences that are superficial while ignoring similarities that are profound. Ironically, maybe we got it right over 100 years ago when the following words were inscribed over the Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana.

“For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Last updated: April 5, 2019

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