Retracing the Legacy of America's Premier Black Travel Guide
Writer Candacy Taylor spent years traveling to hotels, diners, and rest stops from the original Green Book.
More than just a travel guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book was quite literally a lifesaver for Black people navigating America’s roadways during Jim Crow. Published between 1936 and 1967, the guide cataloged hotels, rest stops, diners, clubs, and resorts that could be trusted as welcoming safe havens for Black travelers.
With its signature green cover, the guide was published annually by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green, with the hope that one day, it would become irrelevant. Today, The Green Book is a lasting artifact from the Great Migration -- one of the largest, most rapid internal migration movements in American history, when at least 6 million Black Americans fled the oppressive south for cities in the north, east, and west.
Along the way, The Green Book was an invaluable resource that helped shape Black travel and Black communities. This is the legacy that Candacy Taylor explores in her book Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America. The author and cultural documentarian spent years traveling to the original sites listed in The Green Book, interviewing past and present business owners to better understand the guidebooks’ role in shaping our recent history.
We talked with Taylor about Overground Railroad, her upcoming traveling exhibition with The Smithsonian, and some of the historic Green Book businesses you can still visit today.
Thrillist: Tell us more about the original Green Book and what it meant to Black travelers escaping the south.
Taylor: The Green Book served as both a lifesaver and an anchor for Black Americans seeking community outside of the racist south. A lot of the Green Book sites were clustered in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and pretty much every state had its own mini version with a lot of Black businesses and entrepreneurs. It was crucial for mapping out driving routes, since stopping at the wrong place could literally get you killed. It was helpful for vacation planning as well as for people who wanted to discover Black neighborhoods or support Black businesses away from home.
What was it like to visit these sites and meet some of the business owners listed in The Green Book?
Taylor: Obviously it was really difficult to find these people, but it was also incredibly inspiring. These are living testimonies that capture the changes within these neighborhoods, and what they looked like when they were listed as a Green Book site compared to how they are today. The fact that some of these small Black owned businesses are still functioning and still alive is a miracle in itself and something to celebrate. I’m also working on preserving them and nominating some of them to the National Register.
What were some of The Green Book listings and stories that stood out to you in your research?
Taylor: It was an honor to meet with Leah Chase from Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans. I think she was 95 when I interviewed her and she was still a firecracker. Meeting people like that was incredibly inspiring for me, but it was also meaningful for the people involved. When I interviewed Leah Chase it was just me and my camera woman and it meant a lot for her to have two women interviewing her.
Then there’s others like Murray’s Dude Ranch in Apple Valley, California. It’s no longer around, but it was a dude ranch that was originally owned by a Black couple, the Murray’s, and later by actress Pearl Bailey. It was completely integrated, and the first place where Black and white children swam together in that part of the country. All of these stars would come, like the boxer Joe Louis and his entourage. It allowed Black travelers to experience this incredible piece of American history, this cowboy culture, which many would never have had access to.
The back of my book has a list of all the sites -- not comprehensive, but a good sampling of the sites that are still with us. I encourage people to dive into that.
How does Overground Railroad contend with the shift that’s occurred in Black communities since the publication of The Green Book?
Taylor: It wasn’t until I was on the road for almost two years and really spending more time in these communities that I realized this is not just a book about a historical guide and that it would be a great disservice not to interrogate the present in response to this history. That means looking at the incredible poverty, mass incarceration, redlining, gentrification, and other government policies that shaped the ways these communities turned out.
You’ve curated a Green Book exhibition that’s going to be touring with The Smithsonian this fall. What can visitors expect from that?
Taylor: It will begin in the fall at the National Civil Rights Museum [in Memphis] and tour for three years. The exhibition contains a wealth of film, photographs, art, and oral histories, including historical artifacts from the Smithsonian and Green Book sites, rare copies of different Green Book guides, business signs, brochures, signs from “sundown towns,” and other historical documents.
So for example, even though there’s nothing left of Murray’s Dude Ranch today, they were once featured on the cover of Ebony Magazine and in Life Magazine so we have a lot of materials that tell the story of what it was like to have this Black dude ranch in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I’ve dug around there in years past and found some old horse shoes from Murray’s and was able to feature those in the exhibition.
I’m also developing a mobile app to help people do a deeper dive into these Green Book sites. We’re building the prototype now and figuring out how far we want to take it in terms of augmented reality features and VR stuff. There are a lot of different ways to learn about and engage with this history and for other people to share their stories. It’s exciting to unearth our past.
Candacy, thanks so much for speaking with us and sharing these photographs from your research.