The Negro Motorist Green Book
March 19 – June 12, 2022
From the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service
WHEN THE FIRST GREEN BOOK WAS PUBLISHED in 1936, the American road was a metaphor for freedom. Freedom to change your present situation, freedom to determine your destiny, freedom to travel. Yet, in 20th century America, this same road was a dangerous place for Black citizens. The land was divided by segregation—through policy or through custom. If you were Black, the prejudice was severe: a systematic effort to deny access to your basic human rights. Imagine the indignity of government-backed and socially-normalized oppression. Imagine the pain, the violence, the disrespect. And yet and still, African Americans created destinations and strategies that affirmed their humanity, their worth, their light, and took to the roads.
It was done with ingenuity, with community, and with the help of a Harlem postman named Victor Green.
“…the traveling was and wasn’t fun…We couldn’t eat in the restaurants in the South and so we had to go in the market to get what you called ‘souse’ [hogshead cheese] and white saltine crackers. But listen, darling, I loved souse…That was fun. We’d laugh right on down the highway and still have a good time.”
— ARETHA FRANKLIN, vocalist, composer/arranger, and civil rights activist
“The Green Book” travel guide was created by Victor Green to provide African American travelers with critical information on restaurants, gas stations, department stores, accommodations, and other businesses that welcomed Black travelers during the era of Jim Crow and “sundown towns.” Published annually through 1967, the national guide’s rich history is highlighted in the multimedia exhibition, The Negro Motorist Green Book. This exhibition was curated by Candacy Taylor, one of the nation’s leading Green Book scholars and an award-winning author, photographer, and documentarian.
Visitors will get an immersive look at the reality of travel for African Americans in mid-century America, and how The Green Book served as an indispensable resource for the nation’s rising African American middle class. You’ll be transported back to a time when, if you were Black, it took bravery and a Green Book to cross the country safely; explore film, photographs, art installations, interactives, and oral histories from travelers and Green Book business owners; compare Green Book sites then and now; and appreciate historical objects from the Smithsonian and from a variety of Green Book sites. You’ll understand not only the apprehension felt by African American travelers, but also the resilience, innovation, and elegance of people choosing to live a full American existence. The exhibition also brings into focus the vibrant parallel world of African American businesses, the rise of the Black leisure class, and the important role “The Green Book” played in facilitating the second wave of the Great Migration is brought into view.
The Negro Motorist Green Book was created by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in collaboration with Candacy Taylor and made possible through the generous support of Exxon Mobil Corporation. ExxonMobil’s predecessor, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, distributed “The Green Book” through its U.S. network of Esso stations, helping to provide motorists and their families opportunities for safer and more comfortable travel.
This exhibition has been locally supported by ArtsFund, Humanities Washington, and KNKX Public Radio.
Image credit: Four young African American women standing beside a convertible automobile, ca. 1958. Courtesy WANN Radio Station Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.