By Michele Meyer-Shipp
It’s Hollywood awards season, and one of the films people are buzzing about is "Green Book.” Set in the Deep South in the 1960s, it tells the story of an African-American classical and jazz pianist and his Italian-American driver and bodyguard as they travel from performance to performance across the United States.
While ads for the film hint that it is based on a true story, the excitement around it had me wondering how many people actually know the relevance of its title. The movie is named for a resource that has now become a piece of American history and the Black experience: In 1936, a Harlem, NY, postal worker named Victor Hugo Green published the “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” an annual guidebook for African Americans who traveled by car. The book listed restaurants, gas stations, garages, hotels and motels, parks, public and private businesses and other places that would welcome and accommodate Black travelers in a time when non-whites were openly — and often legally —discriminated against. It became a staple of Black motorists, many of whom would never leave home without it to help ensure their safety as they traveled our roads and highways.
The book ceased publication in 1966, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed the types of racial discrimination that inspired Victor Green to create it. But as we heard during our Day of Understanding conversations, the experience of “traveling while Black” continues to occur in some places, even today.
It is uncomfortable to think about needing a guidebook to help us find a place to eat or sleep or buy gasoline or go to the bathroom. But for Black Americans who used “The Negro Motorist Green Book”— and even those who did not — considering those things before they left home was a way of life. Today, many of us don’t give them a second thought; but for the generations who came before us, the ability to travel freely across our beautiful country, take their family to a popular vacation spot, or dine at a famous restaurant simply wasn’t an option.
As we commemorate Black History Month, I hope my musings inspire you to learn more about the story behind “Green Book.” As importantly, I hope it inspires you to start a conversation that helps you learn more about each other, because knowledge creates understanding, and understanding obliterates fear.
Michele Meyer-Shipp is Chief Diversity Officer of KPMG.