Steven Heller | Interviews

A Travel Guide Just For Black Americans

Racism in the United States has been so institutionalized throughout the nation’s history that even today the law that ensures equality for all as protected by the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act is by no means a self-evident truth. Overt and covert discrimination persists, giving lie to the American myth and dream. For over a century after the Civil War and the debacle of Reconstruction, bigoted Jim Crow laws (the Southern states’ license for apartheid) leeched into local ordinances and social conventions around the rest of the nation, prohibiting Black citizens from access to just about every aspect of daily life, from grocery stores, druggists, restaurants, and hotels. Although from the early twentieth century a Black American middle class had risen in the North, which with its disposable income was entitled to the same recreational benefits as whites, many white-owned businesses were allowed to impose prohibitions against serving or providing lodging for them. So, as Candacy A.Taylor writes in her recent book, Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America (Abrams), to avoid a racist backlash against these unwelcome visitors, travel guides were published to ensure Black Americans safety and recreational enjoyment while on vacation, through listings and recommendations of establishments that catered exclusively to a Black clientele.

The annual Negro Motorist Green Book was the most successful of these handbooks yet was little known to white consumers. A kind of AAA (American Automobile Association) for Blacks, it was conceived and published by a mailman, Victor Hugo Green, from 1936-1966. He was an entrepreneur with the goal to provide an encompassing resource for his community. As Taylor writes he was serious about producing a quality product: “... on a mission to find the best printer he could, so he headed down to 800 Sixth Avenue, near Twenty- eighth Street, in Manhattan’s Flower District. He walked past the trash bins filled with fresh-cut flower rejects, entered the building, and rode the service elevator up to the third floor, where the offices of Gibraltar Printing were located.” But he was not the initiator of such guides.

“The first black travel guide, Hackley and Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers, was published in 1930, six years before the Green Book”, Taylor writes. “It was created by an African American lawyer, Edwin Henry Hackley, and Sarah D. Harrison, a secretary at Connecticut’s New London Negro Welfare Council. Hackley and Harrison created their first edition soon after W. E. B. Du Bois [who lived in Great Barrington, Mass] wrote to Harrison seeking safe lodging for a trip to New London. The guide listed hotels and motels in three hundred cities throughout the United States and Canada. Hackley died soon after its publication, and Harrison couldn’t produce it on her own, so it was published only in 1930 and 1931. Another black travel guide, Grayson’s Travel and Business Guide, debuted in 1937, calling itself in its subtitle A National Directory of Hotels, Cafes, Resorts and Motels, Where Civil Rights Are Extended to All. A couple of years later, the Roosevelt administration published its own Directory of Negro Hotels and Guest Houses in the United States, through the National Park Service. Notably, around the same time, the Department of the Interior compiled a directory of black lodging for the ‘convenience of Negro Travelers.’ It is unclear how many people actually used the Department of the Interior guide or even knew it existed, but it appears that the Green Book was far more popular than this government guide.”

Taylor’s book is an essential dive into an aspect of American race history that seems to have conveniently been pushed aside until the release in 2018 of Peter Farrelly’s film Green Book (with Mahershala Ali and Viggo Morttensen). It is evidence of the systemic problems that Blacks had to endure and touches on many areas of economic and political incongruence. “Housing was and continues to be the most egregious form of overt racial disparity in the nation,” explains Taylor. “The Fair Housing Act was not passed until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even white people who didn’t consider themselves racist didn’t want black neighbors. The bill finally passed in April 1968. It was the last of the critical pieces of civil rights legislation to be passed in the 1960s, six days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.”

Taylor’s research on Green Book Project has been ongoing, and although the publication of Overground Railroad was not planned to coincide with The Black Lives Matters surge during the Covid-19 period, it is an opportune period for essential reading that underscores issues of inequity that have fueled the protests. Even after seeing the film “Green Book” I was unfamiliar with its history. So, originally, I asked Ms. Taylor, an ethnographic historian, visual artist and photographer, to answer some questions that are indeed covered in the book. Instead, she preferred to discuss the design by Gail Anderson and Joe Newton of Overground Railroad. I was delighted to learn more about how she envisioned the graphic presentation that would best frame her material. What follows is a refreshing and insightful interview on how her vision was brought to life.

Steven Heller: Your book Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America is quite an eye-opener. Most whites had no idea that such a proscriptive guide existed. Did most Black Americans know about this and how popular was it among them?

Candacy A. Taylor: The Green Book was filling a critical need for Black Americans, which was the key to its success. There were actually about a dozen other Black travel guides, but the Green Book had the widest reach and the most longevity. It was in publication for three decades which was longer than any of the others and it was sold at and marketed by Esso gas stations (ExxonMobil today). It was also successful as a result of an ambitious grassroots operation of a national network of mailmen led by fellow postal worker, Victor Green, who was also the guide’s creator. Green motivated these letter carriers to convince the Black-owned businesses on their route to advertise in the Green Book. This multipronged marketing strategy was so effective that by 1962, the Green Book had a circulation of nearly two million people.

SH: Your book is neither an art book nor a conventional history, its design by Gail Anderson and Joe Newton, balance the gravity and the ramifications with the visual "normality" of the book. It does not sensationalize yet it also provides the reader with evidence that this was a certain status quo. Is this what you were anticipating your book would look like?

CAT: Originally, I was concerned that Abrams would make a book that would be too beautiful, too artful and as a result dilute the seriousness of this book. I explained to them that although I wanted a heavily illustrated book, I didn’t want it to look or feel like a coffee table book. I also asked for the book to be a smaller trim size so that it could sit on the shelves next to other books, serious books that interrogate America’s failure to achieve racial equality like the New Jim Crow, and The Warmth of Other Suns.

SH: The Green Book ostensibly showed Black American options for travel that appeared through benign visuals, like illustrations of Black western cowboys – these were, of course, unthreatening. The book design projects that unthreatening quality as well. How well does this serve your purpose in presenting the material?

CAT: Encouraging Black people to leave everything that was familiar and venture into white American spaces was a radical idea. And although the language and imagery of the Green Book was sometimes tempered or even silent when it came to matters of race, it’s possible that Victor Green’s mild, nonthreatening approach was strategic. For the most part, the Green Book was tailored not to offend, incite, or inflame racial tensions. Ultimately, I think Victor Green made a conscious decision to ignore race when he could because his guide was a powerful tool that offered one solution to a problem that everyone already knew existed. And yes, like the Green Book, my book delivers this material in an easily accessible format. To reach a mass audience beyond the halls of academia, I knew it had to be a book that people would want to read. Although the content is dense, the type isn’t too small and there’s ample leading between the lines, which makes it easier to read. Ultimately, I don’t shy away from telling the bitter truth about racism in America, it’s just packaged in a way that makes it easier to consume.

SH: Is there is a kind of AAA road guide to the Green Book’s graphic design?

CAT: AAA guides actually didn’t look like Green Books and Black Americans knew they were living in a racist society. But here’s some information about the differences between AAA and the Green Book.

The Green Book was called the AAA guide for black people, but it was so much more. By necessity, earlier Green Book editions had listed businesses outside what would typically have been found in traditional travel guides because black Americans were legally shut out of nearly every segment of society. For example, over the Green Book’s nearly thirty-year reign, it listed nearly 10,000 businesses including hotels, restaurants, gas stations, department stores, tailors, nightclubs, drugstores, hair salons, haberdashers, sanitariums, doctors, funeral homes, real estate offices, and even a dude ranch.

SH: A book design is often the intention of the author and the vision or interpretation of the designer, are you pleased with the outcome?

CAT: I had a very distinct and specific vision for this book and thankfully, Abrams invited me to be a part of every step of the design process, including choosing the designers. I pushed for full bleeds of the Green Book pages, because I wanted readers to feel like they were in the guides. And the paper choice really helped capture the texture of these old guides and made my modern photographs look more interesting.

I was really pleased with the final result. It’s heavy…substantial...and it feels special, but not too precious. It’s beautiful, but not over-designed. The design elements are there and they are a direct platform to support the material. It feels serious and smart, but not in an academic sense. It’s something that both academics and a general audience would appreciate. I have a Master’s degree in Visual Criticism, so my work lives in these hybrid spaces/disciplines, and I know how difficult it is to capture these subtle nuances and still create a cohesive, balanced design that has a unique expression. I think Gail Anderson and Joe Newton are rock stars.

Jobs | July 22