After the completion of the highway system, automotive travel became a staple of 20th century American life. With more Americans on the road every day, gas stations, hotels, and restaurants sprouted up along the roads. But the racist laws of the time prevented Black Americans from enjoying the same freedom of the open road as whites. In 1936, at the height of racial segregation, Victor and Alma Green published their travel guide for Black Americans: The Green Book.
In the introductory section of the first publication, Victor Green poignantly wrote: “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. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes, we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.”
The Green Book filled a critical need for Black Americans which was the key to its success. No official business records from the Greens’ office survive today, so there is no way to know how many copies were sold. Some reports have estimated that approximately 15,000 were sold each year, and another estimate has more than two million copies circulated in 1962 alone.
In 1949, the Greens established a travel agency booking reservations at Black-owned establishments for Black clients. By 1949, the guide included international listings in Mexico and Bermuda. In 1952, the Greens changed the book’s name to The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, later shortening it again to The Travelers’ Green Book.
The guide’s longevity and success stemmed from Victor and Alma’s vision, grit, creativity and stamina. It was distributed by mail order and word of mouth. Victor Green enlisted an army of letter carries to comb America’s streets for advertisers that made the Green Book into one of the most densely packed travel guides on the market – more than 10,000 businesses were featured over the lifetime of the guide.
The only major distributor of The Green Book was The Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, today known as ExxonMobil. Their Esso gas stations were welcoming to not only Black travelers, but also Black Americans searching for employment. The Green Book was often available for purchase at Esso gas stations across the country.
Born in 1892, Victor Hugo Green was named after the French author of the same name. Green’s family settled in Hackensack, NJ, where Green worked as a postal carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. In 1918, Green married Alma Duke who came to the New York area from Virginia as a part of the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South. The couple lived in an apartment in Harlem, NY during a period of Black arts and culture known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Only four years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Victor Green passed away at the age of 67. Alma and her predominantly female staff published The Green Book until 1962 and the last two editions (1963-1964 and 1966-1967) were published by Langley Waller and Melvin Tapley. Though officially editor for only a few years, Alma played a significant role in the creation and evolution of the book. Many believe that Alma’s own life experiences played a large role in the conception of The Green Book. Alma passed away in 1978, just before her 89th birthday.