New Film Details Plight of Black Travelers Under Jim Crow

The Academy Awards take place this weekend, and one of the top contenders is the movie Green Book, which has renewed interest in the history of The Negro Motorist Green Book. So today we look at a remarkable new documentary called The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, that offers a real look at the history of a travel guide that helped African Americans safely navigate Jim Crow America. The film premieres Monday on the Smithsonian Channel and details the violence, insults and discrimination black travelers faced on the road, as well as the pride and sense of community they felt in the safe spaces they created around the country, in the form of restaurants, hotels and vacation retreats. We feature excerpts and speak with writer and director Yoruba Richen, professor in the documentary program in the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. The Academy Awards take place Sunday. One of the top contenders for a number of Oscars — for best picture, best actor, supporting actor, screenplay, editing — is the movie Green Book. The film is inspired by the true story of a tour of the Deep South by the African-American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, and his driver, Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen.

The movie has renewed interest in the history of The Negro Motorist Green Book. And today we look at a remarkable new documentary that offers a real look at the history of a travel guide that helped African Americans safely navigate Jim Crow America. It details the violence, the insults, the discrimination black travelers faced on the road, as well as the pride and sense of community they felt in the safe spaces they created around the country, in the form of restaurants, hotels and vacation retreats. The film is called The Green Book: Guide to Freedom. This is the trailer.

MARQUETTE FOLLEY: Very bad things happened to African Americans. Going down a dark country road, there was a sense of apprehension. You could actually be lynched.

YORUBA RICHEN: Smithsonian Channel presents the real story behind the book.

UNIDENTIFIED: The Green Book was a way to understand how you could get from A to B safely.

YORUBA RICHEN: That became a roadmap.

UNIDENTIFIED: Right when you open up, it says, “Know your rights.” And it goes state by state.

YORUBA RICHEN: For some of the most significant people, successful businesses and most important political milestones of the 20th century.

UNIDENTIFIED: Owning an automobile was a big deal.

JAMON JORDAN: Having a car meant something. It meant that you had arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED: Regular people populating something called middle class?

UNIDENTIFIED: There were all kinds of businesses listed, just what you would find in a AAA guide, but also very telling in terms of how many areas black people were shut out of.

UNIDENTIFIED: It uncovers a hidden truth about the African-American community. It allows us to really just simply embrace the genius of us.

UNIDENTIFIED: The Negro Travelers’ Green Book.

MARQUETTE FOLLEY: The guide to travel and vacations.

UNIDENTIFIED: Travel-wise people.

RON HANDY: Carry your Green Book with you.

UNIDENTIFIED: You may need it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The Green Book: Guide to Freedom. The film premieres Monday on the Smithsonian Channel.

For more, we’re joined here in our New York studio by its writer and director, Yoruba Richen, a professor in the documentary program in the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She also happens to be a former Democracy Now! producer.

It’s great to have you back here, Yoruba.

YORUBA RICHEN: It’s great to be here, always.

AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations on this film.

YORUBA RICHEN: Thank you. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the history and what inspired you to do this film.

YORUBA RICHEN: So, let’s see. There’s so much history within the pages of The Green Book. The Green Book was created and first published in 1936 by a man named Victor Hugo Green. He was a postal worker based in Harlem. And he had the idea for the book because of a Jewish friend of his had a guide for the Catskills for Jewish families, where they could go in the Catskills. And he looked at that, and he said, “Hey, this would be a great idea. This is something that the black community needs.” He also had a — was married to a woman named Alma, who lived in Virginia, and they would travel down to Virginia. And he, you know, experienced all the things that African Americans experienced at that time in terms of traveling. And so he created The Green Book.

AMY GOODMAN: You narrate this film, I want to take it — go back to the film, as you describe and show this history of The Green Book.

YORUBA RICHEN: Victor Green was a postal worker from Harlem, New York, one of the fastest-growing African-American communities in the country. But even in his own neighborhood, African Americans were unwelcome at many hotels and other establishments. And at Harlem’s famed nightclubs, such as the Cotton Club, where top black entertainers, like Lena Horne and Duke Ellington, packed the house every night, blacks were not allowed to sit in the audience. In 1936, Green created and published the first Negro Motorist Green-Book, which listed businesses where black customers were welcome.

THE GREEN BOOK 1948: The idea of The Green Book is to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.

YORUBA RICHEN: The Green Book started out only listing locations in New York, mainly in Harlem. Two of the most prominent were the Hotel Theresa and the YMCA, which served as one of Harlem’s most important recreational and cultural centers. During the 1930s, dancers from the Cotton Club rehearsed at the YMCA. And many famous luminaries, such as writer Langston Hughes and boxer Joe Lewis, stayed there. But The Green Book would soon outgrow Harlem. And by the time it ended publication, it had become more than just a travel guide. It had become a roadmap to some of the most significant people, successful businesses and most important political milestones of the 20th century.

HENRIE MONTEITH TREADWELL: It’s important to have everyone in this nation examine the significance of The Green Book. If you don’t see the history, if you don’t see where it was, how can you say it happened?

YORUBA RICHEN: Eventually, The Green Book would list more than 9,500 places between its pages. Today, only about a third of those sites are still standing.

HENRIE MONTEITH TREADWELL: We need to find those places, and we need to see them, and we need to revere what they meant, because they made all the difference to our survival.

THE GREEN BOOK 1947: Carry your Green Book with you. You may need it.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the Smithsonian’s new documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom. Our guest is Yoruba Richen, who is the filmmaker who made this documentary. “You may need it.” This was not just about where you could go to have fun; this was about where you could go to ensure you would survive.

YORUBA RICHEN: Absolutely, absolutely. Traveling during that time, for African Americans, was, to say the least, a dangerous proposition. Not only was there segregation in the South, places where African Americans obviously were not allowed to go, to eat, to sleep, but also the North and the West. So, you know, there’s this mythology that racism and segregation is confined to the South, or was confined to the South. That’s not true. The North and the West had the majority of what we call “sundown towns,” places where African Americans had to get out, had to leave town. There were maybe signs, a bell might be rung, for African Americans to leave the town. They were not welcome, and there was the potential for violence.

AMY GOODMAN: After midnight. In the daytime, they could work there.

YORUBA RICHEN: Yes, they could work there, and then they had to leave.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, that was also referenced in the Hollywood film Green Book.

YORUBA RICHEN: Absolutely, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Which has been criticized for various reasons —

YORUBA RICHEN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — the perspective it was told from, the white driver’s son — it was based on his book — and not consulting Don Shirley’s family.

YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: This remarkable pianist, classical, jazz, who took this tour in 1962 through the South. But you definitely have the sense of violence he faced. And his going to — well, talk about, in the Hollywood film, the places he went to, versus, well, all the places that are documented in The Green Book.

YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah, I mean, that was one of the most frustrating parts for me and for many people watching the Hollywood film, is that the film is called The Green BookThe Green Book is only a small part of the film — but the places that they went to were really not nice places. They were —

AMY GOODMAN: Dumps.

YORUBA RICHEN: — dumpy. Yeah, they were dumps. And that’s not what was in The Green Book. That’s not the extent. The Green Book had 9,500 listings over the period of 30-some-odd years. And, you know, one of those places was the Gaston Motel, the finest motel, a Negro motel, in the country. So, that was a real misrepresentation. And the other thing —

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, we were just in Birmingham this weekend, the Gaston Hotel not far from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and they’re talking about now renovating it —

YORUBA RICHEN: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: — and preserving it.

YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really exciting. The other thing the film did was that the driver and Dr. Shirley only used the book in the South. So, when they were in the North and in the West, you didn’t see them using the book. And then, when they get to the South is when they use the book. And as I said before, that’s not true. I mean, these listings were all over, because African Americans had to navigate those dangerous roads all over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about some of these places, like Idlewild, and also talk about the role of Esso, the oil company. Yoruba Richen is the writer and director of The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, which will be premiering on Smithsonian Channel on Monday. Stay with us.

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