Sundown towns existed across the United States in the years following Jim Crow. They were all-white communities or counties that purposefully excluded Black people and other minorities through discriminatory legislation, intimidation, harassment, or violence. Sundown towns were named for the fact that Black people were permitted to enter these all-white neighborhoods during the day to work or shop but had to leave by nightfall.
Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, many White lawmakers in the South implemented discriminatory regulations, resulting in the Jim Crow era. Segregation existed in railroads, buses, schools, and other public facilities. It was also at this time when several sundown towns sprouted up. Many people assumed that these sundown towns were only found in the South. Sundown communities could be found in the Midwest, West, and North.
Because of these issues, Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker from Harlem, wrote The Negro Motorist Green Book to assist Black individuals or tourists in finding secure places to rest, shop, and dine on the road. The book was printed from 1936 to 1967 and was read by two million people. Green had grown tired of the segregation that his fellow Black people endured when they ventured beyond their communities in Jim Crow America. Green released his historic travel guide to aid Black Americans and Black tourists traversing a hostile America, inspired by books published early on for Jewish audiences.
The original edition of the book only covered restaurants and motels in the New York area that accepted Blacks. Subsequent editions expanded to include the entire country, including some overseas cities. The book included nightclubs, state parks, beauty parlors, service stations, drug stores, golf courses, and pubs as well as motels and restaurants that were safe for Black people. According to History.com, the 1949 book advised Black individuals or tourists looking for a bar in the Atlanta area to visit the Yeah Man, Sportsman’s Smoke Shop, or Butler’s.
Many of these businesses were Black-owned or were free of prejudice. Green, as a postal worker, used his contacts in the postal workers union to find places for Black people to stay. Some Black tourists and readers also wrote in recommendations, and Green would occasionally compensate them. The Green Book also frequently included the addresses of homeowners who were willing to rent out their rooms. The book would also be extremely beneficial to Black-owned enterprises. Green printed 20,000 books every year, which were distributed through black churches, Esso gas stations, and the Negro Urban League.
Green left the postal service in 1952 to pursue full-time publishing. According to the Smithsonian magazine, he charged 25 cents for the first edition of the book and $1 for the final, but his purpose was to let his fellow African Americans move and travel freely.
“There will come a time when this handbook will not need to be written,” Green wrote in the 1948 edition. “That is when we will have equal opportunities and advantages in the United States as a race.”
Green died in 1960, and four years later, Congress approved the Civil Rights Act, which for the first time prohibited racial segregation in public spaces. Two years later, Alma Green, who was still publishing the Green Book, ceased publication.
“You consider the things that most travelers, or most people nowadays, take for granted.” “If I go to New York City and want to get my hair trimmed, it’s quite easy for me to locate a place where that can happen, but it wasn’t easy back then,” civil rights leader Julian Bond told NPR. “White barbers would not cut the hair of black folks.” White beauty salons, hotels, and so forth would not accept black women as clientele. You needed the “Green Book” to know where you could travel without getting hit in the face.”
Between 1890 and 1960, there were up to 10,000 sundown towns around the country. According to BlackPast, some sundown towns also used discriminatory housing covenants to ensure that no Black person could buy or rent a home. As sundown towns grew in number, Black people and Black travelers who desired to explore the United States found it impossible to travel long distances, particularly by car.