Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Negro Motorist Green Book Gives Us an Important Glimpse Into Our Recent Past

A Facebook friend of mine posted a link to a story in the NY Times about the Green Book from back in the Jim Crow era. The Green Book was a handy guide for black travelers during the mid-20th century; it pointed out safe places black travelers could patronize. Here is a link to a 1949 edition of the book held by the University of Michigan.

This book is a treasure trove of information regarding the history of Jim Crow in this country. Naturally, I looked up my hometown, because Hampton, VA (Elizabeth City County circa 1949) was a known spot for black vacationers, specifically the old Bay Shore Beach (now private property between Buckroe Beach and Fort Monroe's Dog Beach). There are three sections under Virginia that are in Hampton: Bay Shore Beach, Phoebus and Hampton. I am going to ask my older relatives what they remember regarding the place names listed as safe spots for black travelers (the book stopped being published, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Sadly, I think most of those places are gone. It will also be interesting to see which white owned businesses were willing to serve black customers.

I have a couple of friends who have been working on raising awareness on the need to preserve some these old Jim Crow era vacation sites (Martha's Vineyard, MA, Idlewild, MI, Highland Beach, MD, for example). Not only does it provide a window into the vacationing habits of black folks, but it also helps to reinforce the fact that there was economic diversity within the black community during that time. I remember seeing an old copy of "Ebony" magazine that listed some of the more popular vacation spots for the black middle and upper classes, and Bay Shore was right there with Martha's Vineyard, which surprised me.

It's little bits like the Green Book that have really made African American history (the "official" academic term) an interesting field of study for me, and I hope many more people will get exposed to that little, but very important, book.

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