Thursday, February 28, 2019

Short Lesson: The Green Book, or, Driving While Black in Jim Crow America

I love good historical podcasts and have been working them into my public history classes. I find a podcast episode that I think my students will like, play it in class, and then have them explore some related resources in a structured way. With the current buzz around the controversial best picture, The Green Book, I thought this might be a good opportunity to share one such short lesson: 

The Green Book, or, Driving While Black in Jim Crow America

American automobile culture reached its peak in the decades after the Second World War. An economic boom, the Interstate Highway Act and a new emphasis on family vacations gave rise to a new American tradition: The road trip.  These same decades, however, were the era of Jim Crow America, where racial segregation was the rule in most public and private spaces. What was a middle-class black family to do?

Enter The Green Book. Published from 1936 to 1967, this travel guide for African-American motorists provided a list of businesses that did not discriminate. The Green Book promised blacks the opportunity to travel “without embarrassment.” Using information assembled by an army of black volunteers, the information in the Green Book was never complete, but by the 1950s the listings were extensive and nationwide, offering African Americans an opportunity to travel from coast to coast--if they planned carefully.


Possible Classroom Activities:
  • Plan a trip, pretending that you are a black family during this time period. Perhaps you are touring the major National Parks, or historic sites along the east coast, or visiting the Great Lakes. Use your imagination. Plan a six-day trip including places to eat, sleep, get gas, and use the bathroom. Your car, a 1954 Buick Plymouth Plaza Station wagon, has a range of 356 miles on a full tank of gas--less in the mountains. Your kids always swear that they used the bathroom before you left the hotel, but you know kids. Record your itinerary, either as a document or for extra points as a custom Google Map.
  • Examine the advertising and names of businesses in the Green Book. Are there ways that businesses signaled that they were open to African Americans?
  • Use Google Maps Street View picture to go looking for some of these businesses. Do the buildings still stand? What are they used for now?

1 comment:

Judy Bentley said...

You might also suggest reading Christopher Curtis's young adult novel: The Watsons Go to Birmingham, a black family on a car trip to the south.