Green Miles

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America BY Candacy Taylor. New York: Abrams. 360 pages. $35.

The cover of Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America

The signage of segregation, terrible and tangible, left us with a deficient vision of Jim Crow America. The cruelty of a whites only placard may seem like the bookend to Bull Connor’s gross brutality, but such signage implied that the dangers and humiliations of Jim Crow always came labeled. White supremacy drew its power from the ritualized humiliation of black people having to ask if a public service was available. Even sundown towns—communities across the nation that violently banned African Americans after dark—didn’t always advertise their own rules. For mid-twentieth-century black Americans, the Green Book travel guide was a potentially lifesaving search engine.

In Overground Railroad, Candacy Taylor meticulously reconstructs the Green Book’s quarter-century-plus of operation. Victor Green, a postal worker and creator of The Negro Motorist Green Book, lived in segregated Harlem, and his first two editions focused on the immediate neighborhood. By 1938, the booklet had 220 local advertisers, giving its creator the means to map the nation. Green enlisted fellow letter carriers to help find more sponsors. His book wasn’t the first such guide, but it was by far the most thorough.

In the second Great Migration, southern black Americans surged north. They were both refugees from terror and a rising middle class flush with disposable income. Cars became a household necessity. And yet car ownership also came with the humiliations of white supremacy. There were hurdles in financing, purchasing, and insurance. In the South, black men needed white men to cosign any loan. If a black car buyer did find a dealership willing to sell to them, they still had to worry about stirring dangerous resentments in poorer white neighbors.

Buying an automobile required careful readings of potentially volatile situations, and African American customers developed a mental tool kit to handle anything that might come up. For those who managed to purchase a car, once on the road, they continued to follow a detailed set of guidelines to avoid danger. Voyagers knew how to maintain their car, to pack coolers and blankets and spare gas cans and portable toilets. Taylor, noting what Green could not, adds that a chauffeur’s hat was a good prop for black men, who could tell police they were returning their employer’s car.

Black Americans who explored their nation by car found themselves navigating a desert of hostility, crossing from one oasis to the next (conservative journalist George Schuyler estimated that only 6 percent of public accommodations accepted black travelers in 1949). As a result, exausted African American drivers got into accidents caused by what one police chief called “speed and fatigue.” In Jim Crow states, it was illegal for black drivers to pass white ones.

The Green Book stressed the importance of knowing how to change tires, batteries, and headlights. But there was no mention of the grave risks of breaking down on an unfamiliar road. From today’s vantage point, it’s disturbing to contemplate the guide’s omissions. Nowhere could the Green Book acknowledge its own essential function. The 1947 cover read “Carry your Green Book with you . . . you may need it . . .” The terror hiding in those ellipses couldn’t be mentioned.

Green didn’t live to see one of the great paradoxes of post-segregation America: After Jim Crow ended, black businesses had a hard time competing with white establishments, which had long held an overwhelming advantage in capital and resources. The guide published its last edition in 1967; by 1974, half its advertisers had gone out of business.

As a road map to physical and social mobility, the guide was indispensable. But the Green Book never challenged the status quo. The guide listed segregated facilities, as long as they were also accessible to black Americans. The closest Green himself came to subversion was a comprehensive list of black colleges. So should we now view the Green Book as a stepping-stone toward a more integrated, inclusive country, or as a tool of accommodation? Taylor addresses this question toward the end of the book:

Victor Green probably didn’t set out to create a weapon for change, but it’s also likely that when Steve Jobs put a video camera in a phone, he didn’t plan to trigger a new civil rights movement, either. The point is that real change can come from simple tools that solve a problem. That is why the Green Book was so powerful.

Opacity fueled white supremacy. In a world of bottomless dehumanization, the mystery was part of the point. In mapping America’s way stations, the Green Book illuminated segregation with the precision of an MRI.

Taylor visited five thousand Green Book sites, a driving tour that sometimes covered thirty stops a day. Her exhaustive exploration illuminates a lost network of vibrant hidden communities. It also highlighted the distances between some: One drive between Green Book sites, from Albuquerque to Victorville, California, took Taylor six hundred miles. The triumph of the occasional extant destination (like Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater, still open today, only a block and a half from the site of Heather Heyer’s murder by white supremacists in 2017) is offset by an archipelago of failed businesses.

At times, Taylor seems oddly apologetic for not having done enough with the project, as if her years of travel and research offered insufficient answers for the horrors they uncovered. But her book is a moving and needed history. The overt white nationalism of our era highlights the covert racism that never went away. Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow (as Michelle Alexander and others have stressed for more than a decade). And when a black motorist drives with his or her wallet on the dashboard in order to placate police officers, it’s hard not to think of the chauffer’s hat, which served as a similar prop in Green’s day.

Above all, Green’s work feels unfinished. In 2017, the NAACP issued a black travel advisory for Missouri, the first of this new era.

Sam McPheeters’s third book, Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk, will be published in February 2020 by Rare Bird Books.