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DRIVING WHILE BLACK
As Ron hurried down the plush carpeted stairs on his way to the garage, carrying a stack of Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Howlin' Wolf CDs, he said, "Okay. I'm ready to roll!" I stared at him and shook my head. "It's after ten o'clock. Why can't you drive during the day, like a normal person?" His answer was always the same. "Traffic."
Scenes like this one played out for years. Every time Ron took a trip, whether he was going home to Memphis, Tennessee, or heading north to Canada to take a deep-sea fishing charter, he insisted on driving at night. I would get so frustrated. Why would he risk his life and others' by falling asleep at the wheel? For me, the whole point of a road trip was to drive during the day so you could see everything. Then I finally realized that driving at night was a common practice for black people from Ron's generation, to avoid being harassed by the police. Seeing nature on the open road was the last thing they cared about; it was more important not to be seen.
From the 1920s to the present, each generation of black Americans had to incorporate strategies to protect themselves from law enforcement. Gary Kirksey's grandmother Mrs. W. Jackson operated a tourist home (a private residence offering lodging) in Alliance, Ohio, that was listed in the Green Book from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. While Kirksey was in high school, his family bought a new car, and his father told him to drive with the car registration in his wallet, not in the glove box, as most people do. His father said, "If you get pulled over ... the first thing they are going to question is whether it's stolen." Later, when Kirksey was pulled over for speeding and the cop questioned whether the car was his, he found that his father's approach worked. "When I pulled the registration out of my wallet, it was the end of the conversation."
Safety rituals have evolved with the times, so Kirksey's technique probably wouldn't work for black motorists in 2018. And the stakes are even higher today, as black men are twenty-one times more likely to be killed by police officers. For instance, to avoid getting shot in 2018, it's best not to have to reach for anything when a police officer is standing outside your car door. So, wallet placement is now something black motorists have to consider. Wesley Lowery, an African American journalist at the Washington Post, says he drives with his wallet in the center console (a feature that didn't exist in cars in the 1930s), instead of storing it in his pants pocket. He does this so he doesn't have to reach for it in the presence of a police officer, who could mistake it for a weapon.
To stay safe, black families over the last eighty years have driven with props, such as a chauffeur's hat (as Ron's father did), and at night or had cars with tinted windows. In the 1930s, when the Green Book was first published, no matter what prop they were using, it was always important to drive under the speed limit, because exceeding it by just one mile per hour could result in an arrest. Driving too slowly, however, could also attract attention, so to avoid getting pulled over, most black men at the time learned to drive a mile or two under the speed limit. A slower car in front could pose yet another problem for black motorists in Jim Crow states, where it was illegal for a black driver to pass a white driver. In the end, it was just easier to follow Ron's rule to drive at night and be invisible.
In the early 1930s, it's likely that Victor Green employed some of the strategies mentioned above while he drove his wife, Alma, from Harlem to her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. It was also during this time that Green managed the career of his brother-in-law Robert (Bob) Duke, an accomplished musician who lived with the Greens and taught music lessons in their home. Victor Green undoubtedly heard from Duke one humiliating story after another about the obstacles he and his fellow musicians faced in seeking safe accommodations on tour. These stories likely inspired Green to develop his guide. However, legend has it that Green got the idea to produce a black travel guide from watching his Jewish friend use a kosher guide to vacation in the Borscht Belt, in New York State's Catskill Mountains.
By the mid-1930s, Green had teamed up with a fellow postal worker named George I. Smith to publish the first Green Book. The first edition was small, only ten pages, but it was a mighty weapon in the face of segregation. After two years, Green and Smith parted ways for unknown reasons, but Green's brother, William H. Green, joined Victor and Alma in the project, editing the Green Book until he died in 1945.
When the first edition of the Green Book came out, there were nearly thirty million cars on the road. In January of the following year, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated into a second term as U.S. president, and despite the dust storms that suffocated the state of Oklahoma and a catastrophic flood that swallowed parts of Mississippi, Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois, many Americans, black and white, were optimistic about the future. Nearly a decade had passed since the Great Depression, and unemployment had dropped to 14.3 percent from almost 20 percent in 1936; and although three and a half million black families (approximately 30 percent of the black population) were on government assistance, black employment was the highest it had been since the Great Depression.
Victor Green created his guide in this era of optimism, and the first two editions were centered on New York City's Harlem, where he and Alma lived. Today, Harlem is the iconic heart of black culture and identity, but when Victor dreamed up his guide, the neighborhood wasn't yet the black mecca it eventually became. In the early 1900s, Harlem was home to a number of recent, white immigrant groups, including Jews, Italians, and Irish. Black people comprised only about 10 percent of the population. Following the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a steady influx of black residents increased the black population to 70 percent in 1930. This demographic shift incited fear and led to aggressive policing tactics as authorities attempted to keep black residents out of the white areas.
The rules for segregated establishments changed from block to block, so black people didn't know where they would be served. Doll Thomas, who started working in Harlem theaters in 1914 and became the film projectionist and the technical director at the Apollo Theater, told author Ted Fox, for his illustrated history Showtime at the Apollo:
There were no blacks on 125th Street. It was all Irish ... [T]he theater that's now the Apollo, you entered from 126th Street up the back stairs. The Alhambra just wouldn't sell [black people] an orchestra seat. They were either sold out or they'd flatly refuse. Also on 125th Street, Frank's Lunchroom — you couldn't get served in there. Across the street was Childs. You couldn't get served in there. Next door was Loft's Candy Shop. Couldn't get served in there. Right down the street was Fabian's Seafood Shop. Couldn't get served in there. All the bars here and everything else was the same way.
The Apollo Theater was listed under "Colored Show Houses" in the 1937 Green Book. Before it was the Apollo, the building housed the burlesque theater Hurtig and Seamon, which didn't allow black people to enter through the front door. Once inside, black ticket holders were banned from general seating and forced to sit in the balcony.
The Apollo opened in 1934, and the following year, Frank Schiffman took it over. He told a New York newspaper in 1937, "I'm the largest employer of colored theatrical help in the country" — and he was. For years, the Apollo was one of the only theaters in New York City that hired African Americans, and the majority of its staff was black. Schiffman's family operated the Apollo until the late 1970s, and they are often credited with integrating 125th Street. Schiffman also helped launch the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, James Brown, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday.
The Lafayette was another theater listed under "Colored Show Houses" in the 1937 Green Book. Black people were not welcome at the Lafayette until 1925, when Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher stepped in to change this. Suddenly, black audience members were no longer relegated to the balcony. They were now permitted to sit in the orchestra section. The Lafayette became both one of the first theaters in Harlem to change its segregationist policies and the center for black dramatic and musical talent.
In 1936, Orson Welles produced Voodoo Macbeth at the Lafayette, a version of Shakespeare's "Scottish play" with an all-black cast and the setting changed from Scotland to an island in the Caribbean. Welles hired local Haitians to perform, and in less than one month, some 34,000 people purchased tickets.. It would play to capacity for another month before going on tour.
While the Lafayette and the Apollo were pushing the boundaries of racial segregation in Harlem, the shifting racial demographics were pushing the neighborhood to its breaking point. In 1935, just one year before Victor Green set in motion the plans for his guide, a riot broke out. On March 19, a rumor spread across Harlem that Lino Rivera, a sixteen-year-old black Puerto Rican teenager, had been beaten to death for stealing a penknife from the S. H. Kress and Co. five-and-dime. The beating death never happened, but the rumor incited a full-blown race riot. Someone in the crowd screamed, "The boy is dead in the cellar there, but they won't even let a doctor look at him!" Then a brick flew through Kress's window, and rioters, both black and white, barreled down 125th Street.
During the riot, white store owners tried to protect their property from frustrated black looters by posting signs that read colored store or colored employee here. However, it wasn't only blacks who were violent; on March 20, 1935, the day the fighting ended, the New York Daily News reported that "armed bands of Negro and white guerillas ... roamed through barricaded Harlem ... assaulting every person of opposite color to cross their paths, setting fires and smashing shop windows after a night of fighting, in a bitter continuation of Harlem's worst race riot in twenty-five years." More than five hundred police descended on Harlem to quell the violence. In the end, an estimated two million dollars in damage was done, hundreds of people were wounded, and three African Americans had died. After the riot, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia commissioned a fourteen-member biracial panel to study the conditions that had led to the riot. The panel included scholar Alain Locke (editor of 1925's groundbreaking anthology The New Negro) and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. The panel produced The Negro in Harlem: A Report on Social and Economic Conditions Responsible for the Outbreak of March 19, 1935, which concluded that the riot had been caused by "injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and racial segregation."
The driving force behind Harlem's racial unrest was the long-standing mistrust of the police and white merchants' refusal to hire black residents, which helped keep the black unemployment rate double the national average. Neighborhoods throughout America where white merchants profited from black residents but refused to hire them had inspired the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign. This Depression-era movement galvanized black communities in thirty American cities to picket such businesses. When a Woolworth in Chicago refused to hire black locals in the late 1920s, a massive boycott ensued. Soon after, demonstrations sprang up in St. Louis; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; and Atlanta. In the 1931 issue of the NAACP's official magazine, The Crisis, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his editorial, "The Negro's Industrial Plight," "If we once make a religion of our determination to spend our meager income so far as possible only in such ways as will bring us employment consideration and opportunity, the possibilities before us are enormous."
This was the atmosphere in which the early editions of the Green Book were created. The guide was the perfect complement to the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" protests, functioning more like a Yellow Pages for black- owned businesses than a traditional travel guide. The 1938 edition went far beyond the first two, with listings for nearly 220 businesses in Harlem, and including roadhouses, tourist homes, service stations, barbershops, beauty parlors, dance halls, and nightclubs east of the Mississippi River.
The 1937 edition was unusual for a travel guide. Only fifteen pages long, it listed more automobile businesses than travel sites. Eighteen of the twenty ads in the first five pages were Harlem-based mechanics, fender and body workers, ignition specialists, welders, tow service providers, and auto painters. (The two non-auto-related ads were for a radio repair shop and a store specializing in an entirely different sort of wheels: Hollis' Bicycle Store, owned by Harri Hollis, who described himself as a "Colored Pro Bike Champ.")
There was a clear market for car-related businesses in the late thirties because by then, 85 percent of Americans vacationed by car. This helped to make the automobile industry one of the leading industries in the world. But even more important, a vehicle provided black families with the freedom and job opportunities they needed to pull themselves out of the servant class and into a stable middle-class lifestyle.
The 1938 Green Book published an article, "The Automobile and What It Has Done for the Negro," by Benj. J. Thomas, the proprietor of the Broadway Auto School. In the article, Thomas writes, "In New York City alone, one third of the Mechanical work is being done by Colored men. The automobile has been a special blessing to the Negro ... 25 years ago, the average young colored man was doing porter work, bell hopping, running an elevator or waiting on table[s], and the average wage at that time was $5 per week." Now black men in the automotive trade who were earning a solid middle-class wage were becoming a crucial part of burgeoning businesses both employing and serving the black community.
While black men moved into more lucrative businesses, over 60 percent of black women continued to work as domestic servants, and others worked as seamstresses, janitors, laundresses, waitresses, and cooks. In New York City, over 90 percent of women working in these trades were generally paid less than five dollars a week. However, black mechanics could earn as much as twenty-five to fifty dollars a week. And even those who weren't mechanically inclined could do body, fender, factory, retail, or upholstery work, at an average of fifteen dollars a week.
Although auto industry jobs made it possible for many black families to afford their own cars, it wasn't easy, as the average price of a new car was 760 dollars, and the annual salary for most black men in the auto industry averaged about 1,500 dollars — so the purchase price for a car represented more than half a year's income. Regardless, to many black Americans, the freedom that came with owning a car was worth the sacrifice. Having a car shielded them from physical harm, humiliation, harassment, and the psychological terror of a segregated America. With a car, they had an option other than being corralled into subpar seating on buses, streetcars, trolleys, and trains that were almost guaranteed to be uncomfortable and dirty. W. E. B. Du Bois writes about this in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil:
Did you ever see a "Jim-Crow" waiting-room? ... There is no heat in winter and no air in summer ... to buy a ticket is torture; you stand and stand and wait and wait until every white person at the "other window" is waited on. The agent browbeats and contradicts you, hurries and confuses the ignorant, gives many persons the wrong change, compels some to purchase their tickets on the train at a higher price, and sends you and me out on the platform, burning with indignation and hatred!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Overground Railroad"
Copyright © 2020 Candacy Taylor.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Are We There Yet? 8
1 Driving While Black 26
2 The Business of the Green Book 54
3 The Fight 80
4 A License to Leave 103
5 All Aboard 124
6 Vacation 148
7 Music Venues 176
8 The Roots of Route 66 200
9 Women and the Green Book 226
10 A Change Is Gonna Come 250
Integration and the Double-Edged Sword of Progress 274
Epilogue: America After the Green Book 290
Author's Note 296
What We Can Do 298
Green Book Site Tour 300
Green Book Cover Guide 324
Select Bibliography 347