The Green Book was a guide used by African American travelers to find businesses that would be welcoming to them during the volatile Jim Crow era of segregation. The travel guide was published and distributed across the country and included listings of motels, tourist homes, restaurants, service stations, and other businesses that offered safe harbor while traveling.
The Green Book was first published in 1936 by Hugo Victor Green, a postal carrier from Harlem, New York and was published every year from then until 1966. It wasn’t the first guide of its kind, but it would go on to be the most popular and longest lasting.
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, MTCC, in Little Rock is currently hosting an exhibit that spotlights the impact it had.
The Negro Motorist Green Book, which will be at the museum until August 1, documents what it was like for African Americans to travel during a time when discrimination was widespread across the country. The annual guide served as a vital resource, be it for traveling to a relative’s house, for a family event, or for pleasure.
The exhibit, which is free to see, was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, SITES, in collaboration with Candacy Taylor, author of Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America.
“People walk away with a sense of what it was like for African Americans to be able to travel and experience this great country,” said Quantia “Key” Fletcher, director of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. “To be able to experience the open road, with a sense of freedom, with a sense of a little more safety, being able to travel and feel welcome because there was a guide, an overground railroad guide, that allowed them to navigate the highways of America more safely.”
According to Fletcher, the exhibit is a walk back through time and offers perspective in a time when people are used to traveling with ease and flexibility. The exhibit includes historic photos, videos, and artifacts from businesses included in the Green Book as well as historic photos of travel scenes from the era.
“There are these really large images and photos of [for example] African American families in their cars traveling and it puts you in the mindset of what that was like,” she said. “What it was like traveling across the country and what were some of the hardships and difficulties you might experience. But also, on the flip side of that, and what is really refreshing about the exhibit, is that it allows you to see the places that African Americans were traveling to and all of the places that were surprisingly Black owned.”
By the 1930s, African Americans owned nearly 70,000 small businesses and throughout its long history, the Green Book highlighted as many as it could. The guide included more than just listings though, it also had articles, travel tips, ads, and more.
The exhibit offers a glimpse into the rising increase of African American travel as well as the nation’s rising African American middle class. Fletcher said an eye opening experience for her was to see some of the unexpected places that African Americans were visiting and traveling to during this time.
“What I love about this exhibit, which is what I love about African American history period, is that it often gives you a glimpse and perspective into African American lives that often isn’t viewed,” she said. “And if we don’t see it, oftentimes we don’t think it exists.”
Fletcher said a memorable part of the exhibit is an onsite simulator that allows you to experience what it would have been like if you were traveling across state lines to get to your grandmother’s house in the 1930s and the potential pitfalls or havens that could be encountered along the way.
Some spots with Arkansas ties you can see at the exhibit include items from the Velvatex College of Beauty Culture, which are from MTCC’s own collection. Velvatex opened in Little Rock in 1929 and stands out as a business listed in the Green Book that is not only still standing today, but is also still open. Another local spot you can learn about there is the Lewis Esso Service Station in North Little Rock. Esso service stations stood out as the only major retailers of the Green Book.
Many businesses near where MTCC is today were included in the Green Book and so were sites from across the state. In Arkansas there were around 230 businesses listed in the Green Book at least once during its publication.
The Negro Motorist Green Book is on a three year national tour and the MTCC, which is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the highest national recognition given the nation’s museums, is the second stop of the lineup. The first stop was the National Civil RIghts Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
“We are so pleased that the exhibit is here in Arkansas and we really want to encourage everyone who can to come out and experience it,” said Fletcher.
Mosaic Templars Cultural Center sits on the foundation of a cornerstone of African American heritage. The center’s mission is to preserve and share this heritage and the museum is located in the middle of what was once a thriving African American business district for the city, the historically rich West Ninth Street. For those people who have been to the museum before, they will get to experience the exhibit in the museum’s newly renovated space, of which phase one of a two phase project is completed.
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is located at the corner of 9th and Broadway in downtown Little Rock. The museum is free and open to the public Tuesday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Negro Motorist Green Book is made possible through the support of Exxon Mobil Corporation. More about the exhibit can be found at negromotoristgreenbook.si.edu.
Along with the exhibit, there are also other opportunities to learn more about the Green Book in Arkansas.
An upcoming virtual Sandwiching in History Tour, offered by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, will profile locations in Hot Springs that were featured in the Green Book. The tour will be conducted by historian Ralph Wilcox, National Register and Survey Coordinator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, who has researched and documented Green Book sites in the state. Hot Springs was chosen as it has the most intact Green Book properties in Arkansas. The tour is set for July 9 and spotlights the Pleasant Street Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the largest African American historic district in the state. Sandwiching in History Tours air on the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program YouTube and Facebook channels at noon on the tour date, usually the first Friday of a month. The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program Facebook page can be found at Facebook.com/ARHistoricPreservation.
For those interested in visiting and learning about some of the properties in Arkansas that have Green Book ties, Wilcox recommended the Woodman Union Building, also known as National Baptist Hotel, in Hot Springs at 501 Malvern Avenue and the Latimore Tourist Home located a few blocks off U.S. Highway 64 in Russellville.
“Although many of the state’s Green Book properties have disappeared there are still a fair number of properties that still survive,” said Wilcox.
Wilcox said the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Latimore Tourist Home in Russellville has good information on the Green Book in Arkansas. He also said the website for the New York Public Library has scans of all of the Green Books that are in their collection.
For more details about the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, visit Arkansasheritage.com/arkansas-preservation.
By Zoie Clift, travel writer
About Arkansas Tourism
Arkansas Tourism, a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, strives to expand the economic impact of travel and tourism in the state and enhance the quality of life for all Arkansans. The division manages 14 Arkansas Welcome Centers and employs more than 60 staff members across The Natural State. For more information, visit www.arkansas.com.