It was called the “Green Book,” and for generations in the 20th century helped guide African-American travelers to safe lodging, food and other amenities that often were denied them not simply south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but all over the nation.
Today, the guidebooks serve as an historical reference point – and many of the locations they reference are being lost to inexorable growth and change.
Preservation Virginia is aiming to use May (designated as National Historic Preservation Month) to shine a spotlight on the Green Book and the locales it covered that still remain across the Old Dominion.
“In Jim Crow-era Virginia, travel for African-American families and tourists could be complicated, if not dangerous,” said Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia. The guidebooks offered travelers “confidence in their safety and security,” she said.
“The inclusion of Green Book sites on the 2021 list of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places is an opportunity to raise awareness and to survey and document the remaining sites, and ensure this important history is known and preserved,” Kostelny said.
The 2021 list of endangered places was published May 11. In addition to the Green Book locales, it features sites connected to eras ranging from colonial times to the civil-rights era.
The name “Green Book” came not from the color but from the man who conceived the idea of writing and marketing a guidebook targeting minority audiences.
Victor Hugo Green (1897-1960) was a postal carrier in Harlem who, in 1936, published his first guide, focused specifically on New York City. The idea caught on, and eventually the annual guide focused on the entire nation. Tens of thousands of copies were sold each year.
The 1962 edition (retailing for $1.95) included 14 pages of listings and advertising related to Virginia. Establishments singled out for high service to African-Americans included Harriet’s Drive-In (Hampton), Watkins Florist (Gloucester), Oliver’s Restaurant & Service Station (Center Cross), R&D Motel (Lanex), New York Barber Shop (Newport News), Fagan’s Seafood Restaurant (Portsmouth) and, for those taking their very last journey in this life, the Morning Glory Funeral Home (Norfolk).
(The final edition was published by the Green family in 1966, a time when the rigidly enforced segregation prevalent for generations in many parts of the country was slowly yielding to more modern thinking.)
At the publication’s peak, it included upwards of 300 Virginia listings; current estimates suggest that only about one-third survive.
Susan Hellman has made tracking remaining Green Book sites in Virginia easier through her Website, www.virginiagreenbook.com.
The pandemic has proved a challenging, Hellman said. “I live in Alexandria, so it can be difficult to get to some of the far-flung sites,” she said.
Original copies of a variety of Green Books can be found via online retailers, and the New York Public Library has a selection of them available to read online.
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The complete 2021 List of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places can be found at www.preservationvirginia.org.
“With collaboration and innovation, each of these sites can be here for the generations that follow,” Kostelny said.