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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 17th March 2017 > THE OVERGROUND RAILROAD

THE OVERGROUND RAILROAD

A travel guide from the Jim Crow era often meant the difference between a hot meal and a vicious beating

The year is 1940. You are in a ’37 Buick, driving west on the Dixie Overland Highway. You plan to take it all the way to California, but as things stand, you might not even make it to the Texas border. For you are black, and you are deep in Alabama, and night is coming.

This is the land of strange fruit: Elizabeth Lawrence, an elderly black woman who’d chastised white children for throwing rocks at her, lynched in 1933; Otis Parham, 16, set upon by a mob that couldn’t find the perpetrator of an alleged attack on a white man in 1934. They killed Parham instead and threw his body into a ditch. You don’t have to know the names of Alabama’s recently murdered to feel the presence of their ghosts in the roadside thickets of Flongleaf pine.

With the day’s light faltering, you pull over and retrieve The Negro Motorist Green Book from your Roadmaster’s glove box. It is 48 pages of practical scripture, offering safe passage through the United States—where you can sleep, eat and ill your gas tank. The 1940 edition of the Green Book offered several options for safe harbor in central Alabama from the Ku Klux Klan, not to mention less deadly manifestations of hatred. Some of these are hotels that will allow black guests, like the Fraternal in Birmingham. Others are private homes, such as that of Mrs. G.W. Baugh, at 2526 12th Street in Tuscaloosa (private homes are almost always listed under the name of a female host). The Green Book also lists a few restaurants, clubs, garages and beauty salons. In Augusta, Georgia, you are welcome at Bollinger’s liquor store—but nowhere else.

The number of listings will grow, especially after a brief hiatus in publication during World War II, as more and more people write in with suggestions, crowdsourcing a compendium of black-friendly sites across the nation. In 1957, North Dakota would be the last state in the continental United States covered by the Green Book. In 1964, Hawaii became the 50th state in the guide, which that year also featured entries for Europe, Africa and Latin America.

Thus what began in 1936 as a barebones aggregation of New York–area advertisements would eventually create what the historian Jennifer Reut calls an “invisible map” of America. The guide’s creator, Victor Hugo Green, had recognized that such a map was necessary. But he also hoped that his work would eventually be obviated by social progress. Later editions of the Green Book contained an introduction with this optimistic passage:

There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.

The Green Book did, in fact, cease publication in 1967, three years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But equality legalized wasn’t equality realized. A 2012 survey found that 40 percent of waiters polled in North Carolina admitted to discriminating against black customers. Earlier this winter, a Quality Inn in Maryland was sued because black guests alleged “hotel workers demanded that black guests show their meal tickets to get breakfast while ignoring white and Asian guests.”

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