Not even Candacy Taylor’s electrifying deep dive into the history of the Green Book can fully explain what inspired Victor Green to launch his guidebooks for black travelers in 1938. There were similar, short-lived guides meant to help black travelers avoid the humiliations of Jim Crow laws and so-called sundown communities, where black people had to be out of town by 6 p.m. But Green, who lived in Harlem and was a mail carrier in Hackensack, New Jersey, for 39 years, was informative, sincere and genial. He had staying power. His guides were published annually from 1938 to 1967, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, with a hiatus during World War II. In the best years, millions of copies may have been sold.
In Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, Taylor follows the chronology of the Green Book’s development and, more importantly, provides fascinating and often disturbing context. The first guide, for example, focused mostly on Harlem, so Taylor presents riveting stories about the Apollo Theater and the Lafayette Theater, where Orson Welles produced “Voodoo Macbeth,” a retelling of the Shakespeare play with an all-black cast. In the section that recommends a few golf courses open to black players, we learn that a black dentist named George Grant invented the golf tee, and that in Louisiana, a black man named Joseph Bartholomew designed public golf courses that he wasn’t allowed to play on. We also learn that the automobile freed black travelers from the constant indignities visited upon them when they took trains and buses; that Cadillac ordered its dealers not to sell to black people because it would damage the brand; and that, since black GIs returning from World War II had difficulty using the GI Bill for college, Green’s postwar editions included a list of black colleges and universities.
This only touches the surface of Taylor’s amazing book. As part of her research, she traveled thousands of miles and visited more than 4,000 sites listed in editions of the Green Book. Only 5% of those businesses still exist, most having succumbed to urban blight or urban renewal, which bulldozed many black neighborhoods to make way for local freeways. Taylor generated so much fascinating material in working on this book that she’s now developing a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition.
Overground Railroad is an eye-opening, deeply moving social history of American segregation and black migration during the middle years of the 20th century.