In November, a movie called “Green Book” hit theaters, telling the story of a black musician and a white driver traveling through the Deep South in the 1960s.
While the movie is based on a true story of one man’s travels, the real Green Book provided help to thousands.
From 1936-66, Victor Hugo Green published what was officially called, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” for many cities, including for northern cities such as Harrisburg. It served as a guide for traveling African Americans who needed a place to eat, sleep or refuel.
These were hotels, tourist homes, service stations and barbershops that all had one thing in common—they would serve African Americans. Many of these businesses, in fact, were black-owned.
The Harrisburg entry listed about 16 locations over various editions.
“In the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and before, a black person could enter a white space and a couple things could happen,” said Arion Dominique, a student involved in Messiah College’s Digital Harrisburg project, which explores the history and culture of the Harrisburg area. “Their wellbeing could be in danger, they may not be offered any service, or they may just feel extremely uncomfortable.”
Although the Pennsylvania Equal Rights law was passed in 1935, discrimination was still omnipresent in Harrisburg. On one occasion, a group of six black schoolteachers attending a meeting at the Penn Harris Hotel across from the state Capitol building were refused service, according to a 1937 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Growing up in his father’s barbershop and hotel—two Green Book stops—Calobe Jackson of Harrisburg remembers the help that this guide provided for those visiting the city.
“You definitely felt safer if you were in a place that was listed in the Green Book,” he said. “You didn’t have to worry about total discrimination.”
Jack’s Hotel and the barbershop provided places for African Americans to stay the night or get a fresh cut. Jackson even remembers famous performers coming into town and making a stop at the barbershop. Many lodged at the nearby Jackson Hotel, including singer Nat King Cole, pianist Sugar Chile Robinson and boxer Joe Louis. Some of these celebrities are now featured on a mural that adorns the building’s exterior wall on the 1000-block of N. 6th Street.
Jackson remembers the comfort that the Green Book offered, giving black travelers safe and welcoming places to go. But he also saw it as an aid for African Americans who may not have been protestors, who simply needed to live their lives on a daily basis.
“The Green Book was a tool that was used by the silent generation to venture out of their homes—but avoid confrontation,” he said.
The buildings that once housed Jack’s Barbershop and the neighboring Jackson Hotel are the only survivors of Harrisburg’s 16 Green Book locations. All others have been torn down.
Like those buildings, the Green Book is long gone. After the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, the “Green Book” finished up its last few editions, migrating from gas station racks to boxes in basements.
But is the Green Book just a historical relic now?
Author and publisher Jan Miles doesn’t think so. In a twist on the original Green Book, she wrote “The Post-Racial Negro Green Book,” published in 2017, cataloguing places in each state where racist events occurred.
“What hasn’t changed is the sentiment from the segregation era to now,” she said. “The sense that this is a post-racial society is laughable to me. That’s why I put it in the title. It’s very tongue-in-cheek.”
Locally, Miles’s book cites an incident from Central Dauphin High School in 2016, where a student posted an image with a racist slur on Instagram.
Rondel Holder, director of marketing at Essence magazine, has also published a fresh take on the Green Book concept. He’s the man behind SoulSociety101, a blog for young, black professionals that suggests hotels, restaurants and travel destinations.
“I was traveling and looking up restaurants, bars and sites, and I just wasn’t getting that perspective of a young black professional or the view of what our experience is,” he said.
He created a blog and podcast so that black travelers, especially millennials, would feel more confident and comfortable while traveling, again, similar to the Green Book.
“The Green Book made it a realistic idea that you can travel,” he said. “Soul Society and the ‘Green Book’ both are guides that helped people navigate and eliminate fear to a certain extent.”
Or, as Green himself said in 1947, “Carry the Green Book with you…you may need it.”
To learn more about Digital Harrisburg, visit www.digitalharrisburg.com.