Imagine you’re driving down Highway 99 and pull over for a quick bite to eat. You go inside and the owners ask you to leave. “Your kind isn’t welcome here.” “Keep moving down the road, we don’t serve you people.” You are refused food because of your race, class, religion or gender.
African Americans have faced such treatment for generations. When they traveled, they have been denied access to restaurants, gas stations, even toilets and facilities. All because of the color of their skin. As a result, in 1936, Victor Hugo Green compiled a list of “safe places” where blacks could be treated fairly during their road trips. The places were compiled in a book called “The Negro Motorist Green Book.”
The Green Book became a staple for African American motorists in the 1930s to 1960s. It listed restaurants, hotels, service stations, taverns, and even nightclubs. Subsequent editions expanded to include all parts of the United States, not only the Jim Crow South, with the blatant “whites only” signage, but also the West and California. For decades, it became an essential travel aids for travelers. The cover included the line: “Carry your Green Book with you – you may need it.” The current Oscar-nominated film, “The Green Book,” depicts the meaning of this book and how it played a role in America’s everyday history.
The Washington, D.C., African American Museum captures the feel of the Green Book. Visitors can sit in a cutaway car, get behind the steering wheel and begin their journey through the South, mapping out crucial stops for gas, pacing their driving by where you, if you were African American, were allowed to eat, and allocating the necessary time to reach a destination where one could spend the night. Imagine a 1940s version of Google Maps suggesting the path you should go and the estimated time and distance until the next safe spot for people of your kind.
Green Book editions included listings in all the states, even California. The Central Valley had only a few entries. Two in Sacramento included Dunlap’s Dining Room, a small restaurant George Dunlap operated out of his home from 1930 to 1968, and the Mo-Mo Sacramento Night Club, which hosted jazz events from the 1940s to 1950s. A later edition included Yosemite National Park as a safe and welcoming destination for African American travelers.
The Green Book responded to the racism and discrimination in everyday lives and its significance rings true for many. According to some, the model of the Green Book was based on accounts from Jews who also faced discrimination while on the roads of America and had their own lists of places where they would be welcomed.
Bigotry was experienced by many people traveling in our Valley. In my family, my mother describes the challenges after World War II and the labeling of all Japanese Americans as “the enemy.” She tells of a drive to Sacramento and being refused service at a restaurant and the concern where to buy gas and find a restroom along Highway 99.
Inequities also included class. In an earlier era, poor whites during the Great Depression faced a hostile landscape. The journey of the “Okies,” as described in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” captures the struggle of the working poor to find shelter. A flat tire or car engine problem could cripple a family for days. Road travel implied driving in alien places and uncharted paths. Hence, the need for a Green Book.
For areas that did not have available hotels, the Green Book also created lists of “tourist homes,” or private homes willing to rent rooms to African American travelers. I imagine our Valley had its own private listings. Perhaps such a place was Allensworth, a unique settlement founded in 1908 in Tulare County that was “financed and governed by blacks.” Although the town suffered extreme losses with severe drought and setbacks and many residents departed, survivors may have provided road side assistance for years for African Americans travelers.
Green Book lasted for decades until the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination. Yet the importance of this book remained in pockets of America and it’s historical value tells the story of real life in our country.
“Travel without Embarrassment” was the motto for the Green Book. For some. allowing African Americans into your business simply meant more revenue and profits. For others, they opened their doors and were willing to see others as equals. Many dreamed of a day when the Green Book was no longer required. Yet today the reality remains: difference still creates barriers.
Thanks to historian Kenya Davis-Hayes and the Cal Humanities for help with this article. Looking at the past decades, if you knew of a business that could have been added to our valley’s unofficial version of Green Book, let me know. Those places along the highway deserve to be recognized and remembered.
David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org