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Flashback: During Jim Crow, the Green Book provided lifesaving advice on the road for Black Chicagoans and others

Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Health & Fitness

Subsequent editions expanded the Green Book’s coverage to include more of the U.S. and also included guidance on travel to and accommodations in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.

Segregated U.S. Army units had fought in France during World War I. American Black soldiers were celebrated as heroes by the French for winning a battle that saved them from defeat.

“We know a number of our race who have a long standing love affair with the tempestuous city of Paris,” a Green Book writer reported. “Their hearts have lingered there long after they have returned home.”

Over the Green Book’s run, which saw no publication during World War II and ended with a 1966-67 edition, the guide transformed travel for African Americans from worrisome and dangerous to relaxing and enjoyable.

The automobile freed Black people from the indignity of segregated trains and buses. And the Green Book saved them from anxiety when pulling up to a motel or drive-in restaurant. Black musicians who made a living on the road, however, couldn’t always avoid such pitfalls.

Ellington, a successful composer and bandleader, could afford to rent a private railroad car that exempted his band — but Mahalia Jackson had to endure the precariousness of driving while Black.

 

The famed gospel singer traveled the rocky roads that connected her Chicago home with performance venues in Jim Crow America.

“Teen-age white girls who were serving as car hops would come bouncing out to the car and stop dead when they saw we were Negroes, spin around without a word and walk away,” Jackson wrote in her autobiography.

“It got so we were living on bags of fresh fruit during the day and driving half the night and I was so exhausted by the time I was supposed to sing I was almost dizzy.”

In her book “Driving While Black,” Gretchen Sorin recalls a family excursion in her childhood to Niagara Falls. Her father booked a room in a nearby motel. Yet despite the reservation, she sensed his uneasiness getting out of the car.

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