There’s a scene in the newly released movie “Green Book,” when Don Shirley, a classically trained pianist, and his white chauffeur, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, climb into a blue Cadillac before setting out on a 1962 concert tour that would take them through a still-segregated United States, including potentially treacherous stops in the Midwest and the Deep South.
Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) slides in the back seat. Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) takes the driver’s seat, prepared to leave New York for an eight-week tour. But before they hit the road, a manager slips Vallelonga a “Green Book,” explaining quickly that Black people can’t stay everywhere and that the guide might help the chauffeur find accommodations for Shirley.
If you’re younger than 70, you probably aren’t familiar with the Green Book, an annual publication published from 1936-1966 by New York City mailman Victor Green and his wife Alma.
Green decided to begin publishing “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” after the couple encountered discrimination during a car trip.
“Just What You Have Been Looking For!!” Green wrote in the first edition. “Now We Can Travel Without Embarrassment.”
The Green Book was not just for travel through the South or Midwest but also printed listings in the West and in Northern cities where segregation and discrimination were also common.
The first Green Book listed hotels, tourist homes, service stations, restaurants, garages, taxicabs, beauty parlors, barbershops, tailors, drugstores, taverns, nightclubs and funeral homes that welcomed black people at a time in the country when it was legal for establishments to discriminate based on race.
The response to the first guide was so great that the next issue went national, offering listings across the United States. Over the years, the price varied — some cost 75 cents, others $1.50. Salespeople helped distribute the copies. Customers could also order the guidebook in Green’s Harlem office.
FYI, if you can get your hands on an old copy of the guide, hold on to it. A few years ago, a 1941 edition sold at auction for $22,000 to the Smithsonian Institute.