The “Negro Motorists Green Book” Let Black Detroiters Know Where To Go in the Era of Jim Crow

A new exhibition at Michigan State University explores the cities and businesses that were safe for African-American motorists in Michigan — including over 80 places in Detroit.

During the Jim Crow era, “traveling while black” meant being denied entry into certain establishments, including restaurants, hotels, service stations and other spaces.

Treatment was harsh and dismissive, making it risky for black people to navigate society safely.

In 1937, Victor H. Green — a 44-year-old black postal worker in Harlem — was inspired to create the “Negro Motorists’ Green Book” to make travel-by-car safer for African-Americans.

Pitched as “vacation without aggravation,” the Green Book provided lists of hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues that served black patrons. The guide was updated annually and published through 1966.

Victor Green’s travel guide wasn’t just useful for navigating the backroads of the southern United States.

The Detroit edition of his travel guide first appeared in 1938 with only eleven listings. Over the years, it added up to 86 sites in Detroit where African-Americans were to welcome to sleep or drink. There were five locations in Lansing, where MSU’s current “Green Book” exhibition is now on display.

Curated by Kathleen Weessies — a MSU librarian with a focus on geography and maps — the display shows before and after images of the black-friendly businesses documented in Green’s book from over eight decades ago to present day.

“This display offers visitors a fascinating way into history,” Weessies said in a release. “I hope it opens up a deeper understanding of how maps can be used to help us understand both our past and our present, and to help us see connections between people, places and events.”

The memories of the Jim Crow era still strike a nerve with Walter Davenport, a deacon at Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church, who traveled to Detroit from Georgia in 1956.

“I left Georgia when I was 19 years old and I came here on a segregated train,” says Davenport. “When I got here, I found that Michigan was not much better than Georgia.” 

Click the audio player to hear Kathleen Weessies and Deacon Walter Davenport detail the exhibition and traveling while black in the Jim Crow Era with CultureShift’s Ryan Patrick Hooper.

The “Negro Motorists Green Book” exhibition runs through the end of the year at the Main Library on Michigan State University’s campus. You can find more info here.

Post written by LaToya Cross 

Interview by Ryan Patrick Hooper 

Support the news you love.

Here at WDET, we strive to make our journalism accessible to everyone. As a public media institution, we maintain our journalistic integrity through independent support from readers like you. If you value WDET as your source of news, music, and conversation, please consider making a gift today. Even $5 a month helps!

Donate today »