Now the inspiration for an Oscar winning film, the story of The Green Book is in fact one of the most vital, dark and yet uplifting chapters of black history
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that day comes, we will continue to publish this information for your convenience each year”- The Negro Travellers Green Book 1948
In 1936 New York mailman, Victor Hugo Green published a book that he hoped would help other black New Yorker’s travelling outside of their boroughs. It listed restaurants, bars and hotels that served ‘coloured’s’ and was immediately embraced by the African American community. However people wanted much more from Victor’s book. Because after all, why just explore New York when the whole United States was out there?
But there was a snag. The freedom of the American road trip wasn’t free. Not if you were black.
Just driving out of state, be it for work or pleasure, was a journey full of hidden perils and humiliation.
Want a hotel room? Somewhere to eat, a drink or get gas? Well the average black traveller was walking straight into a mine field. Businesses were able to pick and choose who they served, which meant the road was littered with whites only establishments. Some businesses even deliberately had three clear K’s in their names, e.g Mississippi motel Kozy Kottage Kourt. It could easily take hours of driving around before a sole ‘colored welcome’ sign finally came into view.
And that wasn’t just infuriating, it was dangerous.
‘Sundown towns’ were all over the USA. These all white communities operated a law that stated that by sundown all ‘colored people’ had to be out of town. Route 66, that pillar of American top down freedom; almost half of the counties lining it had sundown towns.
The penalty for being in a sundown town after dark was getting your arse thrown in jail. Or worse.
So when your were hitting an open road that was lined with signs that read ‘Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here’ and with the very real threat of violence hanging overhead, it was more than easy to feel like African American travellers had no friend. And that was why the green book was so important.
By the early 1940s, Victor Hugo Green was printing a new issue of the Green Book every year.
The books information was crowd sourced, with readers sending in tips and locations, that were constantly checked and updated. The books popularity boomed, sold in churches, corner-shops and Esso stations (a rarity as a gas station that openly welcomed African Americans) with each print run snapped up immediately, communities had to start circulating sold out copies amongst themselves.
And you best believe that The Green Book lived up to its reputation that you should never leave home without a copy!
Let’s say for example that in 1947 your Gran asks you to come visit her in Georgia, it’s a long ride, which means you’ll have to have an overnight pit stop in Alabama.
Well thanks to the Green Book you know to plan your route well in advance,so you can make sure you hit one of only nine towns in the state that were known to have overnight accommodation for black travellers. Oh, and that five of those towns didn’t actually have open hotels, but homeowners who were happy to house African Americans. Which in turn saved you inadvertently driving round hostile sun down towns in the hopes of finding non existent hotels or facing the obvious dangers that came with sleeping at the side of an unknown road.
Not only was The Green Book a life line in its own time, today its still an incredible resource, especially when it comes to tracking the civil rights strides being made in America during it’s time.
Each year the book got bigger and this was in part thanks to the rise in the black middle class and the expansion of black owned businesses. Which ultimately helped lead to more African Americans hitting the road and exploring the country that they’d been barred from for too long. By 1962 there were a whopping 2,000,000 Green Books in circulation.
But this isn’t just about the book selling more and getting heftier, you see it’s tone started to change too.
From the late 1940s The Green Book started to become less of a data bank of places that people were ‘allowed’ a respite from the daily barrage of discrimination, rather a tool that got people where they actively want to go.
As the travel pages became more aspirational, time was taken to highlight the African American owned businesses that travellers would pass. Everything from shops, funeral parlours and insurance brokers were celebrated. With full articles detailing the jobs these companies were making, the communities being built around them and the local political influence all this way having.
The Green Book wasn’t a getaway around Jim Crow laws, it was about bounding over them towards a better future.
Despite their immense popularity Victor Hugo Green never earned a fortune from his books. Concentrating profits on further expanding the green book.
Victor died in 1960, his wife Alma picking up the role of editor and pushing The Green Book forward as America entered an era of growing civil rights.
Then in 1964’s the Civil Rights Act, made segregation illegal for public businesses. And just like that, the Green Book was obsolete, closing in 1966.
It was exactly what Victor Hugo Green had dreamed of, writing almost twenty years before ‘it will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please’. Finally that day had come.
Further Reading: The New York Public Library has an amazing collection of digitised Green Books that you can read through HERE.
In 1954, the American Supreme Court declared the continuation of school segregation to be unlawful… though it would be 3 years until Arkansas capital city, Little Rock, actually acted on this.
Thanks to a huge amount of pressure from the Little Rock NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) it was agreed that in September 1957, 9 black students could enrol at the -until then- whites only, Little Rock Central High School.
They became known as the Little Rock Nine. A group of teens, all specially picked for their intelligence and desire to learn. All of them were about to make history. And all of them would be ripped to shreds in the process.
Of the 9, one would became an overnight icon for American civil rights.
Meet Elizabeth Eckford, if you don’t know her name, I guarantee you know her face:
That day, that picture, would change everything for Elizabeth. But on the morning of September 4th 1957, Elizabeth had no clue of the dark path that lay ahead. Her biggest concern? What to wear for the first day of school.
Elizabeth’s Dad paced the family home, as her Mum finished up doing her hair. Making sure it perfectly complimented the white and navy dress that Elizabeth had specially made for the day.
The family didn’t have a phone, so Elizabeth didn’t get the messages that, for their safety, the Little Rock Nine kids were being escorted to school.
So, whilst the others kids gathered together, entering the safety of a car convey. Elizabeth grabbed her lunch money, said goodbye to her parents and ran for the bus. Just like any other high schooler.
Which was how, totally unprepared and alone, 15 year old Elizabeth was confronted with this.
Just like that, Elizabeth was set apart. She wasn’t just one of the Little Rock 9, she was an icon of the horrors of the Jim Crow era.Her image indelibly seared into American History.
Of course, this didn’t mean she was protected from her schoolmates.
Documents from the school show that Elizabeth received a constant barrage of abuse. Here are just some examples, from her first term at Central High:
October: Elizabeth hit with a shower of sharpened pencils. October 28: Elizabeth shoved in hall. November 20: Elizabeth jostled in gym. November 21: Elizabeth hit with paper clip. December 10: Elizabeth kicked. December 18: Elizabeth punched.
Elizabeth tried to defend herself by sticking dress pins through her binder, creating a sharp shield. But it didn’t stop the constant stream of racist insults.
And in the locker room, she was totally defenceless. There, her classmates would scald her with hot shower water and leave broken glass for her to tread on.
In a 2018 interview with Vice, Elizabeth spoke of how she, and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were treated, saying:
‘We were knocked down stairs, kicked, scalded in gym showers, body-slammed into wall lockers. We were generally knocked-about every day. It never ceased.’
Barely a year after Elizabeth walked into Central High, Little Rock voted to shut down all its public high schools, rather than desegregate them.
Central High shut and Elizabeth and her family left behind the media circus. Moving to St Louis, where Elizabeth got her GED. She studied for a college degree and became one of the first African Americans to work in a non-janitorial position in a St Louis bank.
On paper it sounds great, but Elizabeth’s reality was far from it.
Little Rock had left her with a lotof trauma.She’d experienced the worst kind of abuse. Every day. For a year.
At the same time she’d became a poster child for civil rights. Her picture continued to be everywhere, holding Elizabeth up as icon of stoic strength, of fighting back and overcoming.
As she sank further into depression, Elizabeth felt far from the pillar of strength she was painted as.
It was at this time that she made several attempts on her life.
Then in 1967, in a bid to start a new life for herself, Elizabeth joined the army.
Keen to erase Little Rock from her past, she didn’t mention it to any of her squad mates and actively worked to keep any publication that might even feature her name, well away from the mess hall.
By 1974, Elizabeth had left the army and made the surprising decision to return to Little Rock. She told the Arkansas Democrat:
‘I came back because I felt I was chased away and because I thought it was cowardly and I wanted to come back and prove I could live in this situation. I don’t intend to be driven out’
Elizabeth got a job in Little Rock’s Welfare Office. And, over the next few years she had two beautiful sons, Erin and Calvin. Though the relationships with the boys Dads didn’t work out, she doted on her boys.
Finally it looked like things were falling back together for Elizabeth and her little family. But there was one big issue: depression.
Depression isn’t something you can run from. It’s something you have to tackle head on. It takes medicine, therapy, support and help. Something that a low income black single mum in Arkansas in the 1970s, didn’t have.
So when the depression caught up with Elizabeth, it hit her. Hard.
Elizabeth couldn’t work anymore, going on Veterans disability benefit. As her income dried up, she sank ever further, hardly leaving the house. She would miss meals so she could afford toys for her boys, and spend hours just desperately trying to get out of bed.
All the while, Elizabeth was dodging calls from journalists who were looking for an interview with a woman she didn’t recognise. That towering figure of silent strength, the famous Elizabeth Eckford.
And so, she stayed hidden away, trapped in a deep well of depression.
This lasted for almost 20 years.
But then in the late 90s things turned a corner. Elizabeth finally got access to support and help. And slowly, she started to regain the strength to get back up again.
In 1997 she reunited with the rest of the Little Rock Nine, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that fateful day in 1957.
And it was here, that the world found out that Elizabeth had befriended perhaps the most unlikely woman:
6 years after Little Rock, in 1963, A now 23 year old, Hazel Bryan, called Elizabeth and apologised.
Just like Elizabeth she’d been scarred by Little Rock, but for very different reasons. Hazel could never leave behind her actions, the pictures of her 16 year old self haunting her.
Elizabeth accepted her apology (though, until then she’d never actually known the name of the white girl that had hurled the abuse) and the girls went their separate ways.
Hazel married and had 3 children, living an affluent middle class lifestyle. And, as time went on, she tried to make up for her past. She volunteered as a counsellor to black students and worked with low income mothers to be. She worked in peace groups and charities. She even confronted her mother over her racist beliefs, causing a huge family argument.
She did everything she could for both personal and public atonement. But it never came.
Then in 1997, ahead of Little Rock’s 40th commemoration, she was asked to meet Elizabeth Eckford.
Once more, Hazel apologised to Elizabeth, who once more, accepted.
Then the two mothers talked about their children, their lives and realised they had a lot in common. So they agreed to take another picture together.
Almost 40 years after Hazel followed Elizabeth to Central High, screaming racist abuse at her. The woman meet again outside the school. This time, their arms around each other.
The picture was immediately everywhere. Dubbed ‘reconciliation’, it was a symbol that America was moving on from its dark past. That it’s previous sins could be forgiven. It was hope for Little Rock and communities like it across America. And it was all tied up in a neat package.
Elizabeth and Hazel took it all on. Sitting together for interviews, documentaries and political calls. They bonded over their kids and would meet up to go to flower shows, and have meals together.
And, in an unpredictable turn of events, Elizabeth grew protective of Hazel.
Hazel was one of the only members of the white mob to publicly acknowledge their deeds. And so, Elizabeth stuck up for her new friend. When the true motive behind Hazel’s frequent public apologies were questioned by the other members of the Little Rock Nine and the media, it was Elizabeth who came to Hazel’s defence.
But, gradually the friendship started to crack.
The crux of the issue was Elizabeth realisation that Hazel hoped one day her friend would move on from her actions in 1957. Elizabeth later said:
‘She wanted me to be cured and be over it and for this not to go on anymore… She wanted me to be less uncomfortable so that she wouldn’t feel responsible.”
By the early 2000s the pair weren’t speaking.
Though Elizabeth had cut ties with Hazel she made one acceptation. Allowing the picture of the pair, once called ‘reconciliation’, to continue being sold at a centre that told the story of The Little Nine. Keen that the centre wouldn’t lose funds from one of its best selling items.
Her only caveat was that all the pictures sold were labelled with a sticker that read:
True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared, past
Elizabeth stayed low for the next few years. She’d managed to rejoin the workforce in 1999. Becoming a probation officer, renowned for both her firm nature and ability to connect with her charges.
She also threw herself into speaking; going to schools to talk to students about her experiences.
At first Elizabeth kept a waste paper basket at hand, just in case she needed to be sick. But as time went on, the fear shed and the waste paper basket sat forgotten. Elizabeth was finally able to stand on stage alone, a woman who both embraced her past and had outgrown its trauma.
Then in 2003, it all fell apart, when, on New Years Day, her son, Erin, was shot and killed by police.
Little Rock Police were called by neighbours after they saw University student, Erin, firing an assault rifle into the air.
Police surrounded Erin, shooting him with a bean bag round. Erin then pointed his gun towards the officers, who opened fire. Erin was shot 6 times, dying of his injuries.
Erin had suffered from numerous mental health issues for years. No charges were pressed and Elizabeth later said that she feared her son had been trying to commit suicide by cop.
Friends and family grew increasingly concerned, that with this latest devastating blow, Elizabeth would once more sink into an unreachable pit of depression.
But she didn’t.
Despite it all, Elizabeth rallied. Not as the iconic impenetrable pillar of strength of that photo, but with grit and determination. She fought and she struggled and she rose again.
To this day, Elizabeth continues to work and give talks.
She speaks of her experiences from 1957, of racism and the everyday inequality black Americans face.
In 2017, Elizabeth used Kickstarter to publish a book on her experiences, The Worst First Day. The book acts both as an autobiography and as a guide to children, who, just like Elizabeth did, face insurmountable odds. Reminding them that that no matter how many people tell them they can’t, they can make something of themselves.
And in, September 2018, Elizabeth stood in front of another crowd of students, as she received an honorary degree.
Her speech outlined how anyone can make a difference in this world. Because as Elizabeth knows first hand:
‘You don’t know what you can do until you have been tested.’
This was interesting, where can I find out more?Well, first off I’d suggest looking at Elizabeth’s book, The Worst First Day.
Before there was Hilary there was Shirley Chisholm, heck before there was Obama there was Shirley!
Political pioneer extrodinare, Shirley Chisholm has claim to a whole litterny of firsts: first African American congresswoman, the first African American woman to run for demotic party presidential nomination and the first African American to run for President.
Born in 1924 in Brooklyn to working class immigrant parents, the importance of an education was installed in Shirley at a young age.
She trained to become a teacher, and in 1953 started working in early years education in New York. It was around this time that Shirley discovered politics, she became an authority on child welfare and education and started to volunteer for political organisations- all of which were promindently white, particularly at the top. Shirley looked to change that
‘if they don’t give you a seat at the table bring a folding chair’
Just over a decade later in 1968 Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to congress.
It wasn’t an easy road for any women in politics, daily life was full of challenge after challenge and in this era of civil rights those challenges were multiplied for Shirley.
Yet she remained undeterred, continuing her battle to ensure black voices were heard at the political table, fighting for the rights of immigrants, access to education, extending the food stamps programme and ensuring benefits extended to domestic workers.
Shirley’s background as the daughter of working class immigrant parents was front and centre when she decided to break down yet another barrier; in 1972 Shirley Chisholm ran for presidency.
Her candidacy was up against it from the start.
Underfunded and seen as little more than a symbolic vote, Shirley fought to be taken seriously, even suing to ensure she was included in TV debates and gaining backing from The Black Panthers, who dubbed her ‘the best social critic of America’s injustices to run for presidential office’ (this was also notably the first time The Black Panthers were involved in election politics)
Several assassination attempts later, it was clear she was now being taken seriously. So seriously that people were out for her blood.
But Shirley refused to stop.
In the end Shirley lost the democratic vote to George McGovern. It was a blow but in hindsight it’s clear that Shirley Chisholm’s presidential race still won, breaking down countless walls for those that came after her.
Trinidadian Jazz prodigy Hazel Scott was wowing audiences with her piano prowess from just 16, her future was bright; indeed she would go onto become a groundbreaking entertainer, however in just a few years she would be blacklisted from the very world she helped build.
In 1943 after several years of drawing crowds and acclaim on the New York jazz circuit, Hazel Scott moved her sights to Hollywood.
Her musical talent caught the attention of Hollywood producers and Hazel joined the likes of Lena Horne as one of the first well paid and highly acclaimed black performers in film.
Like Horne, Hazel avoided roles that played into already damaging black stereotypes, choosing to appear in musical variety films as herself and point blank refusing to take parts that cast her as a ‘singing maid’.
This proved to be a canny career move and Hazel Scott’s popularity as a jazz musician famed for ‘swinging the classics’ grew. In 1950 she became the first black person to have their on TV show; The Hazel Scott Show.
Scott’s outspoken refusal to play into stereotypes helped her secure her landmark TV deal, but it had also built her an undesirable reputation within the industry.
Scott required final cut on any films she was in, helping her to ensure her image wasn’t distorted. She also refused to wear any costumes she found demeaning (often also fighting for the rights of her black co-stars) It helped create her brand, BUT it went directly against the status quo of the time and this didn’t do her any favours.
The film work soon dried up.
Hazel Scott wouldn’t back down, she stood by her views and hit the road. It quickly transpired that she was just as ballsy on tour as she had been on a film set. In 1949 she sued a restaurant in Washington that wouldnt serve her and a friend as they ‘were negroes’.
She refused to play segregated venues and when discovering that a venue in Austin, Texas had segregated seating, she had to be escorted out of Austin by Texas rangers after refusing to perform (the most badass way to end a tour by the way). Later saying:
‘Why would someone come to hear me, a negro, and refuse to sit next to someone just like me?’
Hazel Scott’s continued vocal campaigning came with a price.
In 1951 McCarthyism and the red scare hit Hollywood hard and Hazel was listed in Red Channels, the notorious pamphlet which ‘outed’ 151 communists and communist sympathisers in the entertainment industry.
The blow to her career was almost instant.
Outraged Hazel voluntarily appeared in front of HUAAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee) admitting to supporting Benjamin Davis, a communist candidate in Harlem-but pointing out that Davis was supported by socialists and was not in fact part of the communist movement that HUAAC was built to ‘protect’ America from.
But Hazel didn’t stop there. She then blasted the very committee she was standing in front of, pulling apart the reasons behind the blacklist and the harsh methods the committee used.
A week later The Hazel Scott Show was cancelled.
Scott left America, moving to Paris and touring Europe. She became more involved in the civil rights movement, eventually coming back to America, where she of course remained outspoken until her death in 1981 .
Floyrnce ‘Flo’ Kennedy described herself as ‘radicalisms rudest mouth’.
This trailblazer for civil rights and feminism could not be described more perfectly. An activist with an anarchist fun streak; when heckled during a speech ‘are you a lesbian?’ she shot back ‘are you my alternative?’.
Raised in 1920s Missouri as part of a large black family, Flo was taught to stand up for herself from an early age.
She left school a feisty, scrappy young woman, top of her class. Ignoring family suggestions to go into nursing she became one of the first black women to graduate from Columbia Law in 1948 (a feat she was only permitted after threatening legal action against the law school…)
By 1951 she was settled in New York and was running her own legal practice, counting stars like Billie Holiday as clients.
However by the time the 1960’s rolled in Flo was starting to fall out of love with the law, wondering if true change could ever be made in a system that seemed stacked against the people that needed it most.
Flo became a full time activist in the 60’s so she could ‘kick more ass’, founding the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 and in the same year creating the Media Workshop, which directly challenged discrimination within advertising and the media at large. Successfully challenging several large ad by forming latching pockets outside thier offices, coining the phrase:
‘When you want to get in the suites start in the streets’
Flo helped to align mainstream feminism movements with the current civil rights struggles and built bridges between them and groups like the black panthers, highlighting the need for activists to work together to achieve a greater goal and ensuring that the form of feminism she fought for was always entrenched in abolishing white dominance over all people.
In 1969 she formed a group of female lawyers to challenge New York’s anti abortion laws, successfully having these overturned the next year.
At one point she even took on the Catholic Church over abortion. Filing tax evasion charges against the church, claiming that their stance on abortion went against their tax exempt status.
By 1971 she had helped found the Feminist Party, which offered help to another lady on our list, Shirley Chisholm, during her presidential candidacy.
During the 70’s Flo also teamed up with another influential feminist, Gloria Steinem, on a lecture tour, once more emphasising the need to extend activism beyond just one cause.
Daisy Bates had what I am going to call a Batman-esque origin story – in that, with her start in life there was no way she wasn’t going to shake shit up.
When she was just a baby Daisy’s mother was murdered by a gang of white men after refusing their sexual advances, her body was found dumped in a pond. Daisy’s father quickly fled town fearing repercussions from the murder. Daisy was taken in by friends of her parents.
By the mid 1950’s Daisy was living in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband, where the pair ran The Arkansas State Press, the leading African American paper in the state and a beacon of the area’s civil rights movement.
It was through this paper that Daisy chronicled the landmark 1954 case of Brown v Board, which saw the US Supreme Court deem segregated schools unconstitutional.
As the President of her local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP) Daisy played a key role in helping ensure Arkansas complied with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Little Rock was court ordered to integrate schools by 1957. Daisy worked with the local black community to pull together a group of students who would become the first black students to attend Little Rock’s Central High School.
Daisy ensured all students put forward were of an extremely high calibre, with grades that would match or surpass Central High School’s top students. After a rigorous round of interviews through the state school system, 9 students were chosen. They would go on to be known as ‘the little rock nine’.
‘What is happening at Little Rock transcends segregation and integration, this is a question of right and wrong.’
Prior to the first day of the school year threats were made.
Daisy Bates and her husband saw rocks thrown through their windows and crosses burned on their lawn.
A poll showed that 85% of the state were opposed to desecration and Arkansas’s Governor said that were the Little Rock Nine to attend the first day of school, ‘blood would run in the streets’.
They went to school anyway.
On the 4th September 1957 the Little Rock Nine were met at the school doors by soldiers with bayonets who had been ordered by Arkansas’s Governor to prevent the nine children from entering.
Daisy Bates became the children’s spokesperson and mentor, her home turned into a second home for the group as they plotted out what the best course for action would be.
On 24th September 1957 President Eisenhower federalised the Arkansas National Guard and deployed 1000 paratroopers to the school. The next day on September 25th the Little Rock Nine met at Daisy’s house and traveled in a military convey to their first full day of lessons at Central High School.
A month later Daisy and other members of the NCAAP were arrested in retaliation. Daisy was fined and her conviction ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court.
Over the next year Daisy was the point of contact between the school board, Central High School and the Little Rock Nine, ensuring that measures continued to be in place to allow for the children’s safety and continued education.
In 1958 the first of The Little Rock Nine graduated. It was a victory, but a bitter one. The battle of Little Rock had seen bombs thrown at Daisy’s home, a constant stream of threats and the closure of her and her husbands paper.
After Little Rock Daisy moved to Washington DC to continue her work. Joining The Democratic National Committee and working in LBJ’s administration on anti-poverty programmes. Later in life she moved back to Arkansas, where she went back to bettering her local community.