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Driving the Green Book: A Road Trip Through the Living History of Black Resistance by Alvin Hall

For countless Americans, the open road has long been a place where dangers lurk. In the era of Jim Crow, Black travelers encountered locked doors, hostile police, and potentially violent encounters almost everywhere, in both the South and the North. From 1936 to 1967, millions relied on The Negro Motorist Green Book, the definitive guide to businesses where they could safely rest, eat, or sleep.

Most Americans only know of the guide from the 2018 Green Book movie or the 2020 Lovecraft Country TV show. Alvin Hall set out to revisit the world of the Green Book to instruct us all on the real history of the guide that saved many lives. With his friend Janée Woods Weber, he drove from New York to Detroit to New Orleans, visiting motels, restaurants, shops, and stores where Black Americans once found a friendly welcome. They explored historical and cultural landmarks, from the theatres and clubs where stars like Duke Ellington and Lena Horne performed to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Along the way, they gathered memories from some of the last living witnesses for whom the Green Book meant survival—remarkable people who not only endured but rose above the hate, building vibrant Black communities against incredible odds.

DRIVING THE GREEN BOOK is a vital work of national history as well as a hopeful chronicle of Black resilience and resistance.

The book contains outstanding black and white photos and ephemera.

Q&A with

ALVIN HALL, author of


A Road Trip Through the Living History of Black Resistance

What was the Green Book and why is it important to write about it today?

The Green Book, published between 1936 and 1967, was a state-by-state travel guide used by African Americans to find needed services and welcoming safe havens while driving around the US during the height of segregation and Jim Crow in the US. Created by Victor Hugo Green and his wife Alma, the guide’s objective was to help Black people avoid on-the-road “aggravations” that Victor and Alma experienced during their drives to Virginia to visit Alma’s relatives. Until the academy-award-winning movie, The Green Book, came out, most Americans, including many Black people, had never heard of the life-saving publication. DRIVING THE GREEN BOOK captures the first-person stories of people who knew of and patronized some of the businesses featured in the guide. These people lived through this challenging time in US history and vividly recall the communities that were not only safe harbors, but exciting centers of Black cultures in different cities. Many of the personal stories that people share from that time sound surprisingly and disturbingly current. With the widespread discussion of the dangers of driving while Black in the news today, DRIVING THE GREEN BOOK gives voice to the lived history of many African Americans, and in doing so provides important, sometimes eye-opening context to contemporary events.

What piqued your interest in writing about The Green Book?

My journey with The Negro Motorist Green Book began in a plane. The year was 2015. I was flying to London and, as I often do, had brought along a stack of magazines to pass the time. One article about road trips around the US referred in passing to The Negro Motorist Green Book. My interest was immediately piqued by that title alone. I had never heard of the publication. That’s not surprising considering that I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s “dirt poor” in the rural Florida Panhandle. We did not own a car. We could not afford one. Back in New York after my work in London, I began my search by going to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Located in Harlem and part of the New York Public Library, the Schomburg, as it is widely known, is America’s premier archive for African American history. Important for my purpose, its collection of The Green Book is almost complete; it lacks only one of the annual editions. As I sat in a conference room in the rare books section holding the publication in my hands (This is no longer possible given the fragility of the paper), I turned the pages of The Green Book, perusing listings in other cities where I had lived or visited, I also scanned articles featuring major US vacation destinations, tips about how to prepare your car for a trip, even advice about how to dress to project a respectable image while driving in your car, one question echoed repeatedly through my mind: Why had I never heard of this publication?

How did you go about your research?

With significant help! When producing the two audio documentaries, we started by going through nearly all the editions of The Green Book to see what kind of information each one contained and how that information changed over the years. The inspiration for the narrative arc of each program came out of conversations with the producers about what would interest listeners. Once we had the storyline, which always included the cities and towns we would visit, then the producer and I would call around to historical societies, NAACP chapters, and fraternity and sorority organizations to find people who were willing to share their memories from the period (1936-1967) when The Green Book was published. DRIVING THE GREEN BOOK provided me with an opportunity to give more historical context. As a liberal arts major, I had a reasonable knowledge of much of this information. Karl Weber and I used the internet to add more details. I also added some recollections and stories that were not included in the audio documentaries. Virtually all of these are from recorded interviews done by me, Janée Woods Weber and/or the producer working on the audio documentary. There was so much to include. The challenge was to select and pull into the book the information that would give the road trip that’s at the heart of the book more veracity and historical resonance, and also connect topics being discussed in the news today. The research helped me show that what we think of as being history can still be very much alive today.

Did anything surprise in your research?

Early in my research, three surprises stood out. First, the majority of places listed in New York City in the early years of the guide’s publication were around or above 125 Street. None were below that. This reflected the fact that there was de facto segregation in New York City as well as other northern cities. Segregation was not just a southern phenomenon, although Jim Crow was. Second, the listing for the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the place where Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4,1968, was listed in The Green Book for years and was a widely known safe harbor for African American travelers, until the tragic events of that day. I became curious about what happened to the Lorraine after Dr. King’s murder. And third, Victor Hugo Green never uses the words racism, racist incidents, or anything close to those words in the publication. He was aware of how alienating such words could be to some of the white-run organizations, including some US government agencies, that provided him with articles and other information for the magazine’s articles. Aggravation is his favorite euphemism.

You met several people in your travels who you write about. Does anyone (or a few people) stand out and why?

Senator Hank Sanders. The arc of his life story. from Southern, rural poverty to Harvard Law School to the Alabama legislature, is impressive but it is filled with the accumulated wisdom about living Black in America from the days of segregation to today. He was the first African American elected to the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction and served from 1983 to 2018. He participated in the legendary Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery. When asked what he would say to Dr. King today, his answer connects what he saw then to what is occurring today in the US: “In 1966, when I was working to help people vote in Lowndes County, I thought that five years would be enough. By then, I thought the Voting Rights Act would be fully implemented. Dr. King asked, ‘How long?’ If I could speak to him today, I would tell him, I didn’t know you were talking about time measured in Biblical terms. I really didn’t understand the depth of white supremacy. When Obama was elected president, I thought that was going to make race relationships better. But it made it worse. It really intensified. That’s some of the power of white supremacy.”

Mary Ellen Tyus. She introduced us to the world of the exclusive Black resorts (Idlewild, Fox Lake, and the well-known Oak Bluffs) that were available for Black professionals away from the daily “aggravations”—the daily denigrations, rejections, and antagonisms—of segregation. Her grandparents, who lived in Columbus, OH, was one of the original purchasers of a plot of land in Idlewild. Mary Ellen has spent every summer of her life since birth (just as her mother did) at Idlewild, Michigan, and it is the place she considers home. To hear her talk about a perfect summer day in Idlewild is to know and feel why it was called the “Black Eden.” “This is where peace and beauty and friends are. Every year, I feel as though I just have to go there, even if it's just, you know, just to touch base with the people that I care about. Idlewild is home, where most of my lifelong friends have always been. I don’t think I’ve ever missed a summer. And I have this sort of superstitious feeling that, if I don't make it to Idlewild, I’m going to croak!”

Frank Figgers. He shared vivid, touching memories from his youth going to places along or near Farish Street, the Little Harlem of Jackson, Mississippi, in its heyday. He recalled participating in the public library’s weekend reading group, attending concerts the included The Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, The Temptations, The Four Tops and others on stage at the Mason Lodge, and “bipping and bopping” with his wife to jazz performances at the Subway Lounge in the basement of Summers Hotel. His slow, distinctly Southern, and deliberate way of speaking reminded me of the cadence of my great uncle. And like my relatives, Figgers carries within him wisdom from his and his friends’ ongoing participation in the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson and living while Black in America. His simple call to personal activism is as true today as it was then: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are, in order to make a better life and a fair deal.”

You went to 5 places in your first trip and 12 in your second, which took a while, most of us have more limited vacation time. If someone was going on a trip themselves to learn more, what are 5 spots they should make sure to include and why?

Birmingham AL. For some who have never been to Birmingham, I think they will be surprised at the close proximity of the AG Gaston Motel, the 16th Street Baptist Church (where the four young girls were killed in a bombing attack by a white supremacist) and Kelly Ingram Park (where Bull Connor the white supremacist police chief in Birmingham opened fire hoses on children marching peacefully for their rights). The tour of the church and the statues in the park spark recollections of the news footage of the bombing that shocked the world. The AG Gaston, the premier hotel where Black people could stay, is being carefully restored so that its history will remain vibrantly present. A visit to 4th Avenue Historic District is a must. During the Jim Crow period in Birmingham, it was the areas where Black people could go for personal and professional services, like medical care and legal advice, as well as for all types of entertainment. Some of the important building from that period still stand.

Montgomery AL. Visiting EJI’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (often referred to as the lynching museum) are both deeply moving and disturbing. At so many points, I found myself speechless, feeling a huge knot in the pit of my stomach—a combination of hurt and anger. Every American should visit both sites. They will leave with a stronger connection to the often-overlooked truths about American history, especially the under reporting of domestic terrorism against African Americans.

Memphis TN. Everyone should visit the Lorraine Motel where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. The brilliantly conceived journey through the Civil Rights movement that you take from the entrance of the museum to the room on the second floor where MLK was staying on the day he was assassinated causes one’s emotions to increase because we know where we will end up. And you can’t help but think about how horrible that day must have been for the King family, for the owners of the Lorraine Motel (Walter and Loree Bailey) and for America. During both of my visits, people were crying, some nearly sobbing. The sound and pace of Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord,” one of King’s favorite songs, will stay in your heart for a lifetime.

Selma AL and the Edmond Pettus Bridge. On March 7, 1965, 600 peaceful civil rights activists gathered in Selma, Alabama, to begin a 52-mile walk to the Montgomery, the state’s capital. Lead by the late John Lewis, who would go on to become a US Congressmen, and Hosea Williams. The demonstrators demanded an end to discrimination and suppression tactics in voter registration that particularly targeted Black voters. As the crowd attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were confronted by white Alabama state troopers who violently attacked them with Billy clubs and tear gas. This horrific violence was captured by photographers and television cameras and then broadcast around the world. Seventeen people were hospitalized. Dozens injured by the police brutality, including Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull. This pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The place looks remarkably the same today and feels truly sacred.

The Green Book was used all over the country. How did you narrow down the list of places you went to?

The purpose of each trip was to produce an audio documentary—the first one was the 38-minute radio program for BBC Radio 4 and the second was my 10-episode podcast series. For the first road trip, the producer Jeremy Grange and I conceived of the program as traveling not just through space (from city to city) but through time as well: from where I grew up in the Jim Crow South to the momentous contemporary events at that time in Ferguson, Missouri. We decided to follow part of what is called the Historic US Civil Rights Trail, those cities, primarily in the South, in which African American activists and supporters in the 1950s and 1960s fought for the right to vote, for racial equality, for social reform, and fair legal treatment in all parts of life in America. We stopped in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and finally, Ferguson, Missouri. This documentary aired on BBC Radio 4 in November 2016 simply titled The Green Book.

The second road trip—twelve days in June 2019—started in Detroit, Michigan, and ended in New Orleans, was largely organized by field producer Oluwakemi (Kemi) Aladesuyi. This trip was inspired in part by an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2015: “One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North. “ The Great Migration is the period between 1910 and 1970 when over six million Black people left the rural south and moved north and west for better opportunities. This Migration remains the largest demographic shift in American history.

The introduction to the “One-Way Ticket” exhibition featured a fascinating infographic showing how significantly the African American population had increased in various northern cities: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Notably, Detroit’s African American population increased from 1.2% in 1910 to 43.7% in 1970. It is the largest increase of the seven cities featured in the infographic. The auto industry served as the magnet for residents from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, the Florida Panhandle, and Louisiana. But despite their settling in Detroit, they left a part of their hearts back home. Many of these people would want and need to return to the South to visit relatives. And their relatives in the South would come up North to visit them to see their new lives. So, we chose cities in those states that would have been departure points or destinations for travelers: Detroit, MI; Columbus, OH; Louisville, KY; Nashville and Memphis, TN; Jackson, MS; Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma and Mobile AL; and New Orleans, LA. We felt these cities would yield a direct link to that history. The challenge then was finding people in the local areas with the experiences and knowledge we needed. Local historical societies as well as black social and political groups were invaluable in creating this final list.

What do you hope people to take away from reading this book?

I want people to hear the first-hand stories from people—people like themselves, their families and relatives, as well as historians, educators, entrepreneurs, politicians, and entertainers—who lived during and survived one of the long, morally compromised periods of American history. I want readers to feel the fortitude, resilience, creativity, Mother Wit, humor, and optimism for a better day ahead for themselves and for their children that African Americans had to have to make it to today. I often think of a statement I heard years ago that it was Black Americans and their supporters during the Civil Rights Movement who fought to make all parts of the American Dream available to every citizen. This book shows that despite their own government’s restrictions, African Africans were determined to participate fully in the freedom traveling the highways and byways of the United States.

Anything else you want people to know about DRIVING THE GREEN BOOK?

I want people to know that the book was written as a standalone book, not as a companion book to my award-winning podcast series of the same name. The book contains more contextual information as well as some of the truly moving stories and personal recollections that could not be included in the podcast series. Reading the book makes listening to the podcast series a richer experience; while listening to the podcast series and then reading the book will expand your understanding and clearly see the connection to incidents, proposed legislations, and policy issues very much in the news today.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a memoir of my childhood in the Florida Panhandle in a poor rural community south of Tallahassee, Florida. I interviewed several people including the woman, Dot Harris, who was my babysitter from the time I was three or four months old. (Dot is also my second cousin.) The overarching narrative is how my family and the people in that community gave me so much wisdom for my journey through life, apart from them. They knew they could not go on the journey with me, but they wanted to make sure that I had all the tools, the emotional strength, and self-insight to stay alive and finish the journey, whatever it was going to be.

HarperOne / January 31, 2023 / 9780063271968 / $27.99/ B&W Photos

Driving the Green Book: A Road Trip Through the Living History of Black Resistance by Alvin Hall is a walk through history. For countless Americans, the open road has long been where dangers lurk. In the era of Jim Crow, Black travelers encountered locked doors, hostile police, and potentially violent encounters almost everywhere, in both the South and the North. From 1936 to 1967, millions relied on The Negro Motorist Green Book, the definitive guide to businesses where they could safely rest, eat, or sleep.

Hall delivers an informative and exciting trip down memory lane with facts that are very important to black history, hell, and American history. The Green Book was a travel guide and showcased how resilient African Americans were and still are.

During a troubled time such as the Jim Crow era, it was very challenging for those wanting to make a better life and escape for the freedom they felt they rightfully deserved.

Alvin Hall did an excellent job, and this is an added book to my library and conversation piece, and right on time, as Black History Month is right around the corner.

5 Stars

Reviewed by Kisha Green for Literary Jewels

Review Copy Supplied by Publisher

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