Images from inside of the Green Books published during the Jim Crow era. (Virginia Department of Historic Resources/The New York Public Library.)
Decades before people could rely on the internet for hotel or restaurant suggestions, Black Americans traveling across the country during the Jim Crow era relied on a guidebook of amenities to keep safe in segregated parts of the country.
Now Virginia legislators are considering giving travelers the opportunity to explore the routes and places found in the Green Book after the House of Delegates passed legislation on Tuesday to permit the placement of historical signs at those sites.
Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, the patron of House Bill 1968, said he was “very hopeful that when we get to the Senate, we’re going to have partners over there who are as excited about this idea as we are, and I think we’re going to see bipartisan support over there as well.”
Martin Brown, Virginia’s chief diversity officer and director of the state’s Office of Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion, said Gov. Glenn Youngkin supports the bill. Brown said Youngkin believes it is “consistent with promoting all history” and “recognizes the disparities that took place, but also celebrates the consistent overcoming effort of African Americans.”
Victor Hugo Green, a mailman from New York, published the Green Book annually from 1936 to 1966, a time when local and state Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation.
The signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 legally ended the segregation those laws had established. However, Black people continued to face discrimination from hotels, restaurants and other businesses, as well as legal restrictions aimed at preventing minorities from seeking employment, voting, and renting and selling homes.
During this time, the Green Book noted places throughout the U.S. where Black travelers could safely eat, stay and fill up their cars with gas.
According to Mullin, Virginia has about 315 known sites that were part of the guidebook, including 60 that could have markers.
Susan Hellman, a planner for the city of Alexandria’s Historic Preservation Office, told the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee she has been documenting Green Book sites along with other historians for the past seven years. She said about a quarter of the properties in Virginia remain.
Recently, public interest in the guidebook has grown, particularly after the release of the Hollywood film “Green Book,” which depicted the journey of world-class African-American pianist Don Shirley and his white driver during a concert tour through the Deep South in 1962.
Last session, lawmakers passed legislation carried by Mullin that directed the Department of Historic Resources to develop a program to identify, publicize and educate the public about Green Book sites in the commonwealth. Mullin said the idea grew from conversations with Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, who shared stories with him about traveling between Washington D.C. and North Carolina with family when she was younger.
In one case, Ward said her family rarely drank anything at all to avoid using the bathroom out of fear.
“The Green Book was so important because you knew where you can eat and where you were going to be lynched,” Ward said.
She added, “I just knew that’s the way things worked, but the Green Book was a Bible and you come to learn that as a Black person traveling you could not go anywhere without the Green Book.”
The Virginia Department of Transportation’s Integrated Directional Signing Program would primarily cover the costs of the markers. Localities that maintain their own highways would be required to place and maintain the Green Book signs for those sites within their boundaries.
Mullin has proposed a budget amendment that would give the Virginia Tourism Authority and Department of Historic Resources $50,000 to carry out the legislation to designate or approve signs for historic Green Book locations. He said Tuesday that amount is a placeholder.
Another budget amendment would give the Virginia Tourism Authority and Department of Historic Resources $97,000 in 2024 to conduct a study describing Green Book sites in Virginia.
The purpose of the study would be to accelerate and simplify the listing of these properties on the Virginia Landmarks Register, a designation that would make them eligible for certain funding and historical trail markers.
The legislation will now head to the Democratic-controlled Senate for consideration.
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