The real Green Book was the most popular of several guides written with black motorists in mind. When he published his first guidebook in 1936, Victor Green, who carried the mail in Harlem, was a member of a tiny but growing black middle-class. He had enough disposable income to afford an automobile, but understood the discomfort and dangers of highway travel for black motorists.
By the end of World War II, the golden age of automobile ownership was dawning.
Already, many Americans were discovering the pleasures of vacations spent exploring their vast country, steering their personal pleasure ships. From New York to the Carolinas, from California to Oregon, from Georgia to Texas, American families hit the road, especially during long summer vacations. Roadside motels and kitschy amusements designed to catch the eye of travelers dotted popular highways such as the famed Route 66, which extended nearly 2,500 miles from Chicago to California.
While most black Americans were too poor to afford a family car, a tiny group of federal workers, business owners, and professionals could afford the luxury of a personal automobile. According to social historians, many of them preferred the freedom their own vehicles offered to the routine indignities of mass transit — unsanitary second- or third-class cars on railways or cramped seats in the back of interstate buses.
Those black consumers who were fortunate enough to own cars were as curious about their country’s natural wonders — its shining seas and majestic purple mountains — as whites were, but they faced daunting obstacles if they considered exploring them. A searing commentary published in 1947 in The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, put it this way:
“Would a Negro like to pursue a little happiness at a theater, a beach, pool, hotel, restaurant, on a train, plane, or ship, a golf course, summer or winter resort? Would he like to stop overnight at a tourist camp while he motors about his native land ‘Seeing America First?’ Well, just let him try!”
Even as routine a mission as refilling the car’s gas tank could present a challenge, because some service stations refused to sell to black motorists. Envy and resentment of black purchasing power may have fueled some of that resistance.