By Terri Schlichenmeyer
The gas tank is full of fuel.
The tires are new, you checked the oil twice, the speedometer’s calibrated, your headlights are intact, all good. The vehicle’s not flashy, so there’s absolutely no reason to attract attention. And yet, as in “Driving the Green Book” by Alvin Hall and as your ancestors did, you sweat that all-day roadtrip.
In 2015, while doing research for a podcast, Alvin Hall discovered something that intrigued and surprised him: one of his sources mentioned The Negro Motorist Green Book. Granted, when he was small, his family didn’t travel much from their home on Florida’s panhandle but still – how did Hall not know about that book? Surely, his aunts had one, right? How did The Green Book escape notice by his and other generations, when it was such an essential part of Black America for decades?
Needing to know, and needing to understand what it was like to “drive the Green Book,” Hall and two younger colleagues took a roadtrip after the podcast was done. They started in Detroit and traveled through small towns and cities, Cleveland and Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham and Montgomery, Jackson, Mobile, ending in New Orleans, which was the approximate route a northern-living, Jim-Crow-escaping Great Migration worker might have taken on an annual trek to visit kin back home in the South.
That route, as Hall points out, could’ve been uncomfortable, at best, or dangerous, at worst.
Not all gas stations, restaurants, or hotels welcomed Blacks; some places actively chased them off with threats or more. The Green Book, “small and thin” and meant to be tucked inside the glove box, changed all that with a guide to help the Black traveler find safe accommodations, fuel, and places to avoid.
With the latter in mind, Hall and his fellow travelers took to the road, and while they drove, they separately wondered if they’d be stopped by a policeman.
An adult man and two younger women – they could handle a stop like that today, right?
So what was DWB like in 1945?
Also relevant: how far have we come? That question, a ton of relevance, and a small whiff of threat accompany every mile that author Alvin Hall writes about, and in “Driving The Green Book,” we’re taken along for that ride.
Maybe you’ve seen the movie or read about The Green Book elsewhere, but those things pale in comparison to the stories Hall tells. These are tales of making do in embarrassing ways to avoid jail, of sleeping on concrete, of driving as an act of defiance, and of being warned to leave town or else. These authentic tales, told by experts and those who “lived” the Green Book, are like punches to the gut, but they aren’t surprising. They’re shocking but not unexpected. “We’re still living it,” says Hall, and that’s just plain sobering.
Readers who love to travel will want to tuck this in their carry-on or console. If there’s a bit of quiet activism inside you, “Driving The Green Book” will fuel it.