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US & World

Fascinating, shameful slice of US history: the black motorists' Green Book

On a dark desert highway one night in 1952, Robert J Foster, M.D. was getting tired. Short of Yuma, the neon lights of the motels began to flicker. Foster had driven a thousand miles in his brand new Buick Roadmaster and was eager for a good night's sleep. It was the low season and the highway hotels all showed vacancy signs, but he wasn't welcome at any of them.

Dr. Foster was a black man, on his way to Los Angeles. He'd just left the south, but not segregation. Discrimination wasn't the law in Arizona, but as one sympathetic motel owner told him, "If we let you in, all the other motel owners would ostracize us."

This story is typical of the many in Isabel Wilkerson's definitive history of American black migration, "The Warmth of Other Suns." As Wilkerson points out, the only safeguard black families had against such discrimination was The Green Book, a 43-page paperback put out by Esso, the ancestor of the modern Exxon Corp. "Now you can travel without embarrassment," it tells its African-American readers in its 1949 edition, which is now posted on line. Esso stopped printing the Green Book in 1964 -- when the Civil Rights Act passed.

What it tells us now is something we still don't want to remember about the good old days of Truman and Eisenhower prosperity -- that a very sizable proportion of the U.S. population was restricted in their enjoyment of it. Not just with hotels and motels, either. The Green Book also singles out black-friendly restaurants, bars, barber shops, beauty parlors, drug stores, tailors, even garages in the north, south, east and western U.S. Even in New York and Los Angeles, the chosen places amounted to only a small minority of businesses. The obvious implication being black people were still discriminated against in most retail situations. Being prosperous -- like Dr Foster -- didn't make much of a difference if you were the wrong color.
But the guide also tells another story--of black accomplishments in the face of Jim Crow America. Like the Center South complex in South Chicago, a handsome three-story 1920s city office block complete with a major theater, auditorium, and a large, black-oriented department store, "employing more than 300 Negroes" according to the Green Book. It shows other major black businesses of the time, as well as handsome war memorials for the black soldiers who fought and died in four of America's wars. So in a way, the Green Book can also be useful today--- as a Black Pride Tourist Guide.

Imagining I was a black person looking for a place to eat in LA 60 years ago, I wondered if I could find a familiar eatery that was integrated at that time. Like I could not find in New York, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco. And I did find one: Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown LA. Open to all races in 1949. Clifton's is closed now for extensive renovations. When it reopens, I have another reason to go back there, apart from its killer breakfasts.