Green Book Exhibit Explores Life for Black Motorists During the Jim Crow Era

A traveling exhibit of the Smithsonian Institution has made its way to suburban Skokie to showcase what it was like driving while Black during the Jim Crow era.

Because driving was unsafe for Black motorists, postman Victor Hugo Green in 1936 published “The Negro Motorist Green Brook,” based on a similar book created for Jewish travelers. 

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“You may have had a map, but the map isn’t going to help you if the town is a sundown town or tell you if you’ll be served or have to enter through the back door. So by creating the Green Book, he was making Black lives better, more enjoyable and safer,” said Arielle Weininger, chief curator of collections and exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

“The Negro Motorist Green Book” exhibition is on display at the Skokie museum through April 23.

“For us, we are a Holocaust Museum, but because of our mission, we look at other social justice issues, human rights violations and the Jim Crow era in the U.S., and this entrepreneurial response to it is something we wanted to highlight,” Weininger said.

For nearly 30 years, the Green Book led Black drivers down American roads by outlining restaurants, hotels, safe houses and other safe spaces they could frequent without general fear for their lives. 

Chicagoan Marline Flagg visited the exhibit to better understand the experiences of her Southern relatives, like her aunt.

“When she was driving through a certain town of Mississippi and her kids were in the back seat, she was able to go through because she looked White, but her children looked Black,” Flagg said. “So she had to cover them with a blanket and told them not to move or talk as she drove through those towns.”

The Great Migration and Route 66 both play a part in the Green Book, marking Chicago’s presence. Bronzeville, specifically, made up 80% of the city’s listings. 

“Black Americans came up to Chicago and would need to travel back south to visit family,” Weininger said. “Chicago is the starting point on Route 66, which is the way in which you would get west.”

But the need for the Green Book changed when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Expanding accessibility meant Black-owned businesses had to compete with bigger franchises, which had more resources and fewer obstacles. At least half of the featured Black-owned businesses in the Green Book were closed less than a decade later, as a result.

“We can’t forget our history,” Flagg said. “It’s important for not just his month but every day. Share your experiences with your children, ask your grandparents while alive, share their experiences and record it, oral history, so it won’t be forgotten.”

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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